September 10, 2009 10:24 AM   Subscribe

I've bonded with a stray cat in the neighborhood. I have no idea if he can successfully become a house cat. How do I figure out – and do – what’s best for him?

We call this little guy Bonus Cat. We've seen him hanging around the neighborhood since we moved here, and I see him at least every couple of days. I feed him every now and then. He follows me around, and will curl up on my lap and purr. I've talked to a couple people in the neighborhood, and no one knows where he came from.

I'm fairly certain he's a stray. He's very thin and goes absolutely nuts when I give him food; he's easily spooked and jumps at sudden movements and loud noises; we've seen him with some pretty bad scrapes and skin troubles that would easily warrant a vet visit. (We've attempted to get him to a vet in the past, but he's thwarted our efforts, and he's made quite impressive recoveries from the injuries we've seen.) He's not neutered, which I'd like to get fixed regardless.

On the other hand, he's definitely used to people: it didn't take him long at all to warm up to me, and he will curl himself around the legs of other pedestrians in the neighborhood. He's very gentle and friendly by any cat standards; I think he may have been a pet at one time, and was abandoned.

I'm trying to earn his trust little by little, getting him used to being a people cat. Occasionally I pick him up, carry him a few feet, and let him back down, so he can get used to being held without associating it with anything negative. I've been trying to get him to come inside the house, too, and sometimes he'll come in, but he won't venture past the entryway. He seems afraid of the indoors.

Generally speaking, it seems like it'd be better for a cat to have people and live indoors, but I'm not sure if Bonus Cat agrees. I'm not sure how well he'd adjust to being taken from his home turf (even if he became my cat, I'm going to move eventually), and I'm not sure if he'd have behavioral issues that would prevent him from being adoptable. I'm sure he sprays, I don't know if he'd use a litter box, and I generally have no idea how he'd react to living indoors even part-time.

What's best for this guy? Should I attempt to housecat-ify him, or continue to let him hang out in the neighborhood and just give him food and ear-scritches when I can? And if I do go the house cat route, how exactly can I best do this and how long will it take?
posted by Metroid Baby to Pets & Animals (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of shelter resources say that feral cats cannot be socialized once they are no longer kittens, but I have not found this to be true. I have seen them socialized pretty much in the manner you describe: feed it; get it used to being handled; let it come in and out for a short time, providing bedding, food, water and litter inside; then eventually stop letting it go back out.

PAWS Chicago has a feral cat colony keeper program and their information indicates that an older feral cat who is comfortable being handled is a good candidate to become a housecat. In any event, I'd check with the best local no-kill animal group you have locally for advice on how to get him in to a vet for vaccinations and neutering.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:35 AM on September 10, 2009

I once housified a kitten who hated people. She would hiss at us and run away. It was the argument of chicken livers that allowed her to give up survival of the fittest in favor of intelligent design. Unfortunately, since the kitten had lived out in the world unvaccinated, she had feline leukemia and died of it a few months later.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:36 AM on September 10, 2009

I'd let Bonus Cat (great name) keep doing his thing outside for the time being. You can take the cat out of the wild, but you can't take the wild out of a cat. If he starts hanging around more and more, maybe reevaluate.
posted by Damn That Television at 10:37 AM on September 10, 2009

Here's some general info about feral cats from the ASPCA.

Ask your vet if he/she works with (or knows of) any cat rescue and/or trap-neuter-release organizations. They'll be able to answer your questions and, at the very least, will help get him neutered.

He's awfully damn cute.
posted by dogrose at 10:39 AM on September 10, 2009

Best answer: It took years to earn the trust of some ferals cats I had. On the other hand, I've had raccoons cheerfully wander into the kitchen and eat dogfood before I've closed the door. Having said that, if he's an animal amenable to handling, he is far along the process of re-domestication. What he's afraid of is being trapped indoors. That fear seems to drop dramatically as the outside temperature does.

Leave the door open, put food a few feet in. Sit a ways away on the couch or whatever and ignore him. If he happens to make eye contact, blink very slowly, as if you are about to fall asleep. That's a trust signal between cats — I can doze in front of you without worrying about you clawing open my face.

Stay low to the ground. If he approaches you and begins to sniff at your mouth, you may open your mouth slightly, then look up and away. Exhale as lightly as you can imagine. I have yet to run across a cat who will not take this invitation to sniff more. Cats do the mouth sniff, as far as I can tell, when they want to know what you've been eating. I've seen them pick up the scent of something they find edible that I've eaten, then go and find scraps of what it is I've had. I've seen fewer dogs pull this.

The feral cats litter-trained just about instantly.

If he's been maltreated by people, that throws behavioral issues into the mix, and these are not predictable. You can only add time and trust to that equation, I'm afraid.
posted by adipocere at 10:39 AM on September 10, 2009 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I would get him in, then keep him in for a couple weeks. This will get him used to you and the house. Get him checked out at the vets, and get him fixed.

Then, I would allow him to go out. My bet is that he sticks around because it takes a lot less energy to get food from you than it would for him to dumpster-dive, or however he was feeding himself.

If he is the only cat in your house, it should be pretty easy to litter-train him. He seems like a sweety. . .good luck.
posted by Danf at 10:39 AM on September 10, 2009

Best answer: Feeding him multiple times a day - in small amounts helps. The faster he associates you with food, the less he is going to want to go "hunting." If you have a bell you can ring to call him (feed him when you see him around and ring the bell when he's eating) you'll build up more good feelings towards you.
posted by bigmusic at 10:40 AM on September 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a cat (Mr. Kitten) that I found outdoors, and he behaved a lot like Bonus Cat. He was very skittish, etc. I fed him and would sit next to the food dish, letting him get closer and closer. One day, I had an open carrier right behind the food bowl. He started eating, I threw him in the carrier, and moved him inside. It took him about a day to adjust. Warmed right up to me, never wanted to go back out. Got him neutered, and he was my best friend for 15 years. Give it a try with Bonus Cat. Cats will learn to the litter box in no time at all. (there were no potty accidents with Mr. Kitten).
posted by bolognius maximus at 10:44 AM on September 10, 2009

This may not be particularly helpful, but our newest cat is a stray and had no trouble adjusting to the indoors. But, she was an especially friendly cat when we found her, so there's definitely some selection bias. If it had been skittish or nasty, we wouldn't have taken her home.
posted by electroboy at 10:46 AM on September 10, 2009

If you do get it to a vet, you should probably check to see if it has an ID chip; it could be somebody else's bonus cat that they'd love to have home.
posted by Think_Long at 10:51 AM on September 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

gorgeous feline by the way
posted by Think_Long at 10:51 AM on September 10, 2009

If Bonus Cat is curling up in your lap and approaching other people in the neighborhood, he is not feral. This is undoubtedly a lost or abandoned pet, who will in all likelihood quickly reacclimate to domesticity. I like Danf's advice; this is an approach I have used in similar situations with great success.
posted by timeo danaos at 10:53 AM on September 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

I don't know if you can successfully domesticate Bonus Cat (and he sounds sweet but sad, so I certainly hope so), but if you can, be prepared for behavioral weirdness that could be ongoing.

When we adopted our cat Imogene as a kitten from the SPCA, they told us that she'd been feral and unsocialized. They had to keep her by herself and she wasn't great with people, and they said if she'd gotten much older, they wouldn't have been able to let anyone adopt her at all. They warned about dire things about how she might never bond with us at all.

The transition when Imogene got home was difficult, but eventually, we did bond. Now, she looooooves (but also haaaaaaates) her personal humans. She's still pretty much terrified of strangers and prone to mood swings, bitey neediness, and general twitchiness that are extreme even for a cat. We adore her beyond reason, but still think of her as a "special needs cat" who exhibits a feralish tendencies from time to time. She's pretty lucky to have hooked up with a couple of humans who don't think she's a bad cat just because she's vaguely unhinged.

Now, it's entirely possible that the business works different with an adult feral cat than it does with a feral kitten, plus it already sounds like he's becoming attached to you. I still think it's best to be prepared for the idea that even if Bonus Cat does come to be your personal kitty, he may never achieve total housecat behavior. Can you handle it if he ends up being a "special needs" kitty? If you're committed to him and he learns to love you enough, it can be very worthwhile.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:58 AM on September 10, 2009

I'm trying to earn his trust little by little, getting him used to being a people cat. Occasionally I pick him up, carry him a few feet, and let him back down

That you can do this at all is a very good sign.

My downstairs neighbor has adopted two neighborhood ferals - they were always hanging out in the backyard together. The male, Hurley, was not fixed, but was very friendly and had clearly been someone's pet at some point. The female, Ginger, was (and still is) much more skittish. She managed to convert Hurley into an indoor/outdoor cat within a year or so; Ginger was a much longer-term project, close to three years. Neighbor would feed her regularly on the back porch; then she began feeding her indoors, but with the door open, because Ginger would freak out if the door was shut. She is only friendly with me if downstairs neighbor is close by.

