How Can I Domesticate a Feral Cat?

CatChannel expert Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, gives advice for trapping and socializing a feral cat.

By Marilyn Krieger | Posted: Jan. 9, 2009, 3 a.m. EST

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Q: I have a little black-and-white cat who was born in my back woods. He comes to my door every day for his meals. I feed him very well: chicken, beef and pork that I cook for him. My problem is that it’s cold in New York where I live in the country. The cat waits for me to close the door before he comes to the plate to eat. While he eats I talk to him, telling him that I love him and I want him to live in the house with me. I am having problems getting him inside. How can I get him in the house? After I catch him, I will take him to my vet for shots and everything else he needs. He will have a great home with me. Right now the cat lives in a rock pile where it’s very cold. I have named him Sweet Face. Please help me get this little one in my home. I think he’s about 1 year old.

A: There are a couple of ways to convince a cat to come indoors. One takes time; the other is a more immediate approach. Since you have inclement weather, I recommend the immediate approach. Trap Sweet Face as quickly as possible using a humane trap. A popular one is the Havahart trap. Some humane societies will lend you the trap or charge a nominal rental fee. Bait the trap with an irresistible and smelly food such as sardines or tuna. Cover the trap with a towel or a sheet and make sure to check the trap often for occupants. Don’t be surprised if you trap other animals, including raccoons and the neighbor’s cats!

I recommend that immediately after you trap Sweet Face, you take him to your veterinarian while he is still in the trap. Don’t release him in your house and then try to catch him later to take him to the vet. Since he is essentially feral, it would be very challenging and maybe impossible for you recapture him and put him in a carrier. Instead make arrangements beforehand with your veterinarian so she and her staff will be expecting Sweet Face after you trap him. Sweet Face will need a check-up, vaccinations, neutering and maybe a deworming.

After Sweet Face is given a clean bill of health by your veterinarian you can release him in your home. Have one room made up just for him. The room should be darkened and contain boxes or cat furniture for him to hide in. He will also need food, water, comfortable places to sleep and multiple cat boxes.

It will probably take a long time for Sweet Face to become socialized. The younger cats are, the faster they socialize. A cat who is 1 year old will take much longer to socialize then a kitten. Many years ago I caught a 2-year-old feral cat. It took six months for him to come out from under the bed and another year until he felt safe enough to start integrating and socializing with the other members of the family.

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How Can I Domesticate a Feral Cat?

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Reader Comments

CatChannel Editor    Irvine, CA

11/7/2013 10:37:23 AM

Lee -- That is a tough situation. Moving ferals isn't advised; these cats acclimate to their environment and because they're less socialized than pet cats, they won't take well to the process of moving.

Enlisting the help of a local cat advocacy group is a better bet. Conduct a web search to see if there are people who care for feral cats in your area. Also, you can contact Alley Cat Allies for additional advice: www.alleycat.org

Lee    Folsom, LA

11/5/2013 8:34:51 AM

I have been taking care of a feral cat for 3 years. I first discovered her right after I moved into this house in 2010, she was an emaciated kitten, and even though she would eat food I put out for her she would not let me approach her. Over the period of a year I managed to win her total trust and now she is more like my pet cat who happens to live outside. She does like coming indoors and playing with my other cats toys, she is Very affectionate and loves having physical contact with you. Unfortunately she is terrified of my elder cat Chari. Chari often will chase her up trees. I have to move later this month to another town and I'm really distraught about the prospect of having to leave her behind and never seeing her again. Where I’m going is a smaller space in the city, and this a cat that has always lived outside in the country. Even though she does spend most of her waking time around my house, she always ultimately goes back to a barn on a neighboring property to sleep. If it wasn’t for Chari I think she would like living indoors, she loves sleeping on beds and the finer things in life, but I’m afraid that taking her out of her habitat that she has always known and confining her to a small indoor space with Chari. She is very bonded to me, but I don’t know what would be worst for her, taking away from her home or her losing the only friend she has. I’m the only human that she trusts.
If I have to leave her behind, it’s going to be rough on me for sure, but I don’t want to ruin her life because of my selfish needs. I’m moving an hour away so I guess I could still back some time and try to see her, but it’s not practical and my neighbor who owned the property where she stays has been sold to people that I don’t know and who only use it as a weekend getaway, so I would have to technically trespass to get to her.
Any knowledgeable advice would be appreciated; I have 4 weeks to figure out what I’m going to do.

