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Taming Feral Kittens and Cats – Part 2

| November 3, 2010

Taming Feral Kittens and Cats

Research shows that the socialization stage in kittens is 3 - 9 weeks old, with them becoming progressively harder to tame with every day over about 8 weeks. While kittens up to the age of 12 weeks can be tamed, older kittens often retain a degree of fearfulness and a small percentage of kittens (approx 10%) will not tame at all. There is no magical age at which kittens become untameable.

TAMING ADULT FERALS

Unless feral cats have had some exposure to humans during early life (e.g. semi-ferals around restaurants or those in colonies accustomed to human caretakers) their temperament when tamed may be unreliable. Sometimes, free-ranging ferals have gradually made a transition to indoor life; in these case, the cats chose to socialise with me and I provided encouragement and food rewards, but have not attempted to cage or confine it. These guidelines are based on the work of cat shelter colleagues and on my work re-socialising fearful or traumatised cats.

Taming adult ferals is traumatic for both parties, time-consuming and often unsuccessful. It is not usually possible to verify whether late-tamed cats were feral from birth or strays gone wild which were subsequently re-tamed, in most cases I suspect the latter. I do not promote the confinement and taming of adult ferals – these are not temperamental pets, these are wild animals which find close captivity and forced human contact stressful. Most are best neutered and rehomed to a semi-wild environment, e.g. as working cats at stables, where they can choose whether to socialise themselves with people.

TAKING ON AN MATURE FERAL

In general, a mature feral is one which is sexually mature. The likelihood of taming it depends on several factors:

  • Its temperament
  • Any previous contact with humans e.g. a managed colony or farm colony
  • Its age and whether it is ‘set in its ways’

Firstly, ensure it receives all necessary veterinary treatment immediately after trapping. It should be taken to the vet clinic either in the trap or in the crush cage if you have experience of these. Warn the vet a few days in advance that you are planning to trap the cat and will need to present a feral at short notice, most will be happy to help. Emphasise that it is wild. If the vet can’t take the cat in at short notice, arrange temporary holding facilities at a cat shelter (they may have lent you the trap in the first place) and be willing to provide a donation to their funds. They may agree to transport the cat to/from the vet (though you must pay for treatment) and will have more experience of penning and caging feral cats.

The feral should be blood-tested, vaccinated and neutered. Neutering is essential for population control. Neutered males are generally less aggressive and easier to tame than entire males. I have found no overall difference in tameability of males and females once they have been neutered/spayed. If the cat tests positive, but is in good health and you can accommodate it without risk to other cats, you may wish to tame it. Otherwise, euthanasia is indicated. A feral cat with an infectious disease cannot be re-released.

Recommended containment for an adult feral is a large and robust cat play-pen or kitten cage. The cage must be big enough for a front-opening, solid-sided cat carrier to be placed inside through the cage door. Initially the cage should be kept covered by a blanket or sheet to reduce stress. At this stage, the cat is a trapped wild animal. The kitten cage should be placed in a quiet room with a door which closes securely. Make sure there are no inaccessible hiding places e.g. fireplaces with chimneys, loose floorboards or gaps in wooden walls.

Should the cat need further vet treatment you will need to catch it. If you remove the blanket cover, the cat may well hide in the cat carrier and you should be able to trap it in there. The alternative is the upturned wire carrier method (the ‘spider in jam-jar’ method). When approaching the cage, keep low. Standing over the cat is threatening to it. Always keep you face well out of claw’s reach – frightened cats lash out instinctively.

FIRST CONTACT WITH YOUR ADULT FERAL

For the first 2 or 3 days, restrict your visits to feeding and cleaning times to reduce stress until the cat adapts to its caged environment. After that, build up the amount of time spent in the same room with the cat over a period of days. When in the room, talk constantly and softly, even if you are simply reading a book out loud. It must get used to your presence. If possible leave a tape recording of your voice playing when you are not in there; if this isn’t possible leave a radio tuned to a news station (at low volume) in the room. When re-socialising fearful adults, I use the room as my TV viewing room or reading room.

