Feral cats and how to tame them:
When cats grow up without human contact they are said to be “feral”. Feral cats don’t know how to interact with humans and so they act like wild animals. Since cats are hunted by other animals in the wild, their instinct is to assume that any big animal is a predator that is trying to kill it. When a feral cat encounters a human it thinks it has to get away or it is going to be killed.
This leads to the belief is that feral cats are difficult, if not impossible to tame. This is not true. In fact as I write this a feral cat that I caught and neutered 10 days ago is sitting watching me. He is still purring because I just finished petting him. He is not ready to sit in my lap yet and he is still jumpy, but he is well on his way to becoming completely tame. Soon it will be impossible to tell that he was ever “feral”.
So far all the cats I have worked with become tame, although none as quick as this little guy.
It actually is not that hard, nor does it require much of my time, although the process usually takes several weeks to complete.
Here in its absolute bare-bones form is what I do:
- I know the cat is scared of humans, but I know it has to eat.
- I put the cat in a room in which I have created a small cave like place for the cat to hide.
- I completely respect the hiding place. I never approach the cat when it is in there, nor do I let myself get between the cat and the hiding place. It has to be able to bolt back to its “safe spot” anytime it wants.
- I control the food. This does not mean that I starve the cat. The cat gets plenty to eat. However, the food is served in small portions throughout the day. I make a distinctive noise each time I serve the food, a whistle, a bell, even a specific word. The cat soon learns to associate me and the noise with food.
- I feed the cat many times a day and each time I get just a little bit closer until eventually the cat lets me touch it.
- Once the cat enjoys being touched I continue the “one small step” process until I can pick the cat up, put it in my lap, pet its belly, look in its ears, check its teeth and gums and generally “mess it around” and it not only lets me, but actually enjoys it as part of the “petting/loving process”.
Now the cat is tame.Here is the complete process in detail:
I live on a ranch that had a large population of feral cats living on it. My wife and I with the help of a local charity called “Catalyst for Cats” have trapped and neutered approximately 60 cats here. Now instead of lots of half starved diseased cats, dead kittens and fighting toms there is a stable population of well fed healthy adult cats that keep the place rodent free.
The taming process starts when we learn of a cat that has not been fixed. We put out a humane trap in the area that the cat was seen. On a regular basis we go to the trap, put food in it and whistle. More on this later. Since the cats are usually malnourished we feed them generously for a few weeks so they are in better health for the surgery.
We feel like the lowest of the low when it comes time to trap them for the surgery. However they don’t seem to hold it against us and is hard to believe that the well fed healthy cats lounging around the house and sleeping on the warm little beds in the shelters we have created for them are not happier than the pathetic little bundles of skin and bones that used to be here. They certainly live a lot longer.
The cat is returned to us late in the afternoon in the trap, conscious but still dopey from the anesthetic and pain medication. We bring the cat home and put it in my office which now doubles as “the taming room”. We leave the cat in the covered trap as it continues to recover from surgery until we are absolutely sure it will not need further medical attention. Once the cat is released from the trap, getting it back in to take it to the vet would be very difficult and could easily cause further injury to the cat (and the catchers!).
The room has been carefully inspected to make sure there is absolutely no way out. We have learned not to underestimate the strength, cunning and determination of a wild cat. They cut through screens with their claws, they dig out under fences, they gnaw on wood and plastic and they will mess around with a door or window incessantly. If a latch is the least bit suspect they’ll often get it open just from shear persistence. They will pull on loose paneling or ventilation ducts and are especially attracted to any area that leaks air from outside. It is very important to have a second door between the “taming room” and “outside”.
We make one hiding area for the cat. I call it “the cave”. A space about three feet long by about 18 inches wide and about 12 to 18 inches high works well. It should be closed at one end and the other end should have a small entrance about 6 to 8 inches square. My wife always insists on putting some nice soft bedding material down by the closed end. And she’s right. The cats certainly seem to enjoy it!
The rest of the room should be fairly spartan. When the cat is hiding I want to know where it is so that I don’t accidentally get too close. I’m never going to tame a cat that is constantly wondering if I’m about to sneak up on it. The cat needs a safe place to hide and I need to know where that is so I can stay away.