lisa    Rochester, MI

7/7/2013 6:33:19 PM

I started feeding a feral who was hanging out around my yard at the end of August last year, that is 11 months ago now. I learned trap-neuter-return (TNR) from a local org's workshop, trapped him at the beginning of November, he got neutered and vaccinations, then I released him back into his territory, ie my yard. I started working through all the issues for sheltering and feeding him, knowing the winter would be rough, and though the TNR workshop had been a very helpful starting point, taking care of this one cat outdoors through the winter presented many new challenges that I had to work through differently than they had recommended. Maybe it was because of the TNR philosophy and training that I really never seriously considered bringing him into my home-his being outside worried me tremendously but the outdoors was his home, he was terrified of people and the feeling of being "trapped", and I thought I could figure this out so he could have a good quality of life in the outdoors. Also, I felt strongly that my inside cats would not accept him. Although he will never be truly tame, he is loving and trusting of me, knows his name and several words, comes when called (also comes when I ring a bell), lets me pick him up to place him on my lap (most of the time), I can occasionally trim his front paw nails, and he even uses a kitty door to let himself into my garage now! I have set the garage all up for him, he has beds and toys, and food and water there, even heat and AC. We hang out together in the garage, also on the patio outside, as I have made my back yard comfortable for him. It was slow, small baby steps over the months, also he reached out for love and made it happen. He is brave and smart, loving and adaptable. I don't think he could ever be a happy house cat--and this is hard on me because I really don't believe any cats should be outdoors! But we have worked a sort of compromise, he is free to come and go into the garage through his cat door. I just wanted to add this to the discussion as maybe an option that might work for others.

CHERYL    SURPRISE, AZ

1/17/2013 10:16:04 PM

I CAUGHT A LARGE BLACK TOM CAT IN NEW HAMPSHIRE IN A HAVAHEART TRAP AFTER FEEDING HIM FOR SPRING, WINTER AND SPRING AGAIN... AS FALL APPROACHED, I REALIZED THAT THIS CAT MAY NOT SURVIVE.I WAS SO SADDENED TO SEE HIM RUN THRU 2 FEET OF SNOW INTO THE WOODS AS I LIVED IN A RURAL AREA. I DECIDED TO TRAP HIM.. I DID, HE WAS BERSERK AS I CARRIED THE TRAP INDOORS.. A WILD PANTHER... I TOOK HIM TO THE THEN CALICO CAT FELINE CLINIC. I SAID, PLEASE TEST HIM FOR LEUKEMIA, AIDS. AND IF HE TESTS NEG. PLEASE, NEUTER HIM., GIVE ALL SHOTS, WORM HIM, CLIP HIS NAILS AND CLEAN HIS TEETH IF HE NEEDS IT... THE VET HAD TO ANESTHETIZE ,HIM IN THE CAGE.. HE CHECKED OUT WELL ,WAS THOUGHT TO BE 3-5 YEARS OLD. AND LONG STORY SHORT I HAD BACI, AS I HAD NAMED HIM FOR 11 YEARS.. INDOORS WITH MY OTHER CATS... EVERYONE WAS AFRAID OF HIM AS HE WAS LARGE . BUT HE WAS SHY AND AFRAID.. I NEVER WAS ABLE TO HOLD HIM ON MY LAP. BUT AFTER ABOUT 6 YEARS I WAS ABLE TO BRUSH HIM SOMEWHAT AS LONG AS HE FELT SAFE. ON A HIGH CAT TREE... HE BEGAN WALKING PAST ME AS I SAT ON THE SOFA. AND WALKED AROUND LIKE ONE OF MY OTHER CATS.. ONE COULD NEVER APPROACH HIM ON FLOOR LEVEL... WHEN HE HAD TO GO BACK TO THE VET. IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT AS I HAD TO GET HIM INTO A BEDROOM WITH NO FURNITURE AND GET HIM INTO A LARGE CAGE . SOMETIMES HE WOULD HAVE A BOWEL MOVEMENT WHILE RUNNING FROM ME... BUT WE WOULD GET TO THE DOCTOR. I HAVE NEVER QUESTIONED MY DECISION TO TAKE HIM IN. I GAVE MY BEAUTIFUL BACI (KISSES IN ITALIAN.)A LONG LIFE THAT HE WOULD NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD.. I NOW HAVE ONE CAT WHO WAS SEMI-WILD . ALSO FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE. BUT MUCH YOUNGER AT THE TIME , IS NOW 19 YEARS OLD.. A TINY ORANGE TABBY, NAMED SHADOWFAX,. IT TAKES MUCH PATIENCE AND MUCH LEARNING ON THE COMPUTER OR AT THE LIABRARY TO TAKE IN A SEMI-FERAL OR FERAL ANIMAL. IT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. YOU WILL BE BITTEN. AND STRUCK AT. BUT I HAVE BEEN BLESSED TO GIVE LIFE TO TWO CATS WHO WOULD NOT HAVE SURVIVED MUCH LONGER IN THE BRUTAL RURAL WOODS OF NEW HAMSHIRE.

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