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Ask Amy: Feral Cat

Helping A Frightened Feral

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Photo of Stray & Feral Cats: Abandoned by their owners and left to breed, forgotten by society.

Feral Cats

Photo Credit: © iStock Photo/Tina Lorien

Question: “How can I gain a feral cat’s trust?”

Janet writes, “I have tamed many a feral cat in my day but I have a true problem on my hands. I have been feeding some strays and one by one I am getting them vetted, fixed and yes, bringing them in. This last cat I caught right before a blizzard. He (I thought was a she) is so beat up and so scared. The vet said he is about eight. I have him in a HUGE cage - actually two put together. He has been in the house for about a week now and I am afraid to go near him. He is eating and all. How do I start? I named him Barney and keep sitting on the outside of the cage talking to him. When I go in the cage he gets that 'look' in his eye. He has been on his own for so many years. How do I start to at least gain some trust? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Really. Thank you.”

Amy’s Answer

Feral cats are a special case, as you know. Veterinarians and behavior specialists look at the cat’s physical and emotional health, as well as traits of instinct to help figure out what’s going on and find solutions. The H.I.S.S. Test, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers, can help figure out what’s going on. Although I’m sure you already know a great deal about ferals, I’ll keep this response general to help as many readers as possible.

H=Health

Health challenges are common causes of behavior issues. When they feel bad, cats (and humans as well) have less coping skills to deal with even normal situations. Barney has just been neutered, and as an intact male kitty, will need time for some of those raging hormones to leave his system. An eight-year-old well cared for kitty would just be entering middle age and still potentially be very healthy. But after this amount of time fending for himself, without proper nutrition or protection from disease and parasites, Barney’s health very likely isn’t ideal.

I=Instinct

All cats inherit the “stranger danger” gene, but ferals take it to extreme. A big part of that has to do with early socialization, when kittens learn what’s safe and what’s dangerous. Since Barney never had positive contact with humans during this prime socialization period (age two-to-seven WEEKS of age!), he considers people to be dangerous. Since he’s inside a cage, half of the fight-or-flight instinct has been taken away—all Barney can do is fight. After eight years of practicing this behavior it will take a LOT to overcome his instinct for survival—for in his kitty mind, it is in fact a fight to live. He can’t know that giving in would be a good thing. This sad kitty truly believes if he allows you close, he'll be killed.

S=Stress

Cats placed in strange environments or dealing with unfamiliar animals/people typically undergo stress that’s visible thorough behavior changes. In an otherwise well-adjusted cat, that might simply be sleeping more, becoming more vocal, hiding, or otherwise modest changes. For Barney, his world has exploded and he’s ended up on Mars with a Martian holding him captive! He’s been catnapped from his familiar (and so safe) world, taken to the vet, had surgery, and now is inside when likely he’s never felt anything but dirt or grass beneath his paws. For a feral kitty—literally a wild animal—the stress can be paralyzing.

S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions

Janet, you’re already doing so much right. I congratulate you on your effort and dedication to Barney and other ferals. This is truly the work of angels. Many feral cats can, with a lot of time and patience, learn to trust and accept one or two humans but rarely extend this trust any further. But as with pet cats, these kitties are individuals and there’s no one thing that works for all.

The temptation is to rush the process. I wouldn’t attempt to go inside of the cage at all—hopefully you’d be able to scoop the box and feed from outside. Sitting nearby without making eye contact (that can be scary for the cat), and speaking or even reading to Barney every day for several minutes can be quite helpful. Partner this with some pleasurable activity for the cat—maybe feeding time. Incidentally, it’s very positive that he’s eating. Playing soothing music also can calm emotional upset.

I’d recommend you give Barney some Rescue Remedy in his water to sip as he drinks. This Bach Flower Remedy seems to help enormously with certain cats, especially those experiencing extreme stress. The pheromone product Feliway also could help relieve his upset feelings since it works to communicate to the cat that the territory is safe.

Some feral rehab folks have good success using long distance objects to interact with frightened cats. A toilet brush extended into the cage—bristle end first—tempts some of these cats to investigate and even head-butt or cheek rub. It becomes sort of a self-grooming brush that feels good and self-rewards the cat for interacting with you, but from a safe distance for you both. Similarly, I’d recommend feeding something really stinky/scrumptious to Barney, from a long wooden spoon.  

I can’t predict how long it will take for Barney to get the idea that YOU are not scary and in fact are a good thing. But you can watch his body language and ears/tail or other feline communication to judge when to take the next step. Once he’s started greeting you, perhaps body-rubbing the cage when you approach, and you’re able to transition the toilet brush or spoon to your bare hand against the cage, then open the cage door. Let him come to you. Remember, when you loom in the one doorway, it blocks his flight—leaving only the “fight” part if he gets upset. So stand to one side so he won't feel cornered. Good luck.

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