“Adopt, don’t shop” is a popular refrain among cat lovers. While homeless cats deserve a loving family, feral cats are a special case. Feral cats have never lived with humans and are afraid of us.
Most veterinarians believe that feral cats cannot be tamed, although animal rescue agents often disagree. If a feral cat is to stand any chance of house training, it must be young. Older feral cats are completely wild. If you attempt domestication, it will be a long and arduous process with no guarantee of success.
You do not need to adopt a feral cat to improve its quality of life. Consider a “Trap, Neuter, Return” (TNR) policy. You can still provide food and shelter to feral cats on your property. Just be aware of the risks involved in doing so.
What Is A Feral Cat?
A feral cat is a feline that lives without human company. It is believed that there are up to 100 million feral cats in the United States alone. These cats live in colonies and reproduce regularly.
If a homeless cat regularly visits your property, it will be tempting to take it in. Before you do so, ensure that the cat is merely stray and not feral. While stray cats can be reintegrated into domestic life, feral cats struggle.
Differences Between Feral and Stray Cats
Stray cats are domesticated pets that find themselves homeless, either temporarily or permanently. Feral cats are wild animals, so the cat will be governed by survival instincts and behave accordingly. You can tell the difference between stray and feral cats through their appearance and behavior. Here’s how:
|Feral Cats||Stray Cats|
|Avoid all human contact||Will approach humans for food or petting|
|Live in groups and colonies||Sleep, live, and wander alone|
|Move silently and stealthily||Walk tall with a prominent tail|
|Never verbalize unless scared or angered||Will meow to ask for food or attention|
|Well-groomed, sleek fur||Dirty or disheveled coat|
|Primarily nocturnal||Wandering around by daylight|
|Ignore toys or food||Investigate toys or food|
Feral cats may also have a clipped ear tip. This means that the cat has previously been captured, neutered, and returned to the wild. Feral cats reproduce often, and TNR is an attempt to control this population.
According to The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 75% of feral kittens live less than six months. Without human help and assistance, these cats are at risk of accidents and illness. If you capture it early enough, a feral kitten may be tamable.
Helping vs. Domesticating Feral Cats
You can help feral cats without bringing them into your home. Leave food outdoors and offer shelter in cold temperatures. Open your garage doors, or strategically place boxes outside.
There are risks associated with this behavior. Feral cats rarely travel alone. Once a feral cat discovers that your property is welcoming, it will be claimed as territory. The cat will mark and invite other cats to join it.
Animal control centers recommend a “trap, neuter, release” approach to feral cats. This involves trapping the cat and taking it to a vet. The cat will then be spayed or neutered, then released back into the wild. This may seem cruel, but it is an act of kindness. Feral cats are cut out for domestication. To trap a feral cat:
- Learn the cat’s behaviors and timetable of activity
- Purchase a large cat trap
- Leave food in the trap
- Spring the trap when it is safe to do so
Do not take the cat to a shelter after it’s been trapped. Most cat shelters are already overpopulated and lack the capacity to care for feral cats. In addition, feral cats are unsocialized and potentially unwell. They will fight with other cats and may cause viral outbreaks. Many shelters euthanize feral cats. If you want to resolve feral cat problems, call a local animal control or wildlife rehabilitation center.
Can You Tame Feral Cats?
According to The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, opinion is divided on this subject. Animal rescue workers say yes and veterinarians say no. To stand any chance of taming a feral cat, it must be young.
The longer a feline lives on the streets, the more independent it will become. Feral cats that are more than a year old will be almost impossible to approach. Never bring a feral cat into your home if you already have pets. Feral cats will be aggressive and belligerent. Even if the cat does not attack your pets, it may carry parasites and diseases.
Attempting to domesticate a feral cat will require experience in handling difficult cats and patience.
How to Domesticate a Feral Cat
You’ll need to trap the feral cat as it will not approach you willingly. This should be a warning that the cat has no intention of being domesticated.
It may take several days and different techniques to trap a feral cat as it may have encountered traps before. Once you’re ready to bring the cat indoors, prepare for a long and arduous journey. This will comprise of five key steps.
The first thing you’ll need to do is prepare specialist territory. That means one room that the cat will not leave. You cannot leave a feral cat to wander free around your home. Set this room up with everything the cat needs. Hiding places, food, and water are critical.
Feral cats are not used to being indoors. This means that the cat may become frustrated and act destructively. Remove anything of value from the cat’s new territory. The cat will also mark with urine a lot. Allow this, at least for a while, as it will make the cat feel more secure.
Leave the cat in the room, but spend time with it. The cat needs to get used to being around humans. It is advisable to lock the cat in a carrier while you are in the room. This will reduce the risk of being scratched or bitten.
Focus on speaking as cats recognize their owners by voice. Do not attempt to handle the cat. Speaking to the cat regularly will create a sense of kinship. Sitting in the room and reading aloud will enhance this recognition.
Try not to get too emotionally attached to the cat during this stage. It remains unlikely that you will be able to tame it.
See a Vet
Feral cats carry diseases. The cat may also be pregnant or struggling with parasite infestations. Call ahead to your local vet and ask if they will agree to treat feral cats. Some surgeries refuse to do so due to safety concerns. Check if the surgeries charge for their services. Some vets will work with wildlife on a pro bono basis.
When you take the cat to a vet, it will check if the cat is:
- Microchipped as the cat may be a long-lost stray
- Living with a contagious disease
- Dehydrated or malnourished
- Infested with fleas, mites, or ticks
Blood and urine samples will be taken. The vet will likely run x-rays to check for any broken bones. This is why it’s important to check if the surgery charges for their services. Pet insurance will not cover feral cats.
If the cat is not already spayed or neutered, this is critical. Feral cats survive through a constant cycle of mating. A feral cat in heat will yowl day and night, increasingly desperate to escape the home.
If the feral cat is given a clean bill of health, you can discuss the next steps. Most vets will recommend returning the cat to the wild. If you defy this advice, a vet may decline to accept the cat as a regular patient.
Build Trust with Food
Step up the bonding process. Keep talking to the cat and continue to hold off on handling. The cat also still needs to be contained.
The way to gain a feral cat’s trust is through food. Regular access to feeding is why cats first approached humans for care 10,000 years ago. It may take a while to find food that the cat enjoys. Bear in mind that you will not know the cat’s age. It may require a senior diet to boost health.
Be prepared for stomach upsets at first. The cat’s digestion will not be used to cat food. Feral cats survive by eating from trash cans and hunting live prey. Cat food will provide unfamiliar vitamins and minerals.
Feed the cat at the same time every day. This routine will build a sense of trust and security. At first, leave the food and walk away. After a few days, try to remain in the room while the cat eats. If it does so, the cat is slowly starting to trust you.
In addition to food, you could also offer toys for stimulation. Do not be surprised if the cat ignores these. Feral cats have never been socialized to play. Their instincts and lifestyle are entirely geared toward survival.
Before too long, you will need to attempt to litter train your feral cat. Again, this is going to take time. Feral cats are used to eliminating anywhere they please, usually to mark territory.
As your feral cat is used to eliminating outside, bring a little nature to its litter box. Sprinkle some familiar-smelling soil or flowers into the litter. You can also pick up spray from a pet store that encourages elimination.
Start by creating a clear path to the litter tray, especially after eating. Create a pathway using boxes or baby gates if necessary. You want the cat to make its own way to the litter box. If necessary, you can try placing the cat in the tray. This may result in scratches. Wear gloves and long sleeves for your protection, holding the cat away from your face.
Even if litter training is successful, it can take 8-10 weeks. Never rush a feral cat in any act of domestication training. You are attempting to overcome powerful, primitive instincts. Also, a feral cat has no desire or need to please a human.
Eventually, you are going to need to try to handle the feral cat. If the cat remains wary of you, it will never adapt to life as a pet. It will spend its life afraid of everything in your home, including you.
Handling a cat that does not want to be picked up is never easy. The danger is magnified with feral cats. These felines will not hold back if they feel threatened. Feral cats are used to fighting for their lives.
Get down to the cat’s level and keep a safe distance. Take one step closer to the cat, watching its reaction very carefully. If the cat displays any of these behaviors, walk away:
- Hissing or growling
- Shrinking into itself
- Puffing tail and body fur
- Swiping with claws
It may take weeks or months before a feral cat permits even the most limited handling. Start with gentle petting around the back. Do not attempt to touch the cat’s face until it enjoys being touched. Picking up the cat is the final step of the process.
Even if your feral cat accepts handing from you, this will be a unique situation. The cat will still be terrified of other people. Factor this into your decision-making about whether to keep the cat. If you adopt a feral cat, you should avoid visitors and houseguests for a while.
Feral cats are difficult to domesticate. If you attempt the process, prepare for a frustrating experience. An inability to domesticate a feral cat is no failure on your part. Some animals are meant to roam free.