Now they're both indoor/outdoor cats who come when they're called for dinner; they sleep inside, and they spend part of each day hanging out in the backyard (weather permitting). Hurley in particular is a big fan of the indoors - soft pillows to sleep on, a gas fireplace, humans to pet you and feed you - what's not to love?

FWIW, my cats are indoor-only; I've lived with indoor-outdoor cats, and the agony of not knowing where they are when they don't come home is too much for me. My cats have always been fine as indoor-only, but they've never known anything different, either.
posted by rtha at 11:02 AM on September 10, 2009

Ditto danf and timeo danaos. This is almost certainly not a feral cat, but an abandoned pet who had been socialized to people as a kitten. Here's the ASPCA's advice on strays.

But my advice would be: bait him into a cat carrier with food, take him to a vet, assuming he's not microchipped and you can't otherwise get a lead on an owner, then get him neutered and checked out, bring him home and give him love.
posted by Zed at 11:22 AM on September 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I adore my adopted stray/maybe feral cat. But...

She was obviously severely neglected when I took her in. She was emaciated, missing clumps of hair, and when I took her to the vet I learned that she'd had several litters in her short life. She was pregnant when I finally let her in the house (though I didn't know that initially, nor did my vet). I was able to get her fixed after having kittens and was lucky to learn that she was disease-free.

I LOVE Shiksa. She's the most affectionate and generally mindful cat I've ever had. But it took her a loooooong time to get that way. As a super-stray, her marking in the house was terrible. She hardly ever does it anymore, but it took a couple years for it to totally taper off. Also, because she was fixed at two or three years old, it took quite awhile for her hormonal instincts to die down. She ruined the flooring surrounding my front and back doors trying to scratch her way out when she got the urge. This has also since stopped.

Maybe she was on the extreme end of the homeless spectrum, but I'd definitely check this guy for territorial behavior before committing to his being a house cat. While I'd do it over again for my pet, the amount of household damage and general frustration was pretty high in my experience.
posted by macrowave at 11:25 AM on September 10, 2009

Nthing that any cat that will let you pick them up and sit on your lap is definitely not feral; he's been somebody's pet at some point in his life. A good pet as well - there are some overly domesticated cats that aren't even this friendly.

My Kilo was rescued as a stray barn cat, but given her ridiculously friendly nature, it's obvious she has been a pet before. She was sleeping in my laps 10 mins after I got her in my apartment (from a rescue org that had only had her a few days before I fostered/adopted her). She was also pregnant. She's never had an accident (well, except for the time she went into the box but pooped with her butt hanging over the edge), and doesn't even really seem to miss outside. I also kept two of her kittens; one of whom is the most affectionate cat in the world, and the other that hates being picked up and won't sit on my lap for treats nor tuna.

I guess what I'm trying to say is -- it's all luck of the draw. But you've got a good starter stray :). I think the first step would be to get him inside and to trust you enough to get him to the vet for a checkup and neuter. Then bring him home, love him, feed him and treat him well, and play it by ear. If he takes to the litter box but is always trying to escape, he may need to be an indoor/outdoor cat (who may over time become indoor only, especially as the weather turns). If he takes up permanent residence on your couch, you now have an indoor cat :) And if it sadly turns out that he just can't adapt and destroys your house, then he might just be better outside and coming to you for food. At least he's better off being neutered and fed. But only he can tell you which of those situations he'll favor and adapt to. No too cats are totally identical.

Also -- check with your local SPCA or rescue org about fees to get him neutered. They may do it for free. Worst case scenario, the SPCA will most likely do it for much less than a vet will. My kittens were both spayed at an SPCA spay & neuter clinic which changed a quarter of what their vet wanted.
posted by cgg at 11:50 AM on September 10, 2009

Best answer: When we had what must have been an abandoned cat, we got him to be willing to come inside by regularly moving the food a little further in each day -- at first it was outside, then the door was wide open and it was just inside, then inside but still with nothing between the food and the door, then, eventually, far enough inside that we could shut the door a bit, and then he just suddenly moved right in for months on end. (He did this at two homes for several years, then eventually chose the other home, though he still visits every month or two.) It took about a month to 6 weeks to move from "won't go in the house" to "hides if you open a door near him in case you kick him back outside".

Once you have him used to being inside, it's a lot easier to get him to be neutered. Even if he ends up being an outdoor cat that you feed, it's better to be a neutered cat than not (both for him and for the feral cat population). Just keep feeding him regularly until you can move him inside. It sounds like you're likely to be successful at transitioning him to pethood.
posted by jeather at 12:05 PM on September 10, 2009

One of our cats started out as a Bonus Cat. We put a box on its side, stuffed with towels, on the back porch, next to food and water. He got used to hanging around because we fed him every day, and even started sleeping in the box. He was skittish for a while, but then he got bolder and walked through the open back door to eat the other cat's food, and realized that he was onto a seriously good thing.

One caveat: We took in Bonus Cat II, a tiny white flea-ridden and starving kitty. When we took her to the SPCA, the vet found her microchip and said that she had a home and had to be returned to the owner -- who lived near us. Despite the fact that she had been neglected and that the owner hadn't even bothered to search for her for the two weeks we had her, she had to go back. We were heartbroken.

So you might want to take Bonus Cat to a vet that won't check microchips, just in case you become really attached to him. (The other side of that is that you could take him in and then post notices everywhere about a Found Cat and maybe get him reunited with his people, but it sounds like they're long gone.)

Good luck, and thank you for caring about this kitty.
posted by vickyverky at 12:20 PM on September 10, 2009

I think this kitty can become an inside kitty (and probably was in the past). The fact that he sits in your lap and lets you pick him up are great signs.

I recently did this with a pregnant cat in my neighborhood who was more skittish than yours. My plan if she hated indoors was to at least get her fixed and then put her back out, like they do in TNR programs. She loved people so much she'd follow them like a dog, but wouldn't let anyone pick her up and liked to keep her distance sometimes. I started feeding her and would sit on the sidewalk next to her while she ate, talking to her. I pet her as much as she'd let me. I tried to lure her into the building with food, but she was not having it. Eventually, I tricked her one night by opening a yummy can of food and then quickly scooting her into a carrier. We got her spayed, and she spent three days under the kitchen sink, coming out only at night to use the litter box (which was no problem), eat, and drink. When she finally came out, she was IN LOVE with people and with being an inside cat. There is good advice on dealing with a hiding cat in this AskMe.

It sounds like Bonus Cat is probably much more amenable to becoming an inside cat than my kitty was. I would recommend just being patient, making sure he knows you're safe, then catching him and getting him fixed. He probably won't like being inside at first, but give it a little time and I bet he'll come around.
posted by Mavri at 12:27 PM on September 10, 2009

Best answer: Do you plan to care for this cat for its life span? Are you ready to care for a cat that may have significant behavioral problems? Are you ready to care for a cat that may have significant litterbox issues? What is your plan for dealing with these problems, if they appear? If you cannot resolve the problems, what will you do?

Are you willing to provide a comfortable, stimulating environment for this cat, and to play with him regularly? Are you financially prepared for food and litter costs? Are you financially prepared for vet bills if he gets ill?

These are good questions to ask yourself before taking this cat in.

There's a lot of good advice in this thread, and you seem to have a really good idea of how to treat a skittish cat, so I haven't got much to add. If you take him in, consider investing in some Feliway diffusers. I've discovered they make a huge difference in my cats' comfort levels during stressful times, such as moving house.

Obligatory personal anecdote here.
posted by moira at 12:27 PM on September 10, 2009

I've now taken in & subsequently rehomed two strays with similar characteristics -- really liked people, appeared to be former pets but had definitely been surviving on their own for a while -- & it can be done. The fact that he likes you is very promising.

You may be able to trap him in one of those have-a-heart traps that some of the Trap-Neuter-Release groups use, but I'd just feed him for a while & get him used to you till you can get him to relax more & maybe get him into a carrier yourself.

(What a cute boy -- I have a soft spot for black & white kitties myself!)
posted by oh really at 1:14 PM on September 10, 2009

He looks like a sweetie. I just checked your location and see that you will indeed have winter, which means he can't live outside indefinitely. I'd say if you're fond of Bonus Cat, claim him now and get him used to the indoors before cold weather comes.
posted by zadcat at 2:44 PM on September 10, 2009

Our bonus cat started out life as a kitten behind our no-pets apartment. Like many others there, we ignored the no-pet rule. She is the daughter of a stray that would we fed both inside and outside. The mother would come in and lie down, but only as long as the door was open. Baby White (no, seriously, and no, I didn't name her) got used to spending nights inside, and is a great indoor winter cat.

However, now that we've moved, and we're trying to make her an indoor only cat (neighbors with noisy dogs who grumble about cats walking around freely). She has, especially this summer, been quite vocal about her displeasure. We've been worried that, if she got out, she might do the incredible journey thing and go back to where she was born. She did, as it happened, get out last week. After a full day of hanging lost cat posters all over the neighborhood, I came back to see her sitting on the wall, waiting to come inside.

The thing is, even though I've been feeding her since she was a kitten, even though she sleeps inside, and has no problem sleeping on my lap, or demanding attention/affection, she is a very skittish cat. She doesn't calm down, and she is still as nervous about things as she was 4 years ago. So be prepared for that.

On the other hand, as an incentive, I've heard somewhere that the average lifespan of a stray is only 3 years. By vaccinating, spaying/neutering, providing a steady, nutritious diet, and a warm place to be cuddled in, Bonus Cat will live years longer than if he stayed a stray. Think of it as bonus years.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:57 PM on September 10, 2009

Best answer: I agree with everyone who says if he approaches people, if you can pet him, and if you can pick him up (!!!), he is no feral but a stray. Here is some good basic information about what a feral cat is from Alley Cat Allies, an excellent organization all cat lovers should get to know that advocates Trap-Neuter-Return for feral cats.

Bonus Cat sounds like he could eventually be successfully stuffed in a carrier, but if you wanted, you could also start his life with you by trapping him and taking him to the vet. Here's some detailed info from ACA on trapping. You might be able to borrow a trap from someone on Mass Cats, or fill out ACA's automated email response form for help from their "Feral Friends," which are "Individuals, organizations, and veterinarians/clinics in my area that can help me with hands on advice, information regarding where I can borrow equipment and vets/clinics that can spay/neuter feral cats."

Best of luck - he's adorable for sure. I love his little chin patch.
posted by jocelmeow at 5:03 PM on September 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, all of you! Lots of helpful information here, and I'm surprised at the apparent success rate of the "get him in the carrier and move him inside" approach, though I'm planning on moving more gradually than that. And I'm relieved to hear that litter

I just wrapped up some Bonus Cat quality time about half an hour ago. I've been starting to feed him indoors and letting him out as soon as he finished up and started pawing at the door; tonight I sat down a few feet away while he ate, and didn't get up to open the door right away. After a little bit of door-pawing, he calmed down and started walking around the entrance a little bit, coming up to me every so often, and purring loudly the whole time. It was the first time he'd sat down inside without looking in the direction of the door; I figure that's a breakthrough.

My current plan is to build on that, so he'll learn that it's warm and calm inside, and that's where the food and friendly people are. I have a feeling that a litter box, a cat carrier, and a few veterinarian calls are in my future. (There is a vet near my home that several of my acquaintances have recommended; I'll give them a call and see how they feel about strays. I've looked into some of the low-cost neutering clinics, too, but I'd really like to get Bonus a full checkup.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:56 PM on September 10, 2009

Is it really necessary to use a litter box? Our cat has a cat door and just goes outside to go to the toilet, or when she wants to run off some excess energy by chasing twigs around the garden. This is much better than having her tearing around the house in the early hours of the morning and POUNCING on the bed.
posted by emilyw at 2:31 AM on September 12, 2009

Response by poster: If anyone's still reading, there is a (tentatively) happy ending.

About three weeks ago, I saw Bonus Cat outside of our window with an obvious limp that hadn't been there the day before. After a bit of patience and bribing, we managed to get him in a carrier and take him to the emergency vet clinic. It turned out he had most likely lost a cat fight and gotten a bite on the foot as he was trying to escape. Although rabies can't be transmitted from cat to cat, we need to keep him under quarantine just in case - which means he had to become an indoor cat.

He's adjusted astoundingly well to indoor life. He figured out the litter box pretty quickly, he doesn't try to make a break for it when the front door opens, and he's just generally pretty cool with hanging out inside. He even tolerated seven days' worth of me giving him antibiotics. He's as good a house cat as any I've known.

I've made a vet appointment for next week to get him completely checked out; if he's got a clean bill of health the next step is to get him neutered.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:06 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yay! Thanks for the update. And I'm not surprised that Bonus Cat has delighted in his new living circumstances - free healthcare, free food, free skritches. What's not to love?
posted by rtha at 8:57 AM on October 5, 2009

posted by moira at 9:06 AM on October 5, 2009

Response by poster: Later-still update for those of you who are curious: Bonus Cat is still living with us, and he's doing great. At some point before we rescued him, he had picked up hemobartonellosis, which meant three more weeks of medication. He's now recovered, neutered, microchipped, and vaccinated. He's gone from a scrawny eight pounds to a healthy eleven and a half, and his fur is much cleaner and softer. His skittishness and urge to devour everything in sight have diminished quite a bit. He's active, affectionate, and happy. Success!

I can't imagine how he became homeless in the first place, because he's one of the best cats ever.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:13 PM on April 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

yay! thanks for update and pic.
posted by Zed at 1:20 PM on April 9, 2010

« Older Is there some sort of service that will tell you...   |   Boot Screen is all out of goose. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.