Taming a Feral Cat

Sometimes feral cats can be brought into a home to be cared for by humans.  Unfortunately, the stories about a feral becoming someone's lap cat are a bit misleading.  Janet C. has generously invited two feral cats into her home and she'd like them to be more like pets.  Janet writes:

My two girls are ferals from the same colony. I’ve had them for more than two years and they have come a long way from the terrified creatures who arrived here. Cindy was thought to be about 18 months when she arrived; Marmalade, who arrived a few months later, was thought to be four.

They come when called. They sit staring at me and licking their lips when they feel they NEED treats. They come for treats from quiet visitors who are seated. Cindy lets me know on the rare occasions that the water bowl or kibble bowl is running low. She also caterwauls when nothing is wrong - seems to be asking, “where is everyone?” I can stroke Cindy once in a while when she is eating. She no longer flinches away, but she makes it clear she is only enduring it. There is no chance of touching Marmalade. They ignored each other for a long time, but now they occasionally play together and groom each other a little bit.

They don’t really have any problems aside from being spoiled and bossy, but I know some people have eventually been able to get their ferals to purr and cuddle. So I am wondering if you have any hints about what else I can do to achieve this status. I worry about what would happen if they became ill and had to be seen by a veterinarian. I’d also like to be able to groom them eventually, as they shed a lot. I love them and they provide me with a lot of entertainment, but they are a long way from being pets.

Janet, we think you deserve a big hug and a pat on the back for getting this far.  Most feral cats can adjust to humans being present nearby but very few ever adapt to living in a house with people.  It's a testament to your care and patience that they respond to you the way they do.  It's quite possible that this is as far as they're willing to go with humans, but we'll give you a few pointers that may help.

It's important to note the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat.  A stray cat has been raised among humans and has imprinted on both humans and cats.  While strays often become members of feral colonies, they have a key psychological difference from the other ferals -- that human imprint.  They've been what many call "socialized".  A true feral will never trust humans as much as one who has imprinted on us.  This is the most important thing to understand about them.  They are not and probably never will be true pets in the sense that they would sit on your lap and allow you to groom them.

Take a look at humans from the feral cat's perspective for a moment.  Humans are large predators that usually come at you with their big, hungry eyes and their huge, grabby claws!  How frightening!  A fear of humans serves wild animals well, and in our minds, it's a crime to tamper with that when they're in the wild.  But when they're in your home, it's a different story.  The problems stem from the differences in the ways we each communicate as a species.

Think for a moment about how cats interact with one another.  They rarely vocalize as adults, instead communicating through body language and scent.  Glaring eyes are usually seeking out prey.  Paws usually reach out in aggression, so a feral cat will rarely see an approaching hand as anything but aggressive.  You should keep your hands away from them.  Hold them behind your back if you have to, and approach with your face down on their level without making eye contact.  Yep, right there on the floor.  If you have cat trees, this process can be easier, but whatever you have to do, keep your hands away from them UNLESS it bears a treat. 

The treat is the one persuasive tool that can get even the most recalcitrant calico to approach a human's hand, but we want them to approach even when no treats are offered.  Try placing your hand on the floor between you and the cats, palm down.  Keep your focus elsewhere and allow the cats to approach and touch your hand if they want to.  Don't make a move to touch them even if they do touch you.  Allow them to learn that your hands are more passive now.  As they get used to smelling your hands on their own, you can then turn them palm up and occasionally include a treat.

As you continue to work with this pair, try not to develop expectations such as, "I want them to sit purring in my lap," or "I want them to show me gratitude for caring for them."  These are very human impulses, but they could create frustration as you continue to see only incremental improvements.  Give the cats the gift of allowing them to set the tone and speed of their progress.  There's no such thing as taking this too slowly.  Actually, the slower they acclimate, the more likely the changes will stick.  

Allow them to be afraid of strangers as this will probably never completely change.  Give them safe areas to hide in.  This could be a cat bed in a secluded corner of a closet or a box under the bed.  Whatever you (and they) choose, never, ever violate the safety of that spot.  If they're in one of their safe spots, act as though you don't even know where they are.  Don't address them or try to touch them when they're there.  They need to learn that these safe spots are impenetrable fortresses so that they always have a safe haven to retire to.  This means that when they do come out to interact with you, it's completely by choice.  It's important that all cats be given choices to make, as they enjoy it so, but feral cats absolutely need to know that they control their interactions with you.

It takes a great deal of trust to get an animal to move out of survival mode.  Just imagine what life in the wild is like for them.  While they probably enjoyed a lot of it, they would never truly be able to let their guard down.  As potential prey, they would always have one ear open for danger.  This isn't likely to change just because they're now being cared for.  

During every interaction, pay close attention to the cats' body language.  It will tell you volumes.  When they tell you to back off, always do so.  Let them stick to the schedule that they set.  Remember, we want them to have control of the situation.

A good trust-building exercise is to sit on the floor in the room they've chosen to be in and read out loud for ten or fifteen minutes.  This lets them know that you aren't a threat because your eyes are on the book and it helps to acclimate them to your speech patterns.  We're impressed that Cindy speaks to you.  That could indicate that she was once someone's pet.  Regardless, both cats will benefit from this exercise, and you'll get some reading done too!  Short sessions are the best way to train any cat, but they're absolutely essential here.

Building trust is a long journey.  We once won the trust of a blue Persian stray by feeding him and moving the bowl an inch closer to where we sat each day.  It took months and months.  It seemed like an eternity, but it was magical when he finished eating one day and crawled onto an open lap.  From then on, we cared for him and eventually had him neutered, but he was clearly an abandoned stray--not a true feral.

Spaying Cindy and Marmalade will definitely calm them if they haven't been spayed already.  Your concerns about bringing them to the veterinarian are well-founded.  You'll have to let those fears go for the time being and focus on the present.  While it would certainly be nice to bring them in for a checkup, that could be a goal for when they're older.  If you have a vet who makes house calls, you might be able to use a service like that.  It depends on the vet.  Some are spectacularly sensitive to the needs of cats while others just see felines as finicky dogs.  In the meantime, you may want to get a feral cat trap in the event you absolutely have to move them.

There are other hints for bringing a feral into your home for the first time, such as using potting soil in place of litter and feeding them many small amounts throughout the day, but you're well beyond that point, Janet.  You've been so successful this far, we don't want to discourage you, but we would be remiss if we didn't remind you that, in the end, it's important that you accept Cindy and Marmalade as they are, even if they never grow any closer to you.  

Thank you so much for sharing your story.  Please keep us up to date if you see significant progress.  We're rooting for all three of you!