Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I rescued a feral cat that was laying on the side of the road presumed dead while I was working out of state. I took her to an emergency vet and got her taken care of, and now two weeks later she’s in good health. Here is my problem–she has obviously never been domesticated. She weighs only 3 pounds and is an adult (checked via teeth and verified by the vet). She hides all day and is terrified of humans. She won’t eat in front of me, she won’t even leave her dark hiding spot unless she needs to eat and even then she waits until no one (or at least she believes no one) is watching. She is not aggressive in any form or fashion, although she does hiss when cornered. She purrs when I manage to catch her and pet her and is very affectionate. I’m curious if she will ever become social and, most importantly, if she’ll ever gain any weight or size. She doesn’t appear to be any variety of small or miniature breed. Thank for your help!
Thomas: Well, Lauren, first of all, thank you so much for saving this kitty’s life! That’s a wonderful thing you did!
Bella: Secondly, it sounds like maybe what you have there is not a totally feral cat, but perhaps a semi-feral or scared stray.
Tara: If she were completely feral, she wouldn’t be affectionate when you pet her, or even allow you to pet her at all.
Thomas: Taming feral cats certainly is possible, and we’ll guide you through the basics.
Bella: The most important first step is what you’ve already done: you’ve taken her into your home and you’ve started feeding her. Feeding her will help her to bond with you.
Tara: Then, spend time with her without touching her. Hang out in her room, if she’s in a separate room, and do quiet things like reading, writing, crafts or watching TV. That way she’ll get used to your routine and learn to trust you as a safe and calm person.
Thomas: The next part is to play with her using a “thing on a string” toy. Playing with her will not only increase her confidence, it will help you bond with her. Use the toy like real prey–for example, if it’s a mouse on a string, make it move like a mouse (scurrying around corners, stopping and starting, and the like).
Bella: If it’s a bird toy (which I love and it’s my all-time favorite), make it fly and flutter around.
Tara: Don’t get too close to her with the toy; you don’t want her to think the toy is attacking her, after all!
Thomas: Allow your cat to come to you, and be very patient with her. It sounds like you’re doing a great job, but do try to avoid backing her into a corner if you can, because that will make her scared (hence the hissing). If you sit and work quietly in the room where your cat is, she’ll slowly get used to you.
Bella: As to whether your cat will ever get bigger–well, that depends.
Tara: When Mama adopted her Dahlia many years ago, the vet said she was five months old, and she was still as tiny as a 3-month-old kitten. The vet told Mama that Dahlia would probably never get bigger than six pounds …
Thomas: But with good nutrition and lots of tasty food, Dahlia grew up to weigh about nine pounds at her healthiest. She was never a huge cat, but she did get to be full-sized.
Bella: It’s quite possible that your cat didn’t get enough nutrition when she was younger, and that’s why she’s so small. But it is possible that she’ll get bigger.
Tara: But don’t count on her getting any bigger than about six pounds. If she’s still under a year old, she may keep growing now that she’s getting plenty of food.
Thomas: She may be younger than a full adult. After all, all our adult teeth are in by the time we’re six months old, and there’s no way the vet can fully know her age without taking X-ray to see if the growth plates on her bones have fused.
Bella: The growth plates are places on the ends of the long bones, like her leg bones, that are not quite connected to the bone, which leaves room for the legs to keep getting longer.
Tara: Once the growth plates have joined with the bones, or fused, then your cat is finished growing.
Bella: I kept getting bigger for a little while after Mama adopted me, and I was almost a year old at the time!
Thomas: That’s right. When Mama brought Bella home she was a skinny, gangly little thing, and now she weighs nine pounds, too.
Bella: I’m a great, big girl!
Thomas: Yes, you are, sweet Bella, and I love you! *purrrrrrrrrrr*
Tara: Oh yeah? Well, Mama spent lots of time petting me this morning and telling me what a big, brave girl I am, too. So there!
Thomas: Oh, Tara, you’re beautiful, too. That’s why I chase you and want to lick your head.
Tara: Eek! Stop that, you big lug! *hissss*
Bella: Anyway, Lauren, you can get this cat to be comfortable with you. She may never be a lap cat, but if you’re patient with her and let her come to you on her own terms, you’ll find you have a good kitty friend.