Obviously the cat is going to need a place to “do its business”. Luckily, if they are provided with a decent catbox, these cats seem to know what to do. Every one of the cats I have tamed so far (about 30) have faithfully used the catbox I provide. Bless them!
I use a low sided storage tub. It is about 24 inches long, 18 inches wide and about 8 inches high. I use the granular clumping litter from Costco and pour in all the 40 pound container. If I keep the litter deep enough, no waste ever touches the bottom of the catbox so it doesn’t get dirty. Regular scooping out of the waste is the only “cleaning” that needs to be done.
I put the catbox relatively close to the front of the cave, so it is easy for the cat to find and they aren’t nervous about being a long way from the “safe zone”.
When I bring the cat back from the vet I place the trap so that the cat will be “aimed” at the cave when it walks out. I put a plate of food and a bowl of water just outside the trap. As I wrote earlier, once I am absolutely sure the cat is recovering properly from surgery and there is no chance it may suddenly need emergency treatment, I open the trap. Then I leave the room.
I know the cat is frightened by the situation and it is so tempting to try to and “calm” the cat by keeping it company. However, I have to accept that this is a wild animal and it does not find my presence soothing. In fact my presence is absolutely terrifying. The kindest thing I can do is leave.
The Taming process
There are three things I concentrate on as I work with the cat:
- One: Trust. I must show the cat that I can be trusted
- Two: Goodness. I want the cat to learn that good things happen when I am around.
- Three: Pace: Too fast and the cat is nervous. Just right and the cat actually enjoys the process. There is no “too slow”.
Although my end goal is to get close to the cat and be able to touch it, the more I focus on that the worse my results will be. When I successfully focus on and achieve the three ideas listed above, the distance between the cat and me just melts away.
A bit of a paradox really. One of those “Zen” things.
So what do I mean by the cat learning to “trust” me?
Simple: I never sneak up on it. I am bigger than the cat. In the wild animals that are bigger than the cat usually want to kill the cat and eat it. They do so by sneaking up on the cat when its guard is down. Cats, especially feral cats that have been in the wild several generations, automatically assume that a large animal is a predator until the large animal proves it is not.
Let’s trade places with the cat for a moment. Let’s say we are on our way to dinner one evening and we get snatched off the street and tossed into the Alaskan Brown bear enclosure at the local zoo. If the bear comes ambling in our direction we are going to be terrified. “This is it. We’re dead meat.” But maybe the bear doesn’t even know we exist yet. Maybe it’s just headed off to its favorite napping spot. We don’t know the bear means no harm. Imagine how the bear would have to behave in order to gain our trust. How long would it take for us to trust the bear enough to willingly walk over to it, climb into its lap and take a nap?
I try to keep some sense of what the cat might be feeling as I work through this process.
Here’s a small example of the kind of thing I do. If I come blasting into the taming room I may catch the cat out of the cave. This terrifies it and it goes tearing into hiding in a wild panic. Terrifying the cat is not good. Instead of just throwing the door open, I knock and then wait a few moments. The cats may not know what the knock means the first time, but they pick up the idea pretty quickly. Now when I enter the room the cat is safely hidden away and the encounter is much less frightening.
The first couple of days after the surgery I try to leave the cat alone as much as possible. I simply pick up the feeding routine that it had gotten used to before it was trapped. I use a long stick with a scoop on the end to place the food at the entrance to the cave. At first the cat is too scared to come out from hiding until after we go to bed, but soon it becomes more courageous and jumps on the food as soon as the door closes behind me. Once the cat is comfortable enough to come out and start eating immediately I start giving much smaller portions, but much more often. Repetition is one of the best ways to learn. There’s a knock on the door. The monster comes in, makes the food noise and goes away. Now there is food to eat. The cat soon learns this routine.
After a day or two I start using the office again. I use the “scoop stick” to place food at the entrance to the cave while keeping myself at a respectful distance. Then I work quietly at the computer for a few hours. It may not happen the first day, or even the second, but eventually a quiet crunching will announce that the cat has decided it’s safe to eat in my presence. This is one of the big milestones. Once the cat will eat with me in the room I know things are progressing nicely.
Now I just make it a routine. Every so often I make the food noise and put a few nuggets of food at the entrance to the cave. Once again, lots of repetition helps the cat learn that eating in my presence is a perfectly normal and enjoyable experience.
This next part is going to sound “hokey” to some of you but it is an important part of the process. While the cat is eating I make sure to talk to it in a loving and compassionate voice. Other than using the cat’s name a lot it doesn’t really matter what I say. The feeling behind the vocalizing does. The cat will learn to associate the voice with a time when it is happy (eating). Later on this association will be useful.
How I make that decision to start moving the eating place closer to me and how quickly I move it is hard to describe. It varies from cat to cat, but I try hard to sense whether the cat is comfortable or not. One clue is how long it takes the cat to start eating after I put the food down. A cat that is confident reacts immediately and excitedly to the food noise. It is not the least bit “shy” of the food scoop. It may try to start eating out of the scoop before I get a chance to tip the food out, or it may slap the scoop with its foot so that the food comes out sooner. The cat eats without stopping until all the food is gone. On the other hand, if the cat doesn’t react to the food noise it is probably still nervous. If the eating stops every time I move or make a noise, that’s a pretty good sign the cat’s not yet comfortable. Of course a lack of response could just mean it is still full from the last meal. We (and I’m guilty of this too) tend to overfeed our animals. When I first started working with these cats it took me a long time to accept just how small “one day’s portion” really was. Except for rare treats the cats I look after only get dry food and they go crazy for it at feeding time. Yet most of them are slightly overweight which means I’m still feeding them too much. If you are working with a cat and it seems uninterested in food, it’s probably getting too much. Cats are not finicky eaters unless they are full, or ill.
Some signs that the cat is beginning to accept
and enjoy the situation:
- It starts poking its head out of the cave to see what I’m up to.
- It starts “hanging out” outside the cave. It may be nervous and jittery and it may duck back in the cave from time to time, but it is obviously interested in me and what I’m up to, even if it is a little nervous.
- It gives me what I call “the wink”. It is usually sitting, watching me and when it sees me looking at it, both its eyes narrow (as if it was starting to close them) just for a moment. Prolonged eye contact is said to be frightening to a cat, but I often initiate “the wink” as a way to try and communicate that I am friendly.
A cat that is happy, confident and feeling friendly will almost always stick its tail straight up in the air and will often rub its head or its whole body on objects in the room.
A cat that is nervous keeps looking around and also keeps its ears swiveling around. Its ears may also be held down close to its head and its eyes are usually open very wide. Its body and tail will be held close to the floor and it just seems tense and jumpy. If the cat runs out, grabs a mouthful of food and disappears back into the cave to eat, it is almost certainly nervous and I am moving too quickly for it. A video recording of the cat eating after the people are asleep for the night is a good way to find out how the cat looks when it is relaxed.
If I see the body language that tells me the cat is comfortable with the situation, then I keep gently moving the “feeding place” closer and closer to me, otherwise I hold off for a while or even go back a step or two. If in doubt I go more slowly.
It might happen in a few days or it might take a couple of weeks, but there will come a time when the cat comes out of the cave when I make the food noise and eats just a few feet away from me with no signs of nervousness.
By now it is probably quite happy to roam around, give itself a bath and even take a nap outside the cave even though I am in the room. The next step is to have the cat accept being touched. I use a stick about 3 or 4 feet long and I hold it close to the cat while it is eating. Once it accepts the stick being nearby, I start moving it a bit. Once the cat is comfortable eating with a stick “floating around” nearby, the next step is to ever so gently and almost “accidentally” brush the cat with it for just a moment. The back of the neck and their sides seem to spook them the least. I “talk” to the cat constantly while I am doing this. By now they have learned to like the sound of my voice and just talking will usually result in the all of the relaxed, friendly behavior I described earlier. If touching them with the stick makes them jump, I back off a bit, keep talking and all is “forgiven”. Over time I build up until I am essentially “petting” the cat with the stick.
I really make sure I move slowly at this stage. It is important that they get in the habit of enjoying being touched.
The next stage is to start moving towards being able to touch them with my hand. I get there by moving my hand farther and farther down the stick as I pet them until there is no stick left and my hand is touching the cat. Each time I give them a little bite to eat I make just a little bit more progress. Whether it takes two hours or two weeks just depends on the cat but either way it’s important not to rush at this stage. When my fingers are just a few inches away I find it very tempting to just reach out that last little bit and touch the cat. Occasionally a cat that is deep in the “petting trance” as I call it may let me get away with it, but most of the time they notice. Then they glance around they see me looming over them, much closer than they are used to and they bolt. Now I have to go back several steps In the end it’s really not worth it. I have learned and I can’t emphasize enough, that slow and steady, step by step is the fastest way to get to the end of this process.
When I think I may start touching the cat I wear gloves. Cats often “test” an unknown object by giving it a healthy slap with a paw or even a quick test bite. While neither causes any serious injury they can both be painful on bare skin.
If the cat uses teeth or claws on me, I instantly move away, gently say “No”, pick up the food and leave for at least 10 minutes. They learn quite quickly.
Remember that up until now all of this has been happening in those few short minutes that the cat has been eating. The cat accepts all this other nonsense that I have been doing because it associates it with the pleasurable experience of eating. The final step is to get the cat to come to be petted “just because”. I start by calling it over and giving it a food treat. At the same time I start petting it. After a while I start leaving out the food part.
Another way is to start by talking to the cat and then ever so slowly inching my way towards it until I can reach it with either with the stick or my hand. Once the cat is enjoying the petting, I back away and then make the approach all over again. Repetition is one of the best training tools there is. Did I mentioned that already? If every approach to the cat is followed by a period of pleasurable petting it’s not long before I can approach the cat normally anytime I want.
Once being touched is something the cat enjoys, I gradually start getting them used to being touched all over. Perhaps in the middle of a petting session I might run my hand down a leg just once and then go back to normal petting immediately as if nothing just happened.
I continue the same sort of very gradual approach as I get them to accept being picked up. First they have to get used to being petted with two hands. Then I can take just a little bit of the weight off the front legs just for a moment. Eventually I pick the front legs off the ground for a moment, then the back. Always talking to the cat and going straight back to “normal” petting the moment I put them down.
Once again at this stage I wear gloves. I am ready to let go instantly if the cat even hints at tensing up and struggling. The gloves are on just in case I react too slowly. As before I go straight back to petting normally and of course I’m talking in my most friendly voice all the time.
The reason I’m so careful about picking them up is that I am going against a very powerful instinct. In the wild the only time an adult cat is picked up is when it is in the jaws of a predator. If anything should trigger the maximum possible defensive measures this is it! However, if I release my grip instantly even if this means I’m dropping the cat from two or three feet in the air and go back to petting it normally the cat relaxes and everything is fine. They soon come to accept being picked up as they have come to accept everything else I have done to them.
However I am always wary of carrying a cat from one place to another. Any kind of a loud noise can trigger the panic response and it is almost impossible to hold on to a panicked cat even if I am willing to accept a lot of pain and lots of nasty injuries. Holding the scruff of their neck firmly while their weight is supported by my other hand helps a lot, but the only really secure way to move a cat is to get it used to being in a cat carrier.
Once the cat will let you approach it, pet it and pick it up you can more or less consider it tame. It will probably still be jumpy around new people, but will come to accept them quite quickly. To be able to live “harmoniously” with any cat, recently tamed or otherwise, I find it useful to have them get used to eating in a carrier. I make the food noise and then put food in the carrier. Before long the cat will run into the carrier when I make the signal. I make closing the door and spending 5 or 10 minutes in the carrier part of the normal routine. Should the need ever arise I have a simple easy way of transporting the cat.
How much farther you want to take the taming/training process is up to you at this point. Cats can easily be trained to do “tricks”, to walk on leashes, to enjoy rides in the car and “on leash” walks in the park. I have noticed that cats actually seem to really enjoy “clicker” training. (click here for more info) They are eager to learn the tricks and purr and act affectionately the entire time. A session of clicker training can even be a way to sooth an anxious or irritable cat.
There is a lot of detail here, but really it can all be boiled down to three things:
- One: Don’t scare the cat
- Two: Be nice to it!
- Three: Don’t rush.
Many of the ideas presented here can be applied to working with animals of all species and degrees of tameness. Hopefully you find them useful. Feed back is always welcome. firstname.lastname@example.org