Cats are independent creatures that can easily live without human intervention. They are also grossly over-bred in the United States and throughout the world. Thousands end up homeless in shelters or feral cat colonies. Rescue organizations work to capture cats from feral colonies, give them vaccinations and spay or neuter them, then release them back to the colony. This reduces the number of new cats and the risk of disease over time. Why don’t they tame feral cats? Taming a feral cat takes more time and resources than catch-and-release, so rescue organizations use the most economical solution to help more cats. Feral cats can be tamed, and often turn into excellent house pets or human-friendly barn cats. This is the process I’ve used with about 200 feral cats and kittens, successfully introducing them as pets into human households.
Safely trapping a cat from a feral colony
To tame a feral cat, you must first isolate it and place it in a safe, controlled environment. You might have some success with a free-roaming cat, but the progress will likely be limited and very slow. Borrow live catch traps through your local municipal animal control, Game & Fish office, shelter or rescue. These traps are designed to catch cats without hurting them, and without exposing them to predator danger. Alternatively, if the colony is already near an outbuilding, you may try luring the cat in with food and then closing the door. Decide if you want to tame a single cat or a small group, bearing in mind that you are responsible for the care of the cats you trap.
Vet care for a feral cat
Every feral cat should have a vet checkup, vaccinations and a spay/neuter operation, preferably before you start working with them. Not every vet will see feral cats, and some may charge more or require that they’re sedated for their checkup. It may not be possible or financially feasible to get the cat to the vet until after you’ve finished basic groundwork. If you choose to work with a cat that hasn’t been checked, exercise precautions and wear clothes that protect you from bites and scratches.
Gaining trust and setting the groundwork to tame a feral cat
Groundwork is the most important part of taming a feral cat, and it’s absolutely critical that you don’t rush it. Unlike dogs, cats are solitary hunters who feel no need for a pack, and no natural draw toward humans. Younger cats tame easier because they may still rely on the colony for protection, but older cats have to be shown how your presence benefits them. They must proceed on their own terms. This process can take weeks with older cats, but possibly only days with kittens.
Initially, you will only feed and clean up after the cats. Don’t approach them, don’t try to entice them. Once they’re eating well in confinement, then you can sit nearby until the cats are comfortable eating while you’re there. Slowly move your observation point closer – i.e. sit five steps from the food one day, four steps the next if the cats appear comfortable. If a cat approaches you, let it. Do not move closer to it. If it sniffs your hand, it’s okay to slowly raise it an even try – slowly – to stroke the cat’s jaw. Consider hand-feeding treats, but only if the cat’s health status is known; diseases such as rabies pass through saliva and may not be apparent in the cat’s appearance or behavior. With any hesitation from the cat, back off. Let it get comfortable with petting before you try to pick it up or hold it. Release the cat immediately if it struggles.
When the cat approaches you without fear, rubs against you, and accepts petting, you’re ready to go on to the next step. It’s okay if it doesn’t accept holding, but keep working toward that – it makes transportation and vet visits a lot nicer if you can hold the cat.
Introducing a tamed feral cat to a new home
Presumably, you tamed the cat with an eye to turning it into a house pet or barn cat. If it’s going to a barn, make sure to confine the cat inside for several days before allowing it to roam free. Cats like familiarity, and are much more likely to stick to a new home once it’s familiar. The cat may retreat from human attention in a new environment, but just give it a safe, quiet place to settle in and don’t push it to be social. It may take up to 2-4 weeks for the cat to feel comfortable and let its true personality shine.
It’s probably easy to see now why so many rescue organizations do not tame feral cats. There are already thousands of tame cats looking for homes, and they just don’t have the resources for such a time-consuming task. If you’re considering taming feral cats, you’re most likely an individual with concerns about a specific feral cat colony. Bear in mind that the older the cat, the more time it’ll take and the lower the success rate, but taming is a rewarding experience that will promote a healthier natural ecosystem and allow those cats to live longer, healthier lives.