TAMING FERAL KITTENS AND CATS
by Sarah Hartwell
This information was originally prepared for Cats Protection and Feline Advisory Bureau and draws together the experience and expertise of many feral tamers working for these organisations and information received from a number of non-profit organisations specialising purely in feral cats and kittens. The contributors have many hundreds of hours experience and can be considered experts in the field of feral kitten taming.
1. Taming Feral Kittens
This information is drawn from numerous people with hundreds of hours experience. All of these suggestions have worked for someone. Since feral kittens differ in age, temperament and rate of progress, these suggestions can be adapted to individual needs. Readers with hands-on experience will have their own tricks. The guidelines can be adapted to socialising (or re-socialising) a traumatised or poorly socialised kitten or cat.
2. Taming Adult Feral Cats
Many people requested information on taming adult cats. I have added some information, but I consider the best approach with adult ferals is trap-neuter-release (or TTVARM: trap-test-vaccinate-alter-release-maintain). I know people who have successfully tamed adults and I have re-socialised fearful cats. I also know of disaster stories. I trust the reader to decide whether their adult feral will respond to taming and to know if the process is working or not.
WHAT IS A FERAL CAT?
Feral cats are cats which have "gone wild" and those born and raised in the wild. "Semi-ferals" are those which tolerate some human contact. Ferals often form colonies wherever there is shelter and a food supply e.g. farms, airbases, rubbish tips etc. Urban ferals congregate near dustbins, markets or where animal lovers provide food. They may perform a useful function by hunting rodents attracted to edible refuse.
Feral colonies may act as reservoirs of disease such as FeLV/FIV which can be transmitted to pet cats which interact with ferals. There is also the fear of toxoplasmosis and (in some countries) rabies affecting humans. They may become unhealthy and unsightly through continued breeding, poor nutrition and fighting (among unneutered cats). The habits of unneutered cats, especially males, makes them unwelcome. CPL Branches may be asked to help control such colonies through trap-neuter-return schemes and often encounter feral kittens during trapping. Since kittens attract more attention and sympathy from people than do adult cats this is when CPL Branches are often contacted and, as a result, find themselves in possession of spitty, hissy kittens which need to be tamed and homed.
Research shows that the socialization stage in kittens is 3 - 9 weeks old, with them becoming progressively harder to tame with every day over about 8 weeks. While kittens up to the age of 12 weeks can be tamed, older kittens often retain a degree of fearfulness and a small percentage of kittens (approx 10%) will not tame at all. There is no magical age at which kittens become untameable. Cat workers must prioritise those kittens which stand a good chance of being homed as pets; this means concentrating on younger, more responsive kittens.
Kittens caught and fostered during the socialization stage may come to view humans as part and parcel of cat life - even if mum (who may be in foster care until her kittens are weaned) tries to teach them otherwise! Orphaned feral kittens and those removed from an over-protective mother before weaning must either be hand-reared or fostered. This is beyond the scope of this paper.
As well as the right environment, the taming process takes time, commitment and patience and there is already a vast surplus of unwanted pet cats. In a shelter situation it is recommended that ferals over the age of 5 months be neutered and returned to the colony otherwise they occupy space needed by more easily homeable kittens. This allows the shelter to concentrate on the younger kittens which stand a better chance of being placed as domestic pets. If you are an individual with the time, space and patience, it is possible to tame older kittens and young adults, but it is a more time consuming process with a higher failure rate.
Older kittens and young cats which 'come round' tend to bond with one person and should be found suitable permanent homes as soon as possible. Even then, the stress of rehoming may cause a completely tame 'feral' to temporarily revert until it bonds with the new owner. It is tempting to keep such "one-person" kittens. Before attempting to tame feral kittens, bear in mind that there will be some which will never tame however much love, effort and attention you lavish upon them.
CATCHING FERAL KITTENS
Feral kittens are usually first noticed when they start romping away from the nest at 4 weeks old. The best time to catch them for taming is 5 - 8 weeks old when they are no longer dependent on their mother's milk. Though cute, a frightened feral kitten will defend itself vigourously if cornered so a trap or stout gloves (e.g. welder's gauntlets from DIY shops) are essential. Also make sure your Tetanus jabs are up to date. Experienced people liken handling an angry feral kitten to wrestling with a animated cactus.
If it is necessary to take unweaned kittens (e.g. abandoned/orphaned kittens), seek advice on hand-rearing or finding a tame foster-mother. Such early contact with humans makes taming easier, but hand-rearing is time-consuming and human-reared kittens may have problems socialising with other cats.
On average, taming takes 2 - 6 weeks depending on a kitten's age and degree of wildness. Some come round within days, some take months and a few never come round at all. It is easiest to work with one kitten at a time as groups of kittens may be held back by the wildest one. If circumstances dictate taking on a whole litter, you may need to separate them and work on them individually or in pairs.
The first step is to establish trust; most of a feral tamer's task is to get the kitten to trust humans. This takes several weeks with older kittens which are more set in their ways. The second part, socialisation with humans, begins in the tamer's home and continues in the kitten's new home. This takes upwards of 2 weeks in most feral kittens.
Two notes of caution:
- If the kittens are sickly, don't let them mix with other cats, wash hands before and after handling them and wear an overall when handling them.
- Make sure the ferals' room is escape proof; beware of the following: flue-pipes, chimneys, loose floorboards, windows which do not close properly, holes into wall cavities, suspended ceilings, doors and windows which cannot be secured.
THE TAMING PROCESS - FIRST CONTACT
Initially, keep the feral kitten(s) in a kitten-pen (Majesticage etc) in a room where they will see humans frequently. Some people prefer to have them loose in a small room but this may result in "indoor ferals". Others only have them loose during petting-and-play sessions. Spend plenty of time with them and talk gently to them. Always move slowly and quietly so as not to frighten them - they will be jumpy at first. When you're out of the room leave a radio or TV playing, preferably on a 'talking' channel, to accustom them to human voices being a normal part of cat life. A tape recording of your voice is even better.
For the first few days don't try to handle them; let them recover from their fright at being in close proximity to people. Offer titbits so that they come to regard you, the food-offerer, as a surrogate parent. It has been suggested that bribes akin to their feral diet work best, e.g. cooked rabbit for rural ferals or cooked white fish for those used to fish and chip shop refuse, as familiar food helps hunger overcome fear. Whatever bribes you offer, it is vitally important that the main part of their diet is a balanced commercial cat/kitten food.
Before opening the cage to change litter, food or water etc, ensure the room is escape proof. When you reach in to the pen, don't do so with outstretched fingers - curled fingers are less threatening. In feral kittens, caution overrides curiosity and they will defend themselves rather than investigate your fingers. As they become less frightened by your presence (and more curious), try leaning in through the cage door and tempting them to play with you by gently batting a ping pong ball or waggling a feather.
The kittens need plenty of contact with people - not just physical contact, but just the presence of people nearby. If people walk past or sit around chatting but apparently ignoring the kittens, the kittens learn that humans aren't a threat to them. They also need to become accustomed to normal daily household sounds and activities if they are not to remain fearful of these in later life.
If you have the kittens loose in a room, spend time sitting on the floor with some food that you yourself can eat. Drop the odd morsel close to you or offer it in your fingers - if you remain still and talk gently, one or other of the kittens should pluck up the courage to snatch the titbit. As their confidence grows over several days, they will move closer in the hope of dropped titbits. Eventually they should overcome some of their nervousness and start climbing on you in case you eat all of the food without accidentally dropping any! You can now commence the stroking stage.
THE TAMING PROCESS - HANDLING
Start with the least aggressive kitten. Some tamers suggest placing a towel over it and if it stays calm, stroking it gently on the head from behind. Whether or not you use a towel, remember that if you approach from the front it may lash out in self-defence, but if it can't see your hands it may assume it is being groomed by a littermate and start to enjoy this. Repeat this several times over a few days; talking calmly at the same time. Never stare at a kitten - this is threatening. If it panics, stop stroking and talk reassuringly. Be confident; if a kitten thinks you are scared it will start to resist your advances. It is said that when a feral kitten purrs while you stroke it, the battle is half-won.
Once it remains calm during stroking, you can work on picking it up. In the wild, once a kitten leaves its mother, the only thing likely to pick it up is a predator so it will either defend itself or freeze in fear. Grip it securely by the scruff, as its mother would, and place it on your lap. Hold it securely, stroking it and talking gently. Most will try to burrow their head under your arm, many will tremble, so you must be calm and reassuring.
If it starts to panic, put it "back home" (in its basket or the kitten-pen) and go back to the stroking stage when it calms down. Keep initial handling sessions brief before putting it "back home" (where it feels safe) and offering a tasty bribe. At first you won't be able to cup one hand under its hindquarters as it will kick out. Once it accepts being picked up without panicking, you can start supporting its bottom or using two hands as you would pick up a tame kitten.
When you pick up or hold the kitten do so securely but comfortably. Don't hold it too tight or squeeze it or it will associate handling with pain. Don't hold it so loosely that it can be dropped as this will only make it more frightened. To begin with you might need to use gloves; some people prefer to exchange their heavy gauntlets for more flexible leather gloves which can be dispensed with once the kitten accepts handling.
If the kitten is unhandleable on your lap, try putting it in a top-opening wire cat carrier without any pad at the bottom. Place the cat carrier on your lap. When the kitten becomes settled in its 'safety cage' you can reach in and start stroking it or offering treats. Several sessions like this should accustom it to being on your lap and you can then dispense with the basket. If it falls asleep on your lap or wants a tummy rub - you've won!
Kittens also learn from observation and a friendly, healthy pet cat will act as a role model. If your pet purrs when stroked, the kittens may eventually come over to be stroked too. If the kittens are declared healthy you may decide to let them interact with your own people-oriented pet cats. Always be aware of the potential problem of cross-infection.
Sometimes over-cautious feral kittens must be TAUGHT how to play with things like ping-pong balls. Like all kittens they are full of energy so get them to interact with you through play - fishing-rod style toys are ideal. Also provide a scratching/climbing post; they will quickly work out what it's for.
If you are using a kitten-pen, the kitten may have to be returned there after petting-and-play sessions. Once it starts enjoying stroking and playing, it will resent "going home". Chasing it to catch it will make it fearful. It may follow a tossed toy or a food treat into the pen or onto your lap (so you can catch it). Some feral kittens panic the first time they are let out of the pen. If it becomes uncatchable, calm down, sit down and let it quieten down as well. Can it safely be left loose in the room? If you must resort to desperation methods such as tossing a towel over it or catching it in an upturned carrier, you risk undoing weeks of hard work. If you have the stamina to tire it out with energetic play it might return to its bed or your lap of its own accord!
HOMING TAMED KITTENS
Once the kitten doesn't object to being stroked and handled, invite other people - family and friends - to handle it, otherwise it might become a one-person cat. If you have several feral kittens and one becomes tame enough to home, you should consider homing it so you can devote more time to the others. The most aggressive or wildest kitten will almost certainly take longest to tame and need more "intensive" treatment.
If you have a home lined up, involve the prospective owners in the later stages of the taming process so that they can bond with their chosen kitten. They might be provide a worn jumper to put in its bed so that the kitten becomes accustomed to their smell before it leaves you. If possible, give the new owners the kitten's blanket and favourite toys so that it has something familiar and reassuring in its new home.
The new owners need to know that the kitten was once feral as they must reinforce the taming and bonding process. A home with other sociable cats, but no excitable young children is best. That way it can continue to learn how to interact with people through observation and copy-cat behaviour.
Rehoming is traumatic for any cat and a tamed feral may revert for a while (from several days to several weeks) before bonding with its new owners. At first it will hide so they will need to understand its background and go through similar steps, to a lesser degree, to gain its confidence.
It is tempting not tell people that a kitten was feral, for fear of losing a prospective home. This is a mistake unless the kitten was fostered at such a young age that its behaviour is indistinguishable from that of tame-born kittens. If the new owners don't know what to expect, they might inadvertently undo all your hard work by expecting it to behave in the same way as an "ordinary" confident, kitten. You need to tell them what to expect of what is a "very special kitten" and the more time they put into bonding with it, the more rewarding they will find the relationship later on.
Even after bonding with a new owner, some tamed ferals (mainly those tamed as older kittens) remain shy. Others constantly pester their owners for affection, physical contact and company. Some bond with only one or two people whom they view as "family", remaining cautious of strangers. Many owners of tamed ferals report that their cat is "a real character" and I endorse this opinion.
Sometimes the kitten may fail to settle in a new home. This can happen with any kitten, but an ex-feral will find the experience even more traumatic. In such cases you must be prepared to take the kitten back, assess how much it has reverted and repeat parts of the taming process as necessary. Just occasionally the opposite happens and the traumatic experience literally shocks the kitten into becoming more tame (this has been recorded in adult ferals as well). Though I have witnessed this, I certainly don't advise that anyone deliberately terrifies a feral kitten (which is frightened enough as it is) in the hope that it will become tame overnight - it constitutes unnecessary cruelty.
A small proportion of kittens remain untameable even if caught while young. This is a due to genetics - the wiliest ferals are best equipped to survive and they pass on this wiliness and fear of man to their offspring. Kittens over 12 weeks old are harder to tame and the results may not be satisfactory - they may bond to one person only, be nervous, hard-to-handle and practically impossible to home as pets. It is possible to have them neutered at this age, avoiding the need to keep them in captivity and under stress.
Early neutering of untameable young ferals allows them to be returned to their colony; if kept in captivity for a few months they might have problems reintegrating themselves into their colony. Keeping them penned for months also ties up a pen which could be used for a succession of homeable pet cats and can cause great distress to what is basically a wild animal.
Some feral tamers insist that all cats can be tamed if given enough time and effort. Personally I believe it cruel to persevere if the cat or kitten shows no sign of change over a period of months. Research into feline behaviour has found that some cats and kittens (even those born into domestic environments to domestic mothers) simply lack the genetic make-up to adapt to a household setting. Their genetic make-up means they are fully wild and it is not a failure on your part.
Sometimes there isn't enough (wo)manpower to allow older kittens to be tamed; or there may be so many friendly pet kittens around that excessively nervous feral kittens, with their special needs, really don't stand a chance of being homed as pets. Once again, it is kinder to neuter them and return them to site as early as practicably possible.
HOW LONG DOES THE PROCESS TAKE?
Each feral kitten is different due to temperament and the amount of exposure it has previous had to humans. A kittens will progress at its own pace as it begins to feel safe and secure and develops trust in the person taming it. Kittens which tame quickly should be placed in suitable homes to allow you to give more time to slower kittens. Don't rush things or the kitten may later revert to feral ways. Reinforce the taming/socialisation with plenty of titbits and, later on, plenty of petting and play sessions. Don't be rushed into rehoming the kitten - it needs an understanding environment where the socialisation process can continue.
Even experienced feral-tamers may feel discouraged on encountering a kitten which cannot be tamed or may become over-attached to a tamed kitten and keep it despite their original intentions. An untameable kitten shouldn't be viewed as a failure - it is genetically predisposed to life as a wild animal - and there is a danger of becoming overrun with ex-ferals which have established trusting relationships with you. By maintaining a sensible outlook, most feral tamers report their work to be challenging, satisfying and very worthwhile.
TAMING ADULT FERALS
Unless feral cats have had some exposure to humans during early life (e.g. semi-ferals around restaurants or those in colonies accustomed to human caretakers) their temperament when tamed may be unreliable. Sometimes, free-ranging ferals have gradually made a transition to indoor life; in these case, the cats chose to socialise with me and I provided encouragement and food rewards, but have not attempted to cage or confine it. These guidelines are based on the work of cat shelter colleagues and on my work re-socialising fearful or traumatised cats.
Taming adult ferals is traumatic for both parties, time-consuming and often unsuccessful. It is not usually possible to verify whether late-tamed cats were feral from birth or strays gone wild which were subsequently re-tamed, in most cases I suspect the latter. I do not promote the confinement and taming of adult ferals - these are not temperamental pets, these are wild animals which find close captivity and forced human contact stressful. Most are best neutered and rehomed to a semi-wild environment, e.g. as working cats at stables, where they can choose whether to socialise themselves with people.
TAKING ON AN MATURE FERAL
In general, a mature feral is one which is sexually mature. The likelihood of taming it depends on several factors:
Any previous contact with humans e.g. a managed colony or farm colony
Its age and whether it is 'set in its ways'
Firstly, ensure it receives all necessary veterinary treatment immediately after trapping. It should be taken to the vet clinic either in the trap or in the crush cage if you have experience of these. Warn the vet a few days in advance that you are planning to trap the cat and will need to present a feral at short notice, most will be happy to help. Emphasise that it is wild. If the vet can't take the cat in at short notice, arrange temporary holding facilities at a cat shelter (they may have lent you the trap in the first place) and be willing to provide a donation to their funds. They may agree to transport the cat to/from the vet (though you must pay for treatment) and will have more experience of penning and caging feral cats.
The feral should be blood-tested, vaccinated and neutered. Neutering is essential for population control. Neutered males are generally less aggressive and easier to tame than entire males. I have found no overall difference in tameability of males and females once they have been neutered/spayed. If the cat tests positive, but is in good health and you can accommodate it without risk to other cats, you may wish to tame it. Otherwise, euthanasia is indicated. A feral cat with an infectious disease cannot be re-released.
Recommended containment for an adult feral is a large and robust cat play-pen or kitten cage. The cage must be big enough for a front-opening, solid-sided cat carrier to be placed inside through the cage door. Initially the cage should be kept covered by a blanket or sheet to reduce stress. At this stage, the cat is a trapped wild animal. The kitten cage should be placed in a quiet room with a door which closes securely. Make sure there are no inaccessible hiding places e.g. fireplaces with chimneys, loose floorboards or gaps in wooden walls.
Should the cat need further vet treatment you will need to catch it. If you remove the blanket cover, the cat may well hide in the cat carrier and you should be able to trap it in there. The alternative is the upturned wire carrier method (the 'spider in jam-jar' method). When approaching the cage, keep low. Standing over the cat is threatening to it. Always keep you face well out of claw's reach - frightened cats lash out instinctively.
FIRST CONTACT WITH YOUR ADULT FERAL
For the first 2 or 3 days, restrict your visits to feeding and cleaning times to reduce stress until the cat adapts to its caged environment. After that, build up the amount of time spent in the same room with the cat over a period of days. When in the room, talk constantly and softly, even if you are simply reading a book out loud. It must get used to your presence. If possible leave a tape recording of your voice playing when you are not in there; if this isn't possible leave a radio tuned to a news station (at low volume) in the room. When re-socialising fearful adults, I use the room as my TV viewing room or reading room.
If the cat shows any curiosity (most will probably be too scared) offer titbits to get it to trust you. If possible, eat some of your meals in there, preferably containing food it would like and make sure you have some titbits if it shows interest. Table scraps are not generally recommended, but used in small amounts they are good bribes in these circumstances. I usually cook a separate portion of meat/fish to give as a titbit, since some meal ingredients are toxic to cats.
Leave some of your own worn clothing in the room so it gets used to your scent. Wear a tee-shirt in bed so it picks up your scent and leave that in the room (some owners do this when they board their cats or their cats are put through quarantine). I have met feral tamers whose tamed cats like to carry worn knickers (panties) around because of the owner's scent.
LITTER TRAINING AN ADULT FERAL
Most cats are fastidious creatures and are easily litter trained. Feral cats with access to a soft substrate (dirt, sand) should be used to burying faeces to hide their scent from predators. Ferals from urban areas may have grown used to toileting on hard surfaces and may be harder to litter train. I have encountered this type of cat; she learned to use the tray but never learned to cover faeces. Dominant cats show 'middening' behaviour - they purposely leave faeces in an exposed place as a territorial marker - these should adapt to using the litter tray, but might not cover their faeces. Middening and spraying are reduced, or even eliminated, by neutering/spaying.
The cat won't have encountered a litter tray before. Initially the litter tray should contain garden dirt (this should be sterilised in a hot oven in a metal baking tray) or a potting compost from a plant nursery if garden dirt is unavailable or unsuitable (e.g. heavy clay). If the cat has messed somewhere in the cage, scoop up the solids and place them in the litter tray. You have to build up a scent association with the tray: scoop solids daily, but only change the dirt every two or three days unless it is noticeably pungent (e.g. if the cat still smells tomcatty).
Each time you change the litter, sprinkle conventional cat litter on top of the dirt. Increase amount of cat litter and decrease amount of soil each time until the cat is used to using cat litter alone. If you need to change the type of litter used, introduce the new litter gradually using the same mixing process. Some feral cats are quick to master the litter tray, but some urinate or defecate on soft bedding. Until it is strongly bonded to the litter, avoid too much soft bedding in the cage. A piece of carpet or synthetic sheepskin in the carrier should suffice; you can introduce soft bedding impregnated with your scent later on.
The cage must be kept clean daily. If the cat prefers to hide from you this will be easy so long as you do not put your hands too close to the cat itself. If the cat tries to attack you, you will need to use long-handled brushes and thick long-sleeve gloves etc until it lets you approach more closely.
OUT OF THE CAGE AND INTO THE ROOM
Once the cat uses its litter tray and bed appropriately and reliably, you can leave the cage door open giving it access to the whole room. Place some used bedding, food/water and a second litter tray (one it has already used) in separate corners of the room. It probably won't venture out until left on its own and it will immediately find a secure hiding place. You may not see it for several days, but once you are confident that it is no longer living in the cage, you can remove the cage and its contents. Make sure you fix a notice to the outside of the room door saying there is a wild cat loose in the room. Disasters have happened when a door has not been secured shut.
Once it has settled into the room, spend as much time in there as you can. You will probably have to spend much of this time on the floor so invest in two comfortable cushions - you will need two, because the cat may later decide to sit one while you are in there. Make sure the cat can see you, then yawn, stare into the middle distance (not directly at the cat) and blink slowly. In cat-speak, these are signs that you are friendly and relaxed. With your hands, mime washing your face and hair cat-fashion. It sounds silly, but you must communicate in cat body language it starts understanding humans.
Once the cat seems relaxed, even if it is still hidden, sit on the floor with one hand outstretched towards it (fingers curled). It may not investigate you for the first several attempts, but eventually it will be curious enough to sniff you especially if it is used to getting titbits by hand. In most cases, the cat will still be in its favourite hiding place (den) at this stage. If it starts coming out to investigate you or sits in the open, you are making excellent progress as considers you to be unthreatening.
PHYSICAL CONTACT AND PLAYING
It's still a long way from 'unthreatening' to 'friendly'. It is an especially long haul to the next step which is touching the cat. Don't move onto this stage until the cat allows you to place your hands near it without it reacting with defensive aggression.
When the cat is relaxed move your hand slowly towards it. Talk reassuringly. If it hisses or growls then stop, leave your hand where it is until the cat sniffs it or ignores it. Leave it there a little longer then slowly move it away (if you move too fast, the cat will probably swipe at it instinctively). The aim is to touch the cat's fur without it reacting badly. Start with top-of-head scratches and progress to back scratches and cheek scratches. Avoid touching its legs and belly as many cats simply don't like these areas touched. Don't ever surprise the cat or touch it suddenly from behind. It will defend itself.
Always move slowly and keep talking. Be alert for any sign of trouble (defensive aggression) - flattened ears, dilated pupils, low growling, swishing tail, prickled fur or an extreme cases, the cat may flatten its whole body against the floor and wall and may even lose bladder/bowel control because it feels cornered. Many cats, even domestic pets, pee in fright. If this happens, back off to a point where the cat is comfortable for a few days before trying to move closer again. If the cat starts purring at any stage, you know you have turned the corner and the battle is half-won. Once again, it will probably still be in its 'den' at this stage. If it has come out to investigate you, you have made excellent progress.
Note: Wait until the cat moves to another hiding place before cleaning 'accidents'. Use a specialist cleaning solution and de-odouriser to mop up cat urine/faeces. Do not use chlorine bleach or general disinfectant since some are toxic while others break down into products which smell like cat pee and encourage inappropriate toileting. A dilute solution of white vinegar may help. Bleach based on sodium hypochlorite (e.g. Domestos) may be used in proportions 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.
During the last two stages you have been encouraging the cat to come out into the room with you present. It's important it regards you as part of the furniture which is why you should spend plenty of time with it. Generally, if you can get to the stroking and purring stage you can entice it out. Never make any sudden moves - it will still be very wary and will either run for cover or panic. However, some cats are still in hiding at this point even if they do allow stroking.
Games with feathers on string, wands and ping-pong balls may entice your cat out into the open and it may lose some of its inhibitions while playing. If necessary, pat the toy around a little on your own so the cat can watch you. It will soon get the idea that the toy is harmless (sometimes I have had cats forget themselves and join in, even making physical contact with me while they play). Start of slowly, it has never seen cat toys before and may be fearful of them, but few cats can resist a trailed piece of string. When socialising fearful cats, I like to leave some balls or soft cat toys in the room with them. The cats have frequently kept me awake during the night with rowdy play.
STROKING AND STARTING SOCIALISATION
When you have reliably reached the stroking stage, try sitting on the floor with a towel or some bedding on your lap. Using food treats, encourage the cat to sit on you when it is stroked. If the cat has built up a bond of trust, you may be able to pick it up (I recommend wearing leather gloves) and place it on your lap. Many cats (ferals and domestics) never learn to like sitting on laps, but will come to sit next to you for some attention.
If you can pick the cat up, start to pick it up and sit it on your lap on a chair. Once again, if the cat gets defensive or distressed, back off to the sitting on floor stage for several days before trying again. Always progress at the cat's pace and never rush things. You have made a lifetime commitment to this cat and these initial weeks or months will lay the foundation for you relationship.
By the end of this stage you should be able to reliably pick up the cat and place it on your lap or on a seat next to you and it stays there to be petted (you may need to use gentle persuasion or restraint if it seems uncertain about staying put, but never attempt restrain a scared or struggling cat). You have bonded with it, but you now have to introduce it to other people and to the rest of your household.
It's possible that your partner or grown up children (if you have them) have taken part in these early stages. I usually find that the initial taming is done by one brave and committed person and that other members of the household don't get involved until the cat has lost much of its wildness. If they haven't previously been involved, get them to sit in the room talking to the cat and also playing with it with string or wands. At first it will refuse to play with strange people, but sooner or later it will overcome its shyness.
INTRODUCING THE CAT TO THE HOUSEHOLD
If you have other cats, they will have figured out that something is going on. They will have smelled the feral's scent. At first, introduce them to one another's scents by exchanging articles of bedding. Rub down the cats with one another's blankets to mix their scents. You need to fit a screen door to the feral's room, the cats can watch each other and the feral will learn from your pets' behaviour. Make a point of interacting with your pets in view of the feral, especially picking them up (if they enjoy this), loving them and putting them back down. Make sure the feral sees how much your cats find this enjoyable (stick to interactions that your cats enjoy otherwise the feral will learn to be fearful of iteraction).
When the feral cat is relaxed, you can leave its room open. First of all cat-proof the rest of the house so it can't escape or get into problems. Decide which rooms it can visit and which ones will be kept shut since it might be overwhelmed at getting access to the whole house at once. At first it will make forays out into the rest of the house to explore and find other hiding places. When it returns to its own room or settles into another 'safe place' spend time with it, reinforcing the taming and socialisation work.
These forays will initially be at night-time; you may find its fur on chairs around the house as it establishes night-time sleeping places. Cats are crepuscular be nature (most active at dusk and dawn) not nocturnal as many people believe and at you may have to be around at these times to see it exploring the house. Sometimes, only a dented, fur-covered cushion provides evidence that it is out and about in the house. If it hides around the house, always talk gently when you are near one of its hiding places. Don't force it out of these hiding places, though you can try the trailed string trick. As it learns more and more of the house, you can start to leave other rooms open.
Gradually move its litter tray and food/water out of its original room to encourage it to spend time in the rest of the house. If you have other cats, they will probably start sharing food and toilet facilities (after all, if you've been sleeping on the bed, why go downstairs if there's a perfectly good litter tray in the upstairs hallway?). At first it will hide from you in the daytime, but the combination of night-time forays, moving food bowl, morning feeding and continual reinforcement will eventually bring it out in the daytime.
REHOMING A TAMED ADULT FERAL CAT
I consider it best that the cat remains with its tamers as it will have built up a strong bond with them. rehoming is a traumatic event for any cat and is doubly traumatic for a cat which has made the transition from distrustful wild creature to a tamed (though probably nervous) feral cat living a house. If the cat is to be rehomed, the socialisation must be repeated in the new home, beginning with confinement to a single room until the cat bonds with the new owners and moving on to exploring the house at night-time.
Although there may be setbacks, the process is usually quicker the second time around as the cat has already learnt a lot about humans and a human environment. This time round, it is learning to apply this knowledge to new environment. Feral cats should be placed in a household where there is at least one fully socialised and cat-friendly domestic cat since it will learn a lot by observing its tame feline companions. The new owner must also be experienced with cats, especially with nervous cats, and willing to repeat and continue the work you have done.
Assess the cat's readiness and temperament carefully before rehoming it. The new owner should have spent plenty of time in your home getting to know the cat first since it must transfer its bond from you to the new owner. If the new owner can aid in all stages of taming, this is even better as a good bond will build up right from the beginning. I have seen cats which fully reverted to the wild state when rehomed; one of these was returned to the tamer with whom it had a strong bond, though some of the others had to be released into managed colonies (some later became tame again over a period of 1 or 2 years).
I have seen some of the best results with ferals who lived in large enclosures at a cat shelter; the constant presence of people and the opportunities for interaction allowed the cats to approach humans at their own pace. Even so, rate of progress and degree of tameness varied. Some became fully tame, others became semi-tame but progressed no further while a few remained feral (one had so little fear of people that it was relocated to a farm for the safety of the shelter staff).
The process of taming an adult feral is much longer and harder than working with kittens and I prefer to neuter and release wild adults. If you are prepared to make a lifetime commitment then it may be worthwhile. Bear in mind the following:
If the cat shows no signs of progress over 5 or 6 months, seriously consider returning it to its colony.
If the cat is, and remains, extremely aggressive towards humans, then trying to tame it will probably be very stressful and almost certainly unsuccessful.
If the cat's health suffers as a result of stress, consider trap-neuter-release (TTVARM) instead. I have known feral adults die due to the stress of confinement.
Overall, the most reliable results are with ferals which approach humans of their own volition in the outdoor environment. If the taming process begins outdoors in this way, it can continue over a much longer period of time with much more reliable results as the cat itself makes the decision to enter your household.
This article is respectfully dedicated to feral tamer Marion Skipsey who died in a car accident early in 2000.
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