Tara: And she may just grow a little bit more, too!
Thomas: Taming feral cats takes patience and time, but it can be done.
Bella: What about you other readers? Have you ever tried taming feral cats? How long did it take? Have you had a tiny cat that was older than six months old, and if so, how much bigger did he get? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
We’ve done it twice. The first was several years ago, when my wife found a very pregnant kitty outside. We managed to trap her and bring her inside, and the poor girl was terrified. We let her out of the trap and she ran into the spare room, where she stayed for several months. My wife called her Mariah, and she would go in every day and talk to her and feed her, and, when she had the kittens, socialised them and found them good homes when they were old enough. Day by day she got more used to us, and eventually she’;d sit on my lap (her choice) and let me pat her. She never did like being picked up, though. Unfortunately, the back door blew open one day and she got out, and we never saw her again :-(
The second one was Freddie, earlier this year. I realised I needed another black kitty since I’d lost my Midnight to cancer a couple of years ago, and one of the local shelters had one who looked suitable. That turned out to be my Shadow, who loves to sleep with me and is a very loving kitty. But when we went to pick him up, the shelter asked us if we’d like to “foster” another kitty they had. Freddie had been adopted and brought back several times, because he was terrified and wouldn’t let anyone near him. When we took him home, he was curled up in a ball in his little bed, ears back, eyes wide, and clearly scared. Having had some experience with Mariah, we just let him loose in a room off our bedroom (with food, litter and water available, of course).
At first he mostly hid under a wardrobe and only came out for food and so on. I made sure to look in on him a couple of times a day, just to say “Hi” and to let him know we weren’t chasing him.Little by little, he started to come out and play with the other cats (we have five others, apart from him and Shadow). And now, you wouldn’t know it was the same kitty. He runs around, comes up to be petted, loves treats, and is a loving and playful kitty.
We got him in February. By July he was a normal kitty. We think there are several key points here:
– Patience. You do need lots of patience. Take it slowly, and let the kitty decide how far he wants to go.
– Other kitties to play with. Especially young ones, with lots of energy (we have a year-old Bengal, but I don’t think you need to go that far). Not only does the kitty get lots of play time (although, as the kitties above suggest, having you play with the kitty helps too), but you will be in less of a hurry to get the kitty to be social.
This was the perfect time to talk about rescuing ferals.
About a month ago a momma cat and her kits showed up on my porch. Of course I started feeding them!
Momma cat would bring them by and make sure the kits got fed before she would eat.
I don’t see momma or her Mini Me ( looks like mommy) too much now but Bootsie comes everyday and spends time in our yard or the neighbors. I have been talking to them and sitting outside with them but with winter in the near future, I want to try and get them all inside if I can.
We trapped a feral/scared stray about 9 years ago. We had a small dog kennel set up in our garage. He was so scared that he would lash out with his teeth if we tried to get too close to him. We ended up spoon feeding him so that he could get used to us and know we weren’t going to hurt him. We did this for about 6 weeks until we were able to handle him enough to take him to the vet. After that, it only took a few more weeks until we were able to bring him inside and shave all the terrible mats off him. He’s still with us and has turned into the sweetest little guy.
When Theo was first brought to us he looked about 2 months old. He was actually 6 months old. He’s now 13 pounds. So if the kitty is under a year she can still grow.
I’ve worked with a cat colony for 16 years and have seen many ferals and semi-feral cats. If I were able to get them when they were little and socialize them they might have changed but many still will not let me touch them or just allow themselves to be petted for more than a second. The semi-ferals (as your kitty seems to be) should probably not have been allowed to run so freely. Putting the kitty in a pen with a litter box, food and water for the start would have helped keep it within your reach to socialize. Since there would be nowhere to hide, the kitty would have been more dependent on you for attention and not so fearful. After a while you could let it out in the room and it might not hide. This is how our kittens are socialized in our rescue program. You might want to try that now (get a large cage) but I don’t know if it will work. Keep loving the kitty and trying to get it to trust. They can really turn around.