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.
A feral cat can absolutely be tamed & made friendly even though I’ve heard many people say otherwise. A feral adult cat in my yard had kittens that were outside for several months before I was able to trap them all & get the mom fixed. They were varying degrees of feral. One of the cats, Daisy, was VERY feral. Swatting, hissing, extremely violent. Someone involved in cat rescue told me to release her–that she would never be tamed. It took several months of working with her daily, but eventually she became the sweetest cat in the world. I used a thick sweatshirt to cover my hand from her claws so that I could pet her. It takes patience, a large crate & time. You must be gentle & patient (worth repeating) & never give up.
Does this cat look feral today?
Not at all!!!!
Great job ! It shows that patience is most of the times rewarded.
“It takes patience, a large crate, and time. ” I wish i had known about the crate/feral cat setup a few months ago. I currently have four feral cats (a mom and her 6/7 month old babies) in my garage. I worked with a local TNR program to get them all fixed, and the rescue workers asked me to work with them. They did not suggest crates, which would have made a lot of sense. As you can imagine, I now have four scared cats who hide really well (or peer out from the shadows, hissing) until food arrives, and then they might come out for a bite if my back is turned. I have befriended feral cats on the street, after months of patience and feeding and sweet talking, so I know this is possible, no matter the age of the cat. But I feel really bad about these guys in my garage. I’m not sure how to work *with* cats that are hiding in corners and I think the rescue workers should have known better.
Even a truly feral cat can be tamed, although they may not ever reach the point of friendliness that a cat raised with humans will. My boyfriend and I tamed a feral cat by giving him canned food and playing with our other cat while he was watching to show him there was another way of life. It took him about 6 months before he would consider setting foot inside our house, and it was 9 months until he decided to be friendly to us. Once he decided humans were okay after all, he was relatively friendly even to people he didn’t know and introduced himself to visitors. He turned into a laid back, friendly “people kitty” who loved belly rubs. It was a pretty sudden change.
On the other hand, the “other cat” I mentioned above was a scared stray we adopted from the shelter (my profile photo above – that’s Heidi, named for her habit of hiding). She was scheduled to be euthanized because they thought she couldn’t be socialized. She took to us right away, but she would run and hide from everybody else. She would run and hide in the closet if someone so much as walked past our front door. It took her about 10 years before she was willing to meet new people when they came to our house. Friends who had come by often asked if we had a new cat when she walked into the room, because they had never actually laid eyes on her the entire time we had her!
Lest you think I have the “feral” and “stray” labels confused between the two cats, I want to say I know that Heidi was someone’s kitty at some point because she knew the sound of a can opening when we adopted her, and there were other signs too. She had clearly lived with humans before but had been a stray for a long time. The feral, on the other hand, would still feel the need to hide behind the stove whenever something new and unexpected happened for months even after he decided to be friendly with us. And that included frightening events like us opening the refrigerator, doing the dishes, grinding coffee, etc etc. Basically all normal household activities were new and frightening to him. Also I believe I know where he came from and saw him running loose in an empty lot and hiding behind bushes as a kitten. He was genuinely feral.
So the lesson in this is, every cat is different and will adjust at their own pace but they can and will change with time. The outcome is extremely rewarding. The key is patience – don’t try to force things, and let the cat come to you rather than the other way around. If you try to force your company on a fearful cat, they are likely to perceive that you are coming after them and be even more afraid. Good luck, and thank you for helping the little family!
Excellent and accurate to a T story. One specific I’d add is never pet their heads by your hand approaching their head from the front. Another sign to them that they’re under attack.
My current kitty was definitely feral, so was her mom. Some feral kitties do obtain some level of trust. When my kittie’s momma had her kittens in my uncle’s garage, we waited until they were ok to take from momma. We took four kittens off her, three girls and one boy. The boy we gave to a cat rescue because one of our senior kitties despised any male cat, but the girls we intended to calm and find homes ourselves (Which obviously didn’t happen, they grew attached to us and we to them). We caught Saphira first, and she was the longest to calm down. She was like the kitty in this article that was rescued for almost 6 months I believe before she finally broke out into a full out purr, and she was never the most cuddly thing though we still loved her. Kaseaka was next and she took the shortest time, it as like a week before she was comfortable. Diamond was last to be caught and she only took about a month before calming down. It’s all gonna vary on the kitty, these girls are all from the same litter and had very different experiences in settling down. Saphira was loving but standoff-ish, Kaseaka LOVES people, and Diamond is affectionate once she’s observed you for a bit. Every kitty is gonna be different, and their calming experience if gonna be different.
Since Saphira was most like this kitty in the article I’ll go into more detail about her experience. As I said, she was very much like this kitty. for several months she stayed hiding and for several more she only came out when it was quiet. When she did come out we didn’t actively lower our volume of our TV or our talking as she had to get used to that, but tried to avoid sudden movements, and when she finally would come to us for a little petting we made sure to pet slowly and softly. Eventually she got to a point where she would lay on the couch next to us and love pets, but soon as someone made a move she didn’t like she went and hid for a few hours. She was never really a player, though we suspected she played with her sisters and my other kitten when we were away. It actually took my mom loosing her job, therefore being around all the time, for her to finally trust people. It was the fact we came and went is why she couldn’t build trust. Once someone was around pretty much all the time did she finally calm down and purr.
Some kitties are just very timid, it takes a lot of patience and understanding, but she can calm down and love. As much as it is important to get her fixed, it may have affected how quickly she will trust. She got caught by big scary things, which took her to a scary place, and she woke up still with the scary people and in pain. Very Scary for kitty. Her age might also be a factor, if she’s been out for a long time it might take longer for older kitty to trust. What we found works best to build kitty trust is accepting how they are now. Don’t try and make them play if they don’t wanna play, don’t try to pet if they won’t come to you for pets, don’t make prolonged eye contact as kitties tend to not like that. Basically don’t force yourself onto them, they will come to you if they choose to trust you. I find spreading yourself out on the floor so you aren’t that tall and just letting them come and sniff you builds trust quickly with stranger kitties, people are surprised at how quickly kitties take to me just because I do this. Even then in they might never fully trust people generally or you specifically. The senior kitty mentioned earlier NEVER liked people until she met my mom, and ADORED her, but still disliked everyone else and she was born domestic. And it wasn’t until I turned like 13 did this senior kitty finally accepted me enough to lay on me and let me pet her. Calming items may help, but we found just accepting them as they are really worked.
The attached image is Saphira happily purring her face off and pappy-pawing mom’s leg. With a little love and accepting, she became a happy kitty for the majority of her life.
My first cat for me as an adult, I picked from a litter. The rest of my cats I took in from friends and relatives because they couldn’t keep them and I’m (named myself) “the little old cat lady who lives down the street.” You need to give up your cat and of course want to make sure it’s going to a good home where it will be loved, cherished is more like it, you come to Robert. I can’t say no. At the most, I had 3 at one time. Everyone always got along. It is definitely nurture, not nature. Well, both but I believe the right nurturing, some refer to it as spoiling them rotten, plays the biggest role in their personality and temperament. Duke, the biter I referred to earlier, was the only one that was not a nice cat…but I didn’t raise him.
One thing that just bothers me to the max is the cat roommate (you know you don’t own them) who is raised as something like a nice piece of furniture or a good painting. Just a fixture to compliment the house. If you don’t give them love, how will they know love?
I have so many stories regarding this (I work with a cat colony) but will only refer to a few. Many years ago I remember a large orange and white cat in the neighborhood that no one could touch. I would see him sitting alone on a hillside and felt so sorry for him. Gradually, when he shifted to our area of the street we began feeding him. We still could not touch him. One night my boyfriend left milk out on the porch for him. Bingo, he changed completely! He became a big baby. When he disappeared one day I went looking for him and an elderly lady who used to feed him asked me “could you ever touch him?” I finally found him down the street living with an older couple and quite happy. Who knows how long he’d missed human companionship but I do believe at one time, a lot of ferals (or strays) have known people and remember that. On the other hand we’ve had ferals who were spayed and living in volunteers homes that never came around. They don’t want outside but do not want any human closeness. Many of their kittens are tamable but some have the same personality. It’s hard to say. Hopefully, your kitty will lose it’s fear but you must be patient and may learn in time that she may always live with this fear in her and the most you can accomplish is a mutual understanding.
I have had experience with feral’s also. Patience is the key. I had 2 feral kittens and they got under the bathroom cupboards but were unreachable. I would bring them in food and sit on the floor talking to them daily an hour at a time twice a day. It took a good month for them to come out and not run. They became very loving cats. I have had a few like this calm voice and patience. The toy thing may help as well. Good luck.
What you say is true but it is a fact that if that furry loveball ever got out and you lost her to the alley’s, they revert to the feral they were meant to be. Now, don’t take that as if I’m saying it’s wrong to have domesticated cats. I adore cats. I haven’t been without a cat in over 35 years. I’m repeating what I heard from a vet so I can’t say it’s absolute, but to my understanding there is always that little piece of feral in their walnut sized brains. I live in Chicago. My cats are strictly indoors.
All of my cats have been lovers. I had a roommate who passed away and when his partner moved out he conveniently forgot to take their cat with him. I will not shirk what I believe is my responsibility to a cat who lived in my place for a number of years but before that, my friend would let Duke jump out the windows any time he felt like it. He was the most unfriendly cat I ever lived with, and a biter too. Of course, I put that on the owners, not the cats. My boys (and one girl I had) follow(ed) me from room to room. Willie’s sound asleep right now about 3 feet away on the bed. I’m telling you, if I sneaked out of here, the minute he’d open his eyes and sees that I’ve left the room, he comes looking for me. I really do have an adoration for felines.
I know I went off topic here, but I just can’t help myself at times. I’m one of those parents who just can’t stop bragging about his furball kids. I always have the best one’s so you really can’t blame me.