How to Tame a Wild Cat
When I first saw the cat one morning in June, it was scrounging for seeds spilled under the bird feeders in the back yard. It was a tiny thing, not more than a few months old. Its skeletal appearance and desperate hunt for food told me it was just days away from death by starvation.
"I have to give that cat something to eat," I told my husband.
"If you feed it, you'll never get rid of it," he replied.
"If I don't feed it, it will die."
I took a can of cat food out to the yard. The little cat disappeared into the woods as soon as it saw me, but I set the can down under the bird feeders. When I checked a few hours later, the food was gone.
The cat reappeared a couple days later. I took it another can of food. Again it ran off but later the can was empty.
It didn't take long before the cat was coming back every day, just as my husband had predicted. Not wanting to use up any more of the pricey food intended for my indoor cat with special dietary needs, I bought a big bag of inexpensive dry food and kept it with the bird seed in a storage bin on the patio. My husband agreed that having an outdoor cat wouldn't be such a bad thing; it would help control the burgeoning ground squirrel population that was decimating our garden and retaining walls. So my goal was to tame the cat enough to get it into a carrier and to the vet to be neutered and vaccinated. Then it could live out its days in our back yard and woods.
What is a feral cat and can it be tamed?
A feral cat is a cat that grew up in the wild with no human contact or only negative contact. In contrast, a stray cat is a previously domesticated cat that was lost or abandoned. While strays may approach humans for food, exhibit behaviors like purring and meowing, and even allow themselves to be touched and petted, feral cats are scared of humans and view them as any other large animal – a potential predator. Feral cats tend to live in colonies in abandoned buildings, junked cars or other sheltered areas near a food source, like a restaurant dumpster. With threats of starvation, disease, bad weather, and attacks by other animals, the lifespan of a feral cat is less than two years on average.
Some believe a feral cat cannot be tamed. Depending on a number of factors, including the cat's age, personality and experiences in the wild, socialization is possible. It will take much time and patience. The older the cat, the more difficult it will be. Some cats may never become comfortable with human interaction, even after several months. Other cats may bond only with the human who socialized them, making them unsuitable for adoption elsewhere. There is a much greater chance of success taming a stray that has reverted to feral behavior than a cat that never had human contact, especially if its past interactions with humans were positive.
Organizations like the Humane Society and ASPCA recommend using the trap-neuter-return method in dealing with feral cats. This involves humanely trapping the cats, neutering them to prevent the birth of more kittens, and returning them to their colonies to live out their days. A colony caretaker, a person or group interested in animal welfare, then provides food, water, and adequate shelter to the colony while monitoring the health of the cats. The non-profit organization Alley Cat Allies provides an on-line guide for conducting trap-neuter-return.
By July, the cat no longer disappeared when I went out to feed it. It would retreat a few feet into the woods, watch me as I set out the food and come up to eat as soon as I walked away. I started talking to her (I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that she was a female) and gave her a name – Birdie, because she was eating bird seed when I first saw her.
Birdie grew comfortable in my presence. She started coming when I called her. Although she wouldn't allow me to get close enough to touch her, she greeted me with little meows. When I spoke to her, she would roll and stretch and rub against the trees, but from a safe distance. I don't know where Birdie came from but her behavior and circumstances suggested she was born in the woods to a stray that didn't fear humans and didn't teach her to be afraid.
Making the decision to socialize a feral cat
Before you begin the long socialization process, consider your goal. Do you want to tame the cat and find a home for it? A feral cat may bond with you but regress when placed elsewhere. It may not be a good candidate for adoption.
Do you want it to become your indoor pet? This may be possible, if it is the right kind of cat and you are patient.
If you are planning only to feed the cat and let it live outdoors, you must accept the role of caretaker and see that it gets neutered and vaccinated, then continue to monitor its health and well-being and provide medical treatment as necessary.
In deciding whether to socialize the cat, consider the following:
- Does the cat appear healthy? There is no non-lethal way to test a cat for rabies, so observe the cat at a distance for symptoms of rabies or other odd behavior. Do not make contact with a cat that appears sick. Call animal control for assistance. Keep in mind that although the cat may appear healthy, it may be a carrier for feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus, so avoid exposure to any other cats in your household until the feral cat tests negative for these highly infectious and incurable diseases. Wash your hands and change clothes after any contact with the feral cat.
