Monday, April 27, 2009

From Fear to Friendship: Working with undersocialized kittens

By Jamey Walker


Every year at about this time the SF SPCA starts to take in under-socialized kittens to try and rehabilitate them. These kittens are the product of Mama cats that are either feral or have had their babies outside and received no human contact.


These little guys have never been around people and as a result, panic when they are actually face to face with us giant human monsters! What if we suddenly we saw a 20-foot spider coming towards us?


Well, when these little kittens arrive they are also understandably defensive and fearful. They may have had little or no contact with people. They will usually run like the dickens if you set them down in an open space. If cornered they may swat, hiss or spit-stomp (this is when a cat jumps on their front legs towards you, while giving a sharp, intense hiss). All of these behaviors are designed to create distance between the threat (big goofy humans) and themselves.


So when we take one of these little guys into our shelter, we want to be very sensitive to their fear. At the same time we have to handle them so they become accustomed to human contact. We accomplish this by using a lot of positive rewards along with gentle, repetitive handling. But don’t let their kitten cuteness fool you, socializing them can take a lot time and is often a difficult process.

Seeing one of these kittens start to become happy and comfortable around people is one of my favorite moments because it means they have a chance at becoming adopted and getting a home off the streets.

If you are interested in helping these little scrappers feel good around people, you can volunteer as a feral kitten socializer or a foster parent! Our volunteers go through specialized training to learn how to work with all types of under-socialized kittens and are the major force behind getting them ready for adoption.

For information, contact Volunteer Services at 415.522.3543 or email: or Foster Care: 415-522-3542. or


Dear SF/SPCA Cat Behavior Program,

I'm not sure if you remember but Dougie (now Chief due to his large feather like ears) was a very sick and under-socialized kitty. He came to you with ringworm and from all the paperwork I read it took months of medication and quarantine before he recovered. Once he did, understandably he was distrusting and skittish and not ready to be adopted. When we first saw him he looked sad and scared all alone in his room. My heart went out to him after I got his paperwork and read his story I just couldn't stop thinking about him. We visited him 4 times, hoping we'd be able to have a meeting with him but every time we found he wasn't ready yet. I tried to convince myself that this wasn't the write cat for us but I couldn't get him out of my mind.

We'll long story short- we adopted him right after he became available and have loved him ever since. It has taken a little time for him to adjust to us and his surrounding but it is safe to say he is a very happy cat and day after day more trusting, more loving and full of personality. We have another cat names Pippi and if there ever were two best friends, it's them.

We've since moved to Portland where we have a house and a large yard where Chief and Pippi patrol the perimeter and play in the grass. It's a lovely life.


While he was with you he had a little sheep skin bed he slept on. To this day he seems to only want to sleep on wool. If the sheep skins are being washed, he'll hunt out a sweater or the blanket on the bottom of the bed. If we lay our wool winter coats on the sofa the next day they'll have a little fur nest on them. He just can't help it. We also took his favorite toy with us when we adopted him- the pink tube on a stick. Somewhere along the way the stick fell off but he still loves the tube. So much so that he takes it to bed with him and cuddles with it.


All of this is because your dedicated staff showed him so much love, caring and attention. I can't tell you how impressed I am with your facility. Thank you so much for taking the time to care of this lovely animal. Where most places would have put him down because of his health or temperament, you stuck by him. I don't have names or faces to direct my gratitude so I'll send it to all your staff and volunteers. Our lives are richer because you care.

Thank you so much,

Jessica W.

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