If the cat shows any curiosity (most will probably be too scared) offer titbits to get it to trust you. If possible, eat some of your meals in there, preferably containing food it would like and make sure you have some titbits if it shows interest. Table scraps are not generally recommended, but used in small amounts they are good bribes in these circumstances. I usually cook a separate portion of meat/fish to give as a titbit, since some meal ingredients are toxic to cats.

Leave some of your own worn clothing in the room so it gets used to your scent. Wear a tee-shirt in bed so it picks up your scent and leave that in the room (some owners do this when they board their cats or their cats are put through quarantine). I have met feral tamers whose tamed cats like to carry worn knickers (panties) around because of the owner’s scent.

LITTER TRAINING AN ADULT FERAL

Most cats are fastidious creatures and are easily litter trained. Feral cats with access to a soft substrate (dirt, sand) should be used to burying faeces to hide their scent from predators. Ferals from urban areas may have grown used to toileting on hard surfaces and may be harder to litter train. I have encountered this type of cat; she learned to use the tray but never learned to cover faeces. Dominant cats show ‘middening’ behaviour – they purposely leave faeces in an exposed place as a territorial marker – these should adapt to using the litter tray, but might not cover their faeces. Middening and spraying are reduced, or even eliminated, by neutering/spaying.

The cat won’t have encountered a litter tray before. Initially the litter tray should contain garden dirt (this should be sterilised in a hot oven in a metal baking tray) or a potting compost from a plant nursery if garden dirt is unavailable or unsuitable (e.g. heavy clay). If the cat has messed somewhere in the cage, scoop up the solids and place them in the litter tray. You have to build up a scent association with the tray: scoop solids daily, but only change the dirt every two or three days unless it is noticeably pungent (e.g. if the cat still smells tomcatty).

Each time you change the litter, sprinkle conventional cat litter on top of the dirt. Increase amount of cat litter and decrease amount of soil each time until the cat is used to using cat litter alone. If you need to change the type of litter used, introduce the new litter gradually using the same mixing process. Some feral cats are quick to master the litter tray, but some urinate or defecate on soft bedding. Until it is strongly bonded to the litter, avoid too much soft bedding in the cage. A piece of carpet or synthetic sheepskin in the carrier should suffice; you can introduce soft bedding impregnated with your scent later on.

The cage must be kept clean daily. If the cat prefers to hide from you this will be easy so long as you do not put your hands too close to the cat itself. If the cat tries to attack you, you will need to use long-handled brushes and thick long-sleeve gloves etc until it lets you approach more closely.

OUT OF THE CAGE AND INTO THE ROOM

Once the cat uses its litter tray and bed appropriately and reliably, you can leave the cage door open giving it access to the whole room. Place some used bedding, food/water and a second litter tray (one it has already used) in separate corners of the room. It probably won’t venture out until left on its own and it will immediately find a secure hiding place. You may not see it for several days, but once you are confident that it is no longer living in the cage, you can remove the cage and its contents. Make sure you fix a notice to the outside of the room door saying there is a wild cat loose in the room. Disasters have happened when a door has not been secured shut.

Once it has settled into the room, spend as much time in there as you can. You will probably have to spend much of this time on the floor so invest in two comfortable cushions – you will need two, because the cat may later decide to sit one while you are in there. Make sure the cat can see you, then yawn, stare into the middle distance (not directly at the cat) and blink slowly. In cat-speak, these are signs that you are friendly and relaxed. With your hands, mime washing your face and hair cat-fashion. It sounds silly, but you must communicate in cat body language it starts understanding humans.

Once the cat seems relaxed, even if it is still hidden, sit on the floor with one hand outstretched towards it (fingers curled). It may not investigate you for the first several attempts, but eventually it will be curious enough to sniff you especially if it is used to getting titbits by hand. In most cases, the cat will still be in its favourite hiding place (den) at this stage. If it starts coming out to investigate you or sits in the open, you are making excellent progress as considers you to be unthreatening.

PHYSICAL CONTACT AND PLAYING

It’s still a long way from ‘unthreatening’ to ‘friendly’. It is an especially long haul to the next step which is touching the cat. Don’t move onto this stage until the cat allows you to place your hands near it without it reacting with defensive aggression.