- Does the cat remain in your presence when you feed it? Has it shown growing trust by staying closer over time?
- What is its body language? Is it crouched low to the ground with its ears back, which shows fear, or is its tail straight up in the air, which indicates that it is comfortable?
- Does it display signs of being outgoing and friendly, like meowing and rubbing its head and body on objects?
As the weeks passed, Birdie went from being emaciated to plump. In fact, she was getting downright fat in her midsection. Although she was no more than a kitten herself, I began to suspect my little Birdie was about to be a tween mom. Since I wasn't able to touch her, I couldn't get her to a vet to find out for sure.
Shortly before Labor Day, Birdie turned up one day in a foul mood and hissed at me when I approached. That was the last I saw of her for several days. When she finally returned, it was clear she had given birth. There had been a bad storm over the weekend and I wondered if any of the kittens had survived. Birdie appeared to be nursing, so I assumed there was at least one or two.
Cat pregnancy and birth
Cats can become pregnant as early as four-and-a-half to five months. Signs that a cat is pregnant include:
- Enlarged and pink nipples
- Weight gain around the midsection
- Increased appetite
- More affectionate behavior
- Nesting behavior
The average gestation period is around 65 days. When the cat is about to give birth, it may display signs of restlessness or make howling sounds. It will seek out a quiet, private place to give birth. The birth process can take from anywhere from two to six hours, with an average litter size of two to five kittens.
Where are those babies?
Despite my best efforts to find them, Birdie kept the kittens well hidden. With several acres of woods behind the house, they could have been anywhere. I instead focused my efforts on taming her so she'd eventually bring the kittens to me and I could find homes for them.
Nursing made Birdie ravenous, and I used her hunger to my advantage. Now, when I set the food down, I'd sit down right next to it. She had to come to me to eat, and she did. While she ate, I talked to her in a calm, low voice and hovered my hand above her head, moving slowly so she wouldn't get spooked. Each day I moved my hand closer and closer until I eventually touched the top of her head. The first time I touched her, she jumped away. So I tried again the next day, and the next. This continued for two or three more weeks until finally one day she didn't back off when I touched her. I was able to pet her. This was late September, nearly four months after I first saw her.
To socialize a cat, begin by establishing a routine around food. Feed the cat at the same time of day in the same place. The cat will grow to trust you as it begins to associate you with the positive experience of eating. As you feed the cat, talk to it in a calm, low voice.
Remain nearby as the cat eats. When the cat gets used to your presence, make it come closer and closer to you each day to get to the food. Don't watch the cat or make eye contact with it because it will see that as an act of aggression. Sit quietly and ignore the cat while it eats.
Don't touch or pick up the cat until you sense it is ready. Take your cues from its reaction; if it backs off, you need to back off, too. Go slowly, be patient, and be prepared for occasional setbacks.
If you move to quickly, the cat may react defensively. Try not to let this happen. If you are bitten, seek immediate medical attention. If you are scratched, monitor the wound and go to the doctor if it appears to be infected.
A mess of kittens
My next door neighbor found the kittens a few days later in a hollow tree stump in the woods near her house. There were four of them, all healthy and plump. They were about four weeks old. Birdie apparently wasn't ready for them to be found because she moved them somewhere else and we didn't see them for another week.
At about five weeks of age, the kittens were ready for solid food. Now, when Birdie met me at the back door each morning, the kittens weren't far behind. They were living in a hollow log in the woods about 20 yards from the house. On those October mornings I could hear the leaves rustle in the pre-dawn darkness as four kittens scampered up the hill to eat. They climbed over one another to get to the food and, when they had their fill, climbed all over Birdie until she plopped down on her side to nurse them.
The only thing more adorable than a kitten is four kittens, and that mess of kittens ("mess" is a more fitting term than "litter" in my opinion) romping through my backyard provided hours of entertainment to my entire household, including the dog, and to the many neighbors who dropped by daily to see them. I handled each kitten every day to get them used to human contact. I also started to work my connections and social media networks to find homes for them, knowing they'd be ready to leave their mama in a couple more weeks. By the end of October, when they were about eight weeks old, all of the kittens had gone to their forever homes.
