Living out in the country or anywhere you are likely one day to come across feral and or semi-feral/stray cats. You may wonder how to tell the difference between the two. The differences are there but sometimes hard to pick out, but there are a few.
First a semi-feral cat may also be called a stray. A stray is a cat that may at one time was owned by a human but was abandoned, abused, a runway or put out. If they have been on their own for a length of time they have taken on some of the feral feline behavior. A behavior based on survival of the fittest. A feral cat is a cat born and raised in the wild with little or no contact with humans. Feral cats can be tamed but a lot harder than the semi-feral or stray. The younger you can get to a feral cat the easier to socialize them and domesticate them.
For the purpose of this article and from experience I will talk about the semi-feral or better know as a stray. From my experience these cats exhibit some familiarity with humans but also depending how long they have been on their own exhibit feral behavior also.
Whether dealing with a feral cat or stray cat always take precautions and be safe. These cats will attack, bite and scratch if they feel threatened or trapped. Most feral cats will run when humans go near them. The stray or semi-feral may stay and keep their distance. This is one difference between the stray and feral cat. Remember these cats also my carry diseases that may be transmitted to your family pets.
A stay or feral cat should be approached the same way, but the amount of time it will take will depend on what their experiences with humans were if any and their individual personality. It is very important when working with these cats that you DON’T give them any reason to be afraid of you. It will take time and patients with these cats and lots of it. You will need to create a positive experience with these animals. Don’t try to trap them. Only do this if they are in immediate danger, but do it humanely. Many animal rescues have humane traps to catch them, but again if they are not in any immediate danger trapping them will come later on. Right now you are only working on trust.
The foundation of taming a stray or feral cat is trust. Don’t become anxious to speed the process up. I know from experience it want work and will backfire. All those weeks and months (yes) I said months you have given up your time will all be down the drain in a matter of seconds. If a feral kitten has been brought into your family this foundation of trust will be established within weeks, but a stray or grown feral will take much longer. I can’t stress enough do not try to corner, chase or pick up a frightened cat it might land you in the emergency room and a not so good outcome for the stray you were trying to help.
The stray or semi-feral cat that made her presence known out my house she would kept her distance for a long time. She would stay a good distance away and sit and look at me. She would lay down and roll around on the ground and if I would even start to walk toward her she would run. Other cats around wouldn’t stay they would run immediately telling me they were most likely feral. Since she would hang around this told me she was used to humans, but at sometime in her life she was left to fend for herself for whatever reason. I knew I had to get her to trust me and this wasn’t going to be an easy task. This started my very long journey with her and it was an adventure.
Now it was time to work on Socializing and the trust issues. I will list the steps I took, but each cat is different and you may have to adjust them for your needs or do them in a different order, but is what worked for me and hopefully for you as well. Again I was working with a stray/semi-feral but with time and patients you may be able to do this with a totally feral cat. I will say it took me about 4 almost 5 months but I had time and was in no big hurry. I was drawn to her because she so wanted to be around me but at the same to was so scared and frighten. Frighten by me and frighten by her surroundings. This had to be a terrible place to be. Stuck in the middle of two terrifying worlds.
- If I saw her and she always kept her distance, I would sit down on the ground or on something as to be at her level. I never walked toward her. I let her decided how close she wanted to come. As time went on she shortened the distance and stayed still.
- I would talk to her in a soft voice and sometimes meow at her.
- Every day at the same time I would put out some food (usually can food at this point). I would place the food at a distance from me. I would go back to the spot where I always sat and not move. I would start calling her by the name I gave her. She soon started to recognize her name and would come out of the woods. If I stayed very still and the food place far enough away she would come and eat. She did the snatch and run game with her food. She would grab a mouth full and run to eat it. She would then come back for more. After days and days of this I lost count how long it took, but she finally started to just stay and eat, but she always kept an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to come near her. Finally the grab and run stopped.
- The next step after the grab and run stopped I started putting the food closer. I still stayed in my regular spot. Still staying still. She would come and eat and as long as I stayed still she would stay and eat, but the moment I got up, moved my arm or really any movement she was done and ran into the woods.
- This step you may wish to do or skip. I decided to create a shelter with a large plastic cover. More or less made a tent. I put in old blankets, a little box with litter in it and a water bowl. It was the middle of November and very cold. Eventually this is where I would feed her,but not for a long time to come.
- Now with about a month behind us I continued to feed her at the same time and move the food bowl closer and closer still following my pattern of very little movement and talking to her very quietly and calmly. Eventually the bowl ended up at my feet where I sat. She would come close and for a few days maybe a week she started the grab and run again, but it was short lived. She would stay and eat my my feet with me still sitting. I didn’t dare reach to touch her or move. I sat very still. Any movement from me or anything she would run.
- The next step for me was to get a stick and rub the stick to get my scent on the stick. I would lay the stick across her bowl and I would hold it. She could smell me and she could see my hand really close. Still I didn’t move the stick or my hand. This continued for at least a week or a week and half.
- The step that worked for me was I eventually got rid of the stick and would hold the bowl with it still on the ground. She still could see my hand, being used to it being there she continued to eat and the grab and run was in the past now. The tables started to turn with the next step.
- After about a week of just holding her bowl and not moving I slowly started to take my thumb and rub the side of her face. She would draw back, but not run. The factor of her being hungry helped. She started the grab, but did run. She would grab the food and back up and drop it to eat it. After a few days she accepted my rubbing the side of her face. For a long time I never used any more than my thumb to rub her. Again this process went on for weeks.
- Now we enter a new stage. This stage kind of took us back a few steps but it was short lived. I brought out the crate. I will say since this crate was used for my domesticated cat I first cleaned and sterilized it just to get as much of the scent from my cat out of it as possible. I begin to put the food bowl right in front of the crate. To be honest she wasn’t going to have anything to do with. If I forgot to mention this these cats are very smart and are used to dodging traps and know when something is up. I didn’t back down. For a few days she wouldn’t come up and eat. I still stay there, the bowl in the same place. She would sit at a distance and watch. The one thing I didn’t do was leave the food out. If she didn’t come in a reasonable amount of time she didn’t eat. After a few days she gave up and came and would eat the food placed in front of the crate.
- The above step took the longest of any of the steps. We worked on this for weeks, maybe almost a month. I started putting the food further into the crate with me still sitting there. I never left her to eat by herself. This stage was a tricky one and I knew if pushed or rushed it would undo all the work of months to get to this point. I had gained her trust and it could be easily undone in a second. And that is what happened. One day she was almost all the way in. She always kept one foot out of the crate. I over time kept moving the food bowl further inside. One day she was all the way in but that one back left foot. I tiled the crate up really fast to get her all the way in but didn’t get the door closed fast enough. She did that awful screech and bolted. I didn’t see her for a least 4 days. I thought I had just undone 3 months of work and didn’t know if she would ever trust me again to the extent she had.
Before I continue I will say this. I had already contact my vet and told them a while back what I was doing and they said that if and when I caught her I had a standing appointment to bring her in. I knew once I had her in the crate, bring her the house and letting her out and settled and then trying to get her back in the crate to go to the vet would be difficult. I also had to think about my own domesticated cats. I didn’t want them to be exposed to any illness she might have. Make sure you are in contact with your vet and try catching your stray/feral cat when you know you can get them to a vet soon afterwards.
- After 4 days of not seeing her she started to come around again. Thankfully we picked back up where we left off. The only difference was I had to start feeding here outside the crate again, she was having nothing to do with the crate at this point.
- It was now the Feb and still very cold and calling for snow. I desperate to get her inside because now I thought she might be in the family way and I so didn’t want more feral cats running around and knew the survival rate of feral kittens are very low. After weeks we try the feeding in the crate again. I knew I had to get the bowl as far back into the crate as possible. Finally, crated and off to the vet. I will warn you now a trapped feral or semi-feral/stray will let their displeasure be known and it will not be pretty. They will scream, hiss and carry on.
*A little side note cats that are feral or semi-feral don’t know how to meow. Feral kittens are taught by their mothers not to meow, play or doing anything normal domesticated cats do for fear of being sought by the enemy of other animals. So don’t be alarmed by the screeching sound they make, they just don’t know how to meow and may never learn. I was told by my vet that the only reason domesticated cats learn to meow is by their mothers who teach them that this is how to communicate with us humans. Thus feral moms don’t teach their offspring to communicate with us. I have now had my semi-feral/stray for now 2 years and she has just started to meow, but it is more of a squeak like a mouse and I think she has learned this only because of hearing my other cat meow. Hopefully one day we will have a full fledge meow.
*Please, Please warn your vet that their new patient is a feral/stray cat. They are used to this and have to take precautions to protect themselves also from being bitten. At this point no one knows if this animal is rabies and disease free. They most likely will have to sedate them to check them over. I know my vet did. I would strongly suggest to them to do so to keep all safe and mostly to not stress your new friend no more than necessary. They have already be traumatized from being crated, put into a vehicle and taken to a place so far from their world as they know it.
I had planned on having my cat spayed if she wasn’t pregnant (and she wasn’t) and thankfully she wasn’t in heat. They want spay if they are. I had all this pre-planned. I didn’t want to take her in and then have to put her through getting her in the crate again. I wanted it done all at one time. So she was checked for a micro-chip, tested for diseased and had 3 year rabies shot. After being checked for a micro-chip and nothing was found she was spayed and micro-chipped with my information.
Now after getting her home the next day I had already created her living quarters per vets instruction. The vet said for these cats semi-feral/stray or feral that they don’t need the whole house. They need a small confined space for a while to feel safe, too much space will make them fearful and give them too much space to hid. So the smaller the space the safer they will feel. So for my gal I set up the bathroom, made into a kitty condo. I cleared out everything underneath the sink. I put in old blankets, a pillow. I had a litter box, water bowl and food bowl with dry food. Still feed her at the same time as I did before with the can food. The suggested keeping her closed up in there for a while. At this time she was still terrified. She stayed under the sink when I would come in. She would eat only when alone. I would spend a lot of time in there talking to her in the quiet voice I had done outside. I would sit down on the floor and try to coax her out. This took about a month. She finally would come out and eat with me in there. We kind went through the process again of me slowly petting her while she ate. Eventually I could pet her hit and under her neck. Having her closed up in the bathroom also gave my other pets to get used to her scent sniffing under the door as well as her getting used to them. There was a lot of hissing going on through the door. She stayed in this room for almost 3 months. I started leaving the door open, but put up a baby gate where she could see out and my other animals could see her, but where she still felt safe. When she started staying out when I was in there and letting me pet her I decided to remove the gate this was around May. This was a long process about 6 months (November-May). She would come out but stay very close to the door. It took her about 3 weeks to venture away from the bathroom.
It has now been almost 2 and 1/2 years of patients, three steps forward, two steps back. She now is friends with my other cat (this was a whole different process). I stayed close by, but this they had to work out themselves. For a long time she was in the mode of I will get you before you get me. the vet said that she was so used to having to fend of the feral cats that she was in constant fight mode. She slowly stopped charging the other cat and just recently has started the “be my friend head butt” and this like I said has taken over 2 years to get to this point with the other cat.
As far as her relationship with me, she follows me everywhere. She loves to be brushed. She will roll over and exposes her belly and if I gently with feather like movements she will let me rub her belly. After 2 years we have started a new phase. She will let me pick her up and set her on my lab only for a few seconds, but I have all the time she needs. We have come a long way. Thankfully she has been well and no need to see the vet. Her 3 year rabies shot is coming up in Nov 2014. She has not been in the crate since the day I caught her. Not really sure how that will go or how I will get her in there. I think I will start actually feeding her in the crate. I have 8 months to work on this.
The reason I have referred to my cat as semi-feral is because the vet said she was possible around a year and half when I got her. She said that because of her disposition, her actions she may had been a pet at one time, had some experience with humans but at a very young age. She said it is very evident she has has been on her own for a while and has been running with the feral cats and had picked up many of their behaviors. She was more groomed that a totally feral cat is. So she was taught by mom to clean and groom herself. She would roll over and expose her bell to me and scoot on her back to me, but when I would go to pet her she would run. She also was never taught to meow so this is another indication she may have come from a feral mom. I probably will never know her story or where she came from but it was so worth the time and effort. She has turned into a wonderful pet. I want to remind you that this process took me 6 months, but have no doubt that if she had been totally feral this process may had taken months and months longer if at all. So please unless you have the time, patients and the means to start this relationship, gain their trust and to continue until the end of life it is more cruel to start. Once the start to depend on you for food and shelter it needs to continue.
I had mentioned earlier when I started this process I created a shelter outside. She did start to use it. She would come at night and sleep in it and that took a while for her to do this as it did with every other step. This is a good idea if you don’t plan on bring them inside. Create a shelter for safety, water, warmth for the winter and shade for the summer. I do suggest not to leave food out at night as not to attract unwanted animals or other cats.
I hope this information has been helpful. This has been my own experience and the steps I took. Hopefully this will give you some idea on how to approach a stray or feral cat and begin to hopefully make a great family member who will be forever grateful for you TLC and will give you love in return.
*If you don’t want to make pets out of them and just want to control the feral population you can contact the local TNR program in your area (trap-neuter-release). They will come and humanely trap them. They will then check them for diseases, give a rabies shot, spayed or neutered and tagged them. They will then be brought back and released back to their colony. It is very important that you don’t start feeding them if you don’t plan to continue. It isn’t fair for them to start to depend on food being readily available. To start taking care of them and then to stop is cruel, just don’t start.