We’ve taken in a stray/feral cat. Now what?
November 3, 2012 4:47 PM   Subscribe

To those who have made a domestic cat out of a stray or feral one, I need your help! I know you’re out there, and I need your advice on whether this is possible in our situation, and how to best make this cat a domestic cat (even if he won’t ever be super friendly).

Here’s the situation:
Sir Busby has been around the neighborhood as long as we can remember. A couple of months ago, we noticed he was very skinny and missing patches of hair, so we started feeding him.

It turns out the neighbor, who used to feed him, had moved away. My husband subsequently talked with her about Sir Busby, and apparently she had fed him for about 8 years, since he showed up in the neighborhood as a young cat. He would come and go from her house, hang out with the other cats, but he had limited human contact. She never adopted him as her own, though, or ever took him to a vet.

So we decided to try to adopt him, and after feeding him for about a month outside, we finally caught him in a live trap about 6 weeks ago. We took him to the vet, had him neutered and vaccinated, and fortunately he was negative for FIV and FeLV. Other than being skinny and having some parasites, he’s pretty healthy. We had him in a dog crate for a few days after the surgery, and now he has the whole daylight basement to himself, with lots of low and high areas to hide, sleep, and wash and nice big windows to look out of.

But after taking him in and reading up on the literature, we realized he’s more feral than stray – he keeps his distance from people, walks around low to the ground, tail down, doesn’t meow, and hisses if we get too close. He was always skittish outside, so we never got close enough to pet him (hence the live trap). After 6 weeks in our house, he still hides when we come in the room, although he’s come out briefly a couple of times while we’ve been hanging out. We set up a wifi camera with infrared, so we can see what he’s up to when we’re not in the room. At night he likes to walk around, sit in the windows, wash, and play with the catnip toy a bit. He seems content with the living quarters, just not with us.

So we’re wondering right now how successful we can be at making him a domestic cat. We know that he’s spent (limited) time with people in the past. But because of his age (estimated 9-10 years old) and the fact that he’s never really been a house cat, we’re not sure if this is possible. I’ve read that other Mefites have been successful with their stray & feral cats, so we want to know – what’s the best course of action? And when will we know whether this cat is not going to take to us or household life? We know this could take a really long time, which we’re fine with, but we would like to know what we can do to make things progress. Right now he seems comfortable, but we’re not sure how to take it to the next level. Do we leave the door open to the rest of the house, and let him explore it on his own? Or does he need to get really comfortable with us being in the room first?

Give me all your tips – we’ve gassed up his basement room with Feliway, and try to spend time with him every day in a calm manner, talking with him so he gets used to our voices. