What if you found a feral kitty living in a vacant lot near your home, or peeking out from under your porch? Would you help it?
For some animal lovers, it can be tempting to bring these cats home and try to turn them into regular house cats. We want to help these poor animals as much as possible, knowing that they face the risk of accidents and diseases when they live outdoors.
But, is it possible to tame a feral cat?
The sad truth is, not all feral cats will adapt to living in a home. For a cat that is used to living in the community, it can be really difficult to adjust to a new home, new sounds, new scents, and even new food. They will not even recognize or understand toys. Once inside, they may become frozen with fear, in which case they will not hesitate to bite and scratch anyone who comes near them.
So, when is too late to domesticate a feral cat? And how can we socialize a terrified cat? If you have the heart to adopt a feral cat, there are several things you must know before taking her into your home.
Until what age can you tame a feral cat?
Feral kittens as young as six weeks are easier to tame, given that they will have positive interactions with humans from a very young age.
Early handling and socialization are important and can greatly influence cats’ friendliness towards humans as they grow up. With the right techniques and positive reinforcement, you can definitely change these tiny ferals into affectionate furry companions.
However, cats that are a few weeks older can be a bit more challenging to socialize. If the cat is around four months old, it might take a few months of domestication training.
By the time the cat is six months or older, her feral behavior and instincts are already fully established. This means it will be far more difficult to alter her natural behavior. You can spend months or even a year trying to tame the cat without any guarantee of successfully domesticating her.
If you do succeed in earning her trust, take time to celebrate as this experience is quite unique.
Unfortunately, some owners who never succeed in taming their feral cat are forced to eventually give up and return the cat to its community. If this is your case, then know that it is not a failure on your side – domesticating a feral cat is generally a frustrating experience, especially for those who have never handled a difficult cat before.
How long does it take to tame a feral cat?
The time it takes to tame a feral cat will depend on several factors, such as the cat’s age and state of wildness. The younger the cat, the more easily she can adjust to living with humans. Additionally, some cats are fully feral while others are only semi-feral, meaning they have been accustomed to humans but do not have human owners.
Young feral kittens of six weeks or younger are the easiest to domesticate. These kittens typically need around two to three weeks to be tamed and start living like a regular house cat.
Older feral cats might need weeks, months, or even an entire year to become comfortable with humans. These cats are likely to bond with a single person only, and there is a bigger chance that they will revert to their feral behavior when they encounter new people. Unfortunately, some older feral cats can never be tamed, no matter how much love and effort you put into transforming them.
So, if you happen to find a colony near your home or a poor kitty suffering in the cold on the streets, bringing them home might not always be the best way to help them. Call your local animal rescue if you find a feral cat that needs help. Or, if you are set on saving the kitty by bringing her home, make sure that you are well-prepared for all possibilities and have boundless patience to tame her!
What to expect
So, you have decided to take on the challenge of domesticating a feral cat you found on the street. Here are a few things you need to consider before bringing the cat home:
1. Do you have the time?
It requires enough time and attention to socialize and care for a regular domesticated cat, let alone a feral cat. You will need to commit a couple of weeks or even months just to make the cat feel more comfortable with your presence. The question is, are you willing to dedicate a few hours of your time each day to work on the cat?
2. Do you have the extra resources?
On top of her basic needs such as food, water, and a litter box, you also need to make sure that the cat receives appropriate veterinary care to keep her healthy. That includes vaccinations, spaying or neutering, and regular veterinary check-ups.
3. What age is the cat?
As mentioned before, feral cats that are older than six to eight weeks are challenging to tame. Most vets would advise returning the cats to their colony after spaying or neutering them. If you do find a feral kitten that is around six weeks of age, there is hope that you can transform her into a domesticated cat, but know that this change will not happen overnight – the whole process will require time, patience, and endurance!
Can an older feral cat be tamed?
Taming an older feral cat is often challenging, as these cats have never bonded with humans. The longer they spend their lives outdoors, the more independent they become. That is why several animal lovers as well as veterinarians have divided opinions over whether feral cats can really be fully domesticated.
In general, you will have a higher chance of successfully taming a feral cat when they are younger. Kittens are likely to adjust much more easily than older cats as they are still learning about their environment.
Older feral cats, on the other hand, have already established their personalities, so you will need to work hard to help these cats overcome their natural instincts. As they may attack and injure other animals and humans out of fear, most veterinarians would advise you rather to return them to their colonies. Sometimes, no matter how much we want to help these cats, the best way is to let them live happily in an environment to which they are more accustomed. We need to accept that bringing them indoors will not necessarily make them happier; in fact, forcing them to live in a home like domesticated pets might make their lives more miserable and fearful.
However, it may still be possible to domesticate an older feral cat, provided you have experience in handling difficult cats. Additionally, you will need a strong commitment and a loving heart to help transform these cats into loving furry companions.
How do you tame a feral cat?
Taming a feral cat is a long, arduous process.
First, you will need to plan how to trap the cat, since it is unlikely for her to approach you willingly. Most of these cats are probably used to traps and will not be easily lured with food or toys.
Once you have trapped the cat, you are ready to bring her home. Here are some things you should know before bringing home a feral cat:
1. Assign a territory
Feral cats are not accustomed to staying indoors, so it is to be expected that they will display some destructive behaviors while staying under your roof. For your safety, make sure to assign a dedicated room for the cat, rather than allowing her to wander freely around your house. Make sure everything is provided in that room – bedding, litter box, food, water, and safe hiding places.
Another thing you must keep in mind is that feral cats are extremely territorial. They will likely spray inside the room more often to mark their territory, or whenever they feel frightened or threatened. This can be really frustrating at first, especially since their urine smells really bad. Allow this temporarily while you are still in the process of taming the cat.
The dedicated cat room is where you will interact or socialize with the cat. Understand that feral cats have never experienced human contact, so your first few meetings might include a lot of hissing, spitting, and other forms of aggression. For your safety, make sure that the cat is inside a pet cage or carrier while you first interact with her in the room.
Start talking to the cat using a soft, calm voice. She might not understand what you are saying, but eventually she will start to recognize and feel comfortable with your voice.
2. Prepare for veterinary care
Feral cats are used to living outdoors, and unlike domesticated cats they do not have access to proper hygiene, adequate nutrition, or vaccinations. This means they may carry diseases and parasites. Furthermore, if you bring in a female cat, there is also a chance that she may be pregnant.
To address these concerns, you will need to call your local vet and find out whether they treat feral cats. When you take the cat to the clinic, your vet will run several tests and x-rays to ensure that she comes out with a clean bill of health.
Your vet will check the following:
- Whether the cat is microchipped
- Signs of pregnancy if the cat is female
- Signs of malnutrition or dehydration
- Symptoms of bacterial or viral infections or contagious diseases
- Signs of parasitic infections
- Whether the cat is neutered or spayed
Know that some clinics will refuse to treat a feral cat due to safety concerns, and many vets might also advise you to return the cat to her colony. Of course, you can decide to keep her, but it is definitely going to be a difficult journey for you and your new feline friend.
3. Build trust using food
The easiest way to bond with a feral cat is through food. During the introduction period, stick to a regular feeding schedule so that she can start building a familiar routine with you. Leave the food in the room or cage so that she can have some time alone to enjoy her meal. After some time, check whether she feels comfortable eating with you in the room. If she does, it means that she is starting to trust you.
You can also try offering toys to keep her entertained, but it is less likely for feral cats to enjoy toys. Keep in mind that these cats are used to living in the wild and have never been taught to play in this way, so they might ignore your offerings.
4. Train the cat to use the litter box
Another important step in domesticating a feral cat is teaching her how to use the litter box. These cats are used to doing their business outdoors, and getting them used to using a litter box will take time and patience.
Train your cat by leading her towards the litter tray, preferably after her meals. You can use baby gates or boxes as a guide towards the litter box. The trick is to make her go at her own will. If the first method does not work, you can pick her up and place her in the litter box, but there is a chance you will get some bites and scratches if you pick her up with bare hands. Make sure to use gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself.
It can take around eight to ten weeks before a feral cat learns how to use a litter box. While some cats are quick learners, others might need more time to figure things out.
5. Initiate touch
To develop a bond with your new feline friend, you need to slowly get her accustomed to human touch. However, if she remains distrustful of you, she might never learn to live as a domesticated pet. Read her body language – does the cat show signs of aggression whenever you approach her, or is she more welcoming and calmer than before?
Getting a feral cat used to human touch and affection can be extremely challenging. Most feral cats perceive humans as large predators. As these cats are used to fighting for survival in the wild, they will likely lash out if they feel threatened or cornered, so you need to keep your distance and be cautious about your next move.
The trick is to take one step closer to your cat each day until she feels more comfortable with your presence. Try extending your hand a bit and let her curiously sniff and come closer. However, do not attempt to pet or touch her – let the cat make the first move.
You will know when your feral cat is ready to welcome your touch when she starts pushing her face against your hand. Other signs to watch out for are her posture and facial expression.
However, if she shows any of the following behaviors, do not force the interaction and immediately walk away:
- Hair standing up from neck to tail
- Hissing, yowling, and growling
- Swiping claws
- Flashing tail
- Crouching into a small position
The bottom line
So, is it possible to tame a feral cat? The answer depends very much on the cat’s age. The older the cat, the more difficult it will be to domesticate her. It should be understood that most older feral cats will never learn to live with humans, and forcing them to live in a home may not always be an act of love.
Image: istockphoto.com / Dzurag