A mother cat typically will provide all the care and food a kitten needs during the first four weeks of life and needs no human intervention. At four or five weeks of age, kittens will be ready for other sources of food while continuing to nurse. If a mother cat has kept her kittens hidden from her human caretaker until now, this is the age she will lead them to her food source.
At six and seven weeks, the kittens develop motor skills and eye-paw coordination. This is the age they begin playing with objects – leaves, toys, their siblings' tails – and the mother cat teaches them to hunt.
Kittens burn a lot of energy and require a high protein diet. Feed them specially-formulated kitten food (it's fine for the mother cat to have this, too – she also requires lots of calories).
At about two weeks old, you should begin handling the kittens (gently of course). If they are at four or five weeks old before their first human contact, they may spit and hiss. React calmly and make their first interaction with you a positive one. Arrange positive interactions with the other humans in the household and the family dog before eight weeks of age. (Avoid exposure with other cats in the household if the mother has not yet tested negative for infectious diseases.)
Kittens are ready to leave their mother by eight weeks. They may be separated earlier if appropriate care is given, but to have the benefit of their mother's milk and development of social skills through interactions with their litter, it is best to wait until eight weeks.
The final step
The day the last kitten went home, I called my vet for the next available appointment to have Birdie spayed and vaccinated. I scheduled the appointment for first thing in the morning, knowing that when she greeted me at the door to be fed would be my best shot of capturing her. I lost sleep that night, concerned that I wouldn't be able to pick her up or get her into the cat carrier, or that I'd be scratched and bitten in the process. Fortunately, the leather grilling gloves I wore for protection turned out to be overkill, as Birdie went right into the carrier with little fuss.
I had warned the vet in advance that I was bringing in a feral cat so he would be prepared for chaos, but again my concerns were unfounded. Birdie was extremely docile when released from the carrier for the examination. She checked out to be in relatively good health. She did have worms, which is typical for a cat living in the wild, and would require an oral de-worming treatment after her surgery.
I left Birdie in the capable hands of my vet for her surgery. When I picked her up the next morning, she seemed happy and relieved to see me. As I drove home with her carrier strapped in the back seat, she sat at the front of the carrier and meowed to me all the way home.
I confined Birdie to the screen porch with a litter box, intending to keep her there for a few days to recuperate before releasing her back to the woods. She took to the litter box right away, and spent most of the next few days sleeping on a little bed I made for her. I imagined she was catching up on her sleep after taking such diligent care of those kittens for the last eight weeks.
On the fourth day, I propped open the screen porch door so Birdie could leave. She walked out onto the deck, took a look around, and went right back to her bed. Over the next few days, she did leave for a bit, but always came back. On November 5, with the weather turning colder and after completing her course of worm treatment, Birdie moved into the house to stay.
Bringing a cat indoors
Before bringing a cat into your household or exposing it to your other cats, it should be examined by veterinarian, have tested negative for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, be up-to-date on vaccinations, and treated for any parasites. The cat should be neutered (spayed if female) by no later than six months of age to prevent inappropriate behaviors, like urination and howling, and unwanted pregnancies.
If the cat has not been housetrained, this generally can be accomplished quickly by keeping the cat in a confined area like a crate or even a tiled bathroom, with a litter box as its only option. After it begins using the litter box consistently, its space can be expanded. Some cats may try to use a potted plant as a litter box; if so, cover the dirt with aluminum foil.
Offer the cat a scratching post so it can engage in its instinctual scratching behavior on something other than your furniture. Rub the post with a little catnip to attract the cat's interest. Provide a variety of cat toys for entertainment. These need not be fancy; most cats find even bottle caps to be amusing.
A happy ending
Although many people told me I could never adopt a wild cat, Birdie has never tried to escape. She doesn't even go near the door, although she will sit in a window to watch the birds at the feeders where she once scrounged for food. She's friendly, affectionate, and will curl up on any available lap. She and the other cat are inseparable. She tolerates the dog, at least as much as we do. She's a fully integrated member of the family.
As I write this, I have trouble imagining the plump, happy cat curled up on the chair next to me as a scared, scrawny kitten eating bird seed to survive. I have come to realize we didn't adopt Birdie, she adopted us.