Taming Feral Cats
written by Patty of Catcalls
photographs by Chriss Haight Pagani
Feral cats are homeless cats. Though they are technically domestic, their lifestyle is definitely like that of wild cats. Adult feral cats are rarely able to be tamed. However, a feral kitten, if caught while very young, has great potential to become a socialized pet. A feral kitty who is able to escape a life of hardship, hunger, and fear is indeed a fortunate one.
Taming feral kittens must begin as soon as possible. A mother feral will give birth in a quiet spot in the wild and the kittens will not be seen for several weeks. At that time they will begin to romp around, and at 4-6 weeks they are ready to be weaned and can be safely separated from Mom. If possible, capture the mom as well for spaying before releasing her back into her area.
Depending on their degree of wildness, feral kittens can be tamed in 2-6 weeks. Individuals can differ greatly in temperament even within the same litter. One may take only a short time while another is very skittish and uncooperative. Patience! A feral kitty tamer must be endowed with great patience and be committed to saving these kittens from a life of misery. It is a very rewarding undertaking for those who have the heart.
These steps will help you to the goal of socializing your new feral kitten.
Fear may drive a kitten to spit, bite, or scratch. You are a predator to him and he may try to escape. Have the kitten checked by a vet before taking them home. Keep them separate from other pets, wear a smock, and wash hands after each visit with your kitten. Keep him in his cage in a room by himself with a litter box, bedding, food and water.
For the first two days, do not handle him. Walk by, talk to him, make sure his needs are met, but let him get comfortable in his new setting. The use of your worn clothing as bedding may help the kitten accept you a little sooner.
After two days, place a towel over the kitten, and pick it up in the towel. If the kitten stays calm, pet it gently on the head from behind. Never approach from the front as it may be perceived as a sign of aggression. Open the towel out on your lap and let the kitten sit while you pet him. Talk to him as you do so. Be brief, then give him a little treat and put him away. Do this many times a day. You may also use a soft pet brush at times. This is similar to the grooming the mother cat would do and may help to make your kitten feel more at ease. A flea comb is another good tool to facilitate bonding.
Do not stare at the kitty. This is aggressive behavior in the wild and intimidating. Short glances and a lowered head will be far less threatening.
Play with the kitten using appropriate toys, but don't leave anything in the cage at first and especially no string toys.
You should have a very differernt kitty after a week of consistent attention and care. At this time they can be left in a small room and placed in the cage only if necessary. Large rooms can be a bit overwhelming. Beds may also be a problem as they may try to stay hidden underneath. Be careful to kitten proof the room so he is free to roam without dangers.
If you are working with several kittens and there is one that is not becoming tame, place him in a separate cage in another room, away from the others. He will be more apt to become dependent on you and respond more favorably. It will prevent him from reverting to wild behavior.
Once kittens no longer bite or scratch and seem happy in their new environment, introduce them to your friends ! Ferals tend to be one-man only creatures, so to be best prepared for adoption, gradually increase their exposure to others until they respond appropriately to all newcomers.
After 4 to 6 weeks, kittens who have progressed through all of these stages are now ready for adoption.
Families with no small children are the best homes for feral kitties. All of your hard work can be quickly undermined in a loud, busy, overly energetic home. A calm and quiet atmosphere is ideal for a little feral. The ideal home is one which will keep their pet indoors and will take two kittens together. If only one is adopted, it is best if a person is there a good part of the day.
If you have done your work outside of a shelter, be sure that you inform the adoptive family that the kitten must be neutered. This can be done as early as 8 weeks of age. Or you may want to neuter him yourself and ask the new owner to reimburse you.
Ferals live in a wild environment and take on wild behaviors. By making a 4 to 6 week commitment to a feral kitten to transform his life could be the difference between living only 10 weeks with fear or 10 years with family; 10 weeks with hunger or 10 years with happiness. If it is within our means to do so, let us do our part to ensure a better future for these little kittens.