When the cat is relaxed move your hand slowly towards it. Talk reassuringly. If it hisses or growls then stop, leave your hand where it is until the cat sniffs it or ignores it. Leave it there a little longer then slowly move it away (if you move too fast, the cat will probably swipe at it instinctively). The aim is to touch the cat’s fur without it reacting badly. Start with top-of-head scratches and progress to back scratches and cheek scratches. Avoid touching its legs and belly as many cats simply don’t like these areas touched. Don’t ever surprise the cat or touch it suddenly from behind. It will defend itself.

Always move slowly and keep talking. Be alert for any sign of trouble (defensive aggression) – flattened ears, dilated pupils, low growling, swishing tail, prickled fur or an extreme cases, the cat may flatten its whole body against the floor and wall and may even lose bladder/bowel control because it feels cornered. Many cats, even domestic pets, pee in fright. If this happens, back off to a point where the cat is comfortable for a few days before trying to move closer again. If the cat starts purring at any stage, you know you have turned the corner and the battle is half-won. Once again, it will probably still be in its ‘den’ at this stage. If it has come out to investigate you, you have made excellent progress.

Note: Wait until the cat moves to another hiding place before cleaning ‘accidents’. Use a specialist cleaning solution and de-odouriser to mop up cat urine/faeces. Do not use chlorine bleach or general disinfectant since some are toxic while others break down into products which smell like cat pee and encourage inappropriate toileting. A dilute solution of white vinegar may help. Bleach based on sodium hypochlorite (e.g. Domestos) may be used in proportions 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

During the last two stages you have been encouraging the cat to come out into the room with you present. It’s important it regards you as part of the furniture which is why you should spend plenty of time with it. Generally, if you can get to the stroking and purring stage you can entice it out. Never make any sudden moves – it will still be very wary and will either run for cover or panic. However, some cats are still in hiding at this point even if they do allow stroking.

Games with feathers on string, wands and ping-pong balls may entice your cat out into the open and it may lose some of its inhibitions while playing. If necessary, pat the toy around a little on your own so the cat can watch you. It will soon get the idea that the toy is harmless (sometimes I have had cats forget themselves and join in, even making physical contact with me while they play). Start of slowly, it has never seen cat toys before and may be fearful of them, but few cats can resist a trailed piece of string. When socialising fearful cats, I like to leave some balls or soft cat toys in the room with them. The cats have frequently kept me awake during the night with rowdy play.

STROKING AND STARTING SOCIALISATION

When you have reliably reached the stroking stage, try sitting on the floor with a towel or some bedding on your lap. Using food treats, encourage the cat to sit on you when it is stroked. If the cat has built up a bond of trust, you may be able to pick it up (I recommend wearing leather gloves) and place it on your lap. Many cats (ferals and domestics) never learn to like sitting on laps, but will come to sit next to you for some attention.

If you can pick the cat up, start to pick it up and sit it on your lap on a chair. Once again, if the cat gets defensive or distressed, back off to the sitting on floor stage for several days before trying again. Always progress at the cat’s pace and never rush things. You have made a lifetime commitment to this cat and these initial weeks or months will lay the foundation for you relationship.

By the end of this stage you should be able to reliably pick up the cat and place it on your lap or on a seat next to you and it stays there to be petted (you may need to use gentle persuasion or restraint if it seems uncertain about staying put, but never attempt restrain a scared or struggling cat). You have bonded with it, but you now have to introduce it to other people and to the rest of your household.

It’s possible that your partner or grown up children (if you have them) have taken part in these early stages. I usually find that the initial taming is done by one brave and committed person and that other members of the household don’t get involved until the cat has lost much of its wildness. If they haven’t previously been involved, get them to sit in the room talking to the cat and also playing with it with string or wands. At first it will refuse to play with strange people, but sooner or later it will overcome its shyness.

INTRODUCING THE CAT TO THE HOUSEHOLD

If you have other cats, they will have figured out that something is going on. They will have smelled the feral’s scent. At first, introduce them to one another’s scents by exchanging articles of bedding. Rub down the cats with one another’s blankets to mix their scents. You need to fit a screen door to the feral’s room, the cats can watch each other and the feral will learn from your pets’ behaviour. Make a point of interacting with your pets in view of the feral, especially picking them up (if they enjoy this), loving them and putting them back down. Make sure the feral sees how much your cats find this enjoyable (stick to interactions that your cats enjoy otherwise the feral will learn to be fearful of iteraction).

When the feral cat is relaxed, you can leave its room open. First of all cat-proof the rest of the house so it can’t escape or get into problems. Decide which rooms it can visit and which ones will be kept shut since it might be overwhelmed at getting access to the whole house at once. At first it will make forays out into the rest of the house to explore and find other hiding places. When it returns to its own room or settles into another ‘safe place’ spend time with it, reinforcing the taming and socialisation work.

These forays will initially be at night-time; you may find its fur on chairs around the house as it establishes night-time sleeping places. Cats are crepuscular be nature (most active at dusk and dawn) not nocturnal as many people believe and at you may have to be around at these times to see it exploring the house. Sometimes, only a dented, fur-covered cushion provides evidence that it is out and about in the house. If it hides around the house, always talk gently when you are near one of its hiding places. Don’t force it out of these hiding places, though you can try the trailed string trick. As it learns more and more of the house, you can start to leave other rooms open.

Gradually move its litter tray and food/water out of its original room to encourage it to spend time in the rest of the house. If you have other cats, they will probably start sharing food and toilet facilities (after all, if you’ve been sleeping on the bed, why go downstairs if there’s a perfectly good litter tray in the upstairs hallway?). At first it will hide from you in the daytime, but the combination of night-time forays, moving food bowl, morning feeding and continual reinforcement will eventually bring it out in the daytime.

REHOMING A TAMED ADULT FERAL CAT

I consider it best that the cat remains with its tamers as it will have built up a strong bond with them. rehoming is a traumatic event for any cat and is doubly traumatic for a cat which has made the transition from distrustful wild creature to a tamed (though probably nervous) feral cat living a house. If the cat is to be rehomed, the socialisation must be repeated in the new home, beginning with confinement to a single room until the cat bonds with the new owners and moving on to exploring the house at night-time.

Although there may be setbacks, the process is usually quicker the second time around as the cat has already learnt a lot about humans and a human environment. This time round, it is learning to apply this knowledge to new environment. Feral cats should be placed in a household where there is at least one fully socialised and cat-friendly domestic cat since it will learn a lot by observing its tame feline companions. The new owner must also be experienced with cats, especially with nervous cats, and willing to repeat and continue the work you have done.

Assess the cat’s readiness and temperament carefully before rehoming it. The new owner should have spent plenty of time in your home getting to know the cat first since it must transfer its bond from you to the new owner. If the new owner can aid in all stages of taming, this is even better as a good bond will build up right from the beginning. I have seen cats which fully reverted to the wild state when rehomed; one of these was returned to the tamer with whom it had a strong bond, though some of the others had to be released into managed colonies (some later became tame again over a period of 1 or 2 years).

I have seen some of the best results with ferals who lived in large enclosures at a cat shelter; the constant presence of people and the opportunities for interaction allowed the cats to approach humans at their own pace. Even so, rate of progress and degree of tameness varied. Some became fully tame, others became semi-tame but progressed no further while a few remained feral (one had so little fear of people that it was relocated to a farm for the safety of the shelter staff).

SUMMARY

The process of taming an adult feral is much longer and harder than working with kittens and I prefer to neuter and release wild adults. If you are prepared to make a lifetime commitment then it may be worthwhile. Bear in mind the following:

If the cat shows no signs of progress over 5 or 6 months, seriously consider returning it to its colony.

If the cat is, and remains, extremely aggressive towards humans, then trying to tame it will probably be very stressful and almost certainly unsuccessful.
If the cat’s health suffers as a result of stress, consider trap-neuter-release (TTVARM) instead. I have known feral adults die due to the stress of confinement.

Overall, the most reliable results are with ferals which approach humans of their own volition in the outdoor environment. If the taming process begins outdoors in this way, it can continue over a much longer period of time with much more reliable results as the cat itself makes the decision to enter your household.

This article is respectfully dedicated to feral tamer Marion Skipsey who died in a car accident early in 2000.

Copyright & Credit:
Copyright 2009, Sarah Hartwell – MESSYBEAST.COM

Photo copyright and courtesy: Justyna Furmanczyk – stock.xchng

Category: Feline Health and Care, Feline Resources, Feral Cats

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