Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
We bought a piece of property. While cleaning up the land we found three tiny kittens with their eyes still closed. We took them to the vet to get checked out. A few days later we saw the mom, who we named Emma, and we started feeding her. It took four weeks to catch and take her to Paws to have her spayed. Since then she has been inside. Her “safe spot” is under the bed, and at first she came out only to eat and use the litter box. It has been two months now, and she comes out in the daytime when the house is quiet — but any loud noise and she is back under the bed. Do you have any idea how long it will take her to be comfortable? We have taken in three other ferals before Emma and in no time they adapted. Any suggestions are gladly appreciated.
Thomas: Well, Darlene, let me start by thanking you so much for taking care of Emma and her kittens. That is very kind of you, and you’re making a huge difference in their lives.
Bella: Now, we think that what you may have there — and what you may have found in your other cats — were not actual feral cats but scared strays instead.
Thomas: Feral cats, as a rule, want no contact with people at all and will run away from you rather than come to your door … and they especially don’t settle in indoors.
Bella: Scared strays, on the other hand, do display a lot of fear behaviors, but as they start to remember that they were in fact domestic cats who once had homes, they tend to come out of their shell and get more comfortable in a human family.
Tara: I’m kind of a scared stray right now. I was living alone outdoors and trying to make my way by scavenging food from kind people. It’s taking me a while to get used to living indoors, especially because there are other cats here, but I know what it’s like to have a home and I’m gradually getting used to it.
Thomas: Oh, Tara, thanks for chiming in! You’re a very brave kitty!
Bella: Oh, Tara, it’s okay! Thomas is a nice cat and he wants to be your friend. We both know you’re growling because you’re scared, not because you want a fight.
Thomas: But sometimes I just can’t help myself. I hear all that growling and carrying on, and it gets me all riled up, and then I just jump on you, Tara. I’m so sorry!
Tara: *grrr …* I mean, I’m trying. It’s just kind of scary, that’s all.
Bella: Anyway, Darlene, if Emma is in fact a scared stray, it could take her quite a long time to get used to being in a home. It depends a lot on how long she’s been out in the wild. Also, some cats are just a bit more scaredy than others.
Thomas: Please don’t take it personally that Emma isn’t already as settled in as your other cats were by this time in your relationship. Just be patient with her and try things like Feliway and calming collars.
Tara: That’s what Mama is doing for us, and I think it’s starting to work.
Thomas: Alley Cat Allies has a great comparison chart and article to help you determine whether you have a feral or a scared stray on your hands.
Bella: Basically, strays tend to live alone while ferals live in colonies. A stray, having been domesticated at one point, will be much more likely to approach people. Strays are also much more likely to make eye contact with people and possibly vocalize to you. Ferals don’t do either of those things.
Tara: It’s true. I came up to my rescuers with my tail high and I chirped at them and rubbed their ankles. A feral kitty would never do that!
Thomas: So how do you socialize a scared stray who has been out on her own for long enough that she may have forgotten how to live indoors? Stray Pet Advocacy has some great tips for you.
Bella: So basically, Darlene, our advice to you is to be patient with Emma. She’s probably going to be noise-sensitive for a long time, but the fact that she’s coming out into the common space in your home is a very good sign indeed!
Tara: If you want to help her feel less nervous overall, you could try the calming collar we mentioned — that is, if she’ll wear a collar at all without freaking out. I kind of like mine. Besides, it’s purple and it looks nice against my fur.
Thomas: You’re right, it really does. Can I come touch noses with you?
Thomas: OK, I’ll wait.
Bella: Thomas, I’m scared!
Thomas: There, there — there’s no need to be scared of her. Just go on up and be her friend.
Bella: But what if she growls at me? I don’t want to get in a fight.
Tara: Well, neither do I. Maybe we scaredy cats can hang out together.
Bella: I’ll try.
Thomas: Another thing you can try is playing with Emma. The more she plays and has fun in the common spaces of the house, the more confident she’ll be.
Bella: Considering that she’s still a little scaredy, we recommend that you play gently until you get her interested in the toy, and then follow her lead when you continue to play. Do this every day, at least once a day, and Emma will find herself feeling a lot more comfortable after a while.
Tara: Good luck, Darlene, and thank you so much for caring about a poor stray mama-cat.
Thomas: What about you other readers? Do you have any tips for helping scared stray kitties feel more comfortable in their new homes? Please share them in the comments if you do.