You may have seen it lurking by the dumpster or heard it howling in the bushes at night. You may have even tried to pet it before it took off like a blue streak. No matter where that feral cat is hanging around, you know it deserves a better life than the one it’s living. The problem is, feral cats have learned to fear and distrust humans so much that taming and rehabilitating them is often called an impossible task. Most will tell you not to try it, but I, the proud momma of a formerly-feral adult cat, assure you that you at least stand a chance of performing a successful rescue operation.
Establish a Routine
Cats are creatures of habit. A feral cat has a specific territory that it will hunt every night. Sometimes this hunting involves small creatures, but in urban areas the stray cat will visit dumpsters for food scraps. Any break in the cat’s routine will frighten it, and even more so for feral cats that depend on their routines for survival. Instead of assuming this truth is an obstacle, use what you know about your cat’s routine as a tactical advantage.
Yes, encountering a tall stranger waving a food bowl will terrify a feral cat because it deviates from the cat’s everyday activities. The trick is to become a part of your stray cat’s routine so you no longer seem like a threat but a valuable food source.
When attempting to establish a routine with a feral cat, there are certain things about cats that knowing will make your job easier. First, stray cats are nocturnal. You will not see your feral friend until just before dusk when it starts to hunt. After the sun rises, your cat will tuck itself away in its hiding place where you have no chance of accidentally encountering it, and you will not see it again until evening. Do not attempt to feed or lure it near during the day. You will be wasting your time and frightening the cat during its most vulnerable time of day. You must, after all, rescue the cat on its own terms.
Stray cats have small territories. Wherever you first encounter the feral cat, that’s usually never more than half a mile away from where it lives. Looking for the stray in other places will also be a waste of your time.
You will become a part of your stray cat’s nightly routine only by choosing one place and one time to feed it. If you actually make some form of contact, which is possible with a severely malnourished or sick cat desperate for food, return to that exact place the next night at the same time. If you have not made contact but know the cat frequents a particular dumpster or alley, pick a time that’s well after dark and that you can for sure arrive at every night.
Once you’ve got your time and place, go every night without fail. Take canned food because it has a high water content and will rehydrate the feral cat. You may also take dry food if you want.
Sit in your chosen place with the open can of food and talk in a soothing voice. The cat will probably not approach you if it is truly feral, but talk as if the cat was there. Chances are, if you’ve got food and are making noise, the cat knows you are there. After you spend some time talking nonsense and hanging around the food source, the cat still may not approach. That’s okay. Leave the food on the ground but not the can, because the cat could cut itself on the sharp outer rim. Walk away slowly. If you’ve got the time, consider watching the place where you’ve left the food from a distance. You want to make sure you are actually feeding the feral cat, and not a raccoon or some other animal.
If you are consistent (and I can’t emphasize enough how important consistency is), eventually the cat will come to know your presence. After a week or two, the cat should be meeting you in your chosen spot, ready for dinner. If not, don’t give up. Your cat is still relying on you for food and might just need more time.
Think like a Cat
Now that you’ve become a food source for your feral cat, it’s time to start forming a more personal bond. When your stray starts meeting you for food, that’s when you know it’s time to establish a relationship. To do this, you must think like a cat.
To a feral cat, you are an enormous predator, capable of moving quickly and unpredictably, and emitting loud unfamiliar noises. Your goal is to convince the stray that you are more like a giant momma cat than a frightening human. Assume a low posture when the cat is near to make yourself seem smaller and less like a dominant animal. If you can, lie on the ground and keep your head down when the cat is near. Do not, however, assume a crouching stance, because this will instinctively cue the cat to flee. Cats crouch right before they pounce on their prey, and you do not want the cat to feel like prey in your presence.
At some point, the cat will come near enough to you to touch. Before you attempt to pet or cuddle in any way, let the cat smell you thoroughly. The cat will probably make several circles around you, moving in and out of your reach. Stay perfectly calm and do not move. Remember, you are small and harmless, and perfectly willing to be given the once over.
If your relationship with the cat is progressing, you will want to pet the cat to cement the bond. Petting a cat of any age triggers the same feelings the cat had when its mother washed it as a kitten, and petting the cat will put you in a parental position. Start slowly by petting the cat while it eats. This also serves as a reminder that the food is coming from you, and you are worthy of trust.
From establishing a relationship with the cat, you should at this point assess whether or not it will ever be ready for a home with humans. Some feral cats never reach the point where they could be capable of domesticity. That’s okay. You have still greatly improved the cat’s quality of life. Keep feeding the cat, and appreciate the relationship for what it is.
If the cat will not come close enough to you for physical contact after several weeks of feeding, you still have rehabilitation options. Contact your local Humane Society for advice on how to trap the cat to get it spayed or neutered and necessary shots and treatment. If the cat may be in danger from injuries, heavy traffic, or construction, look into sanctuaries for feral cats or consider relocating it to a safer or rural neighborhood. Again, an animal rescue group should send someone to help, or teach you what you need to know to trap it.
If you are successfully petting the cat at this point, it’s safe to assume the cat is ready to become domestic.
Luring with Patience (and Food)
It’s now time to work on bringing your cat home. Start taking a cat carrier to feed the cat, and put the food closer and closer to the carrier until it must eat inside. Do not immediately slam the door or force the cat inside the carrier, because you greatly risk losing the cat’s trust. Spend several days letting the cat get familiar with the cat carrier. When you and the cat seem to have reached a comfort level with the cat inside the carrier, gently close and latch the door. Take the cat home, and proceed to the next step.
Because cats are cats and for no apparent reason, some feral cats will let you pet them bald but never trust the cat carrier. Your job has become much harder, but you’re still very much in the game. Your other option is to convince the cat to walk home with you. Don’t underestimate the importance of food to a hungry animal. Feed the cat a few feet closer to home each night. Let the cat see where you go when you leave it. Much like E.T. with Reese’s Pieces, you can leave food trails leading to your door. If the cat will let you, pet it and play with it as close to your front door as you can get. Eventually, (and this could take a frustratingly long time), your feral cat will let you lead it inside.
Importance of Quarantine
Once inside, your cat will probably panic. Don’t worry if it makes terrible howling noises, climbs the furniture, or hides in the darkest corner it can find. You have just removed the stray from it’s turf, and it has every right to be utterly terrified and distrustful. Your first goal is to make the cat feel that it is in a perfectly normal and safe place. Keep very calm, make no sudden movements, and provide it immediately with food, water, and a litter box. As soon as you feel it is safe to do so, pick up the cat and put it in the litter box to teach it where to go to the bathroom. Because cats are naturally clean animals, this is usually all the potty training you’ll need to do.
If you have other animals in your home, you must separate the cat from them immediately. Your feral cat is used to fighting for survival and may attack your docile pets to establish itself at the top of the hierarchy. You absolutely do not want this to happen.
Keep your cat shut in a bedroom or study at the very least until it goes to the vet. Your feral cat will have parasites, and may carry diseases you do not want to expose your pets to. Your cat needs its own food and water bowls, and its own litter box. Do not under any circumstances allow sharing until you know your cat’s medical condition.
After your cat settles down, which may take a few days, take it to your veterinarian for tests and shots. If your cat must take medication for internal parasites, enforce the quarantine until the treatment is over to prevent spread to your other pets. Although it may seem like a minimal threat, cats often get to know each other by climbing into each other’s litter boxes, and parasites are spread through contaminated feces.
After the Vet Visit: Where Does the Cat Go?
Now that you’ve rescued and rehabilitated, you have to decide whether you have room in your life and home for a new pet. If you decide that the formerly feral cat is now your new best friend, congratulations! Introduce the cat very slowly to your other pets, starting with supervised visits.
If you need to place the cat in another home, you need to start thinking of yourself as a foster parent. Treat the cat like you would one of your own, but use all your resources to find a home as quickly as possible. Get the cat its shots and spay or neuter it to make it more adoptable. If you place ads in the paper or online, charge an adoption fee to prevent cruel people from taking your cat and selling it to a research company.
If you cannot find the cat a home on your own, talk to your local Humane Society and other groups. Tell them you have rescued a cat you cannot possibly keep, but you are willing to foster it instead of turning it over to shelter (where it might easily get put down) and that you would like them to help find a permanent home for the animal. You might need to sign the cat over to the organization, but it will remain safely with you until a suitable home can be found. Pets advertised through rescue groups are often more likely to be adopted than pets you advertise on your own. Consider fostering other animals in the future, as one cat is just a drop of water in an ocean of pets waiting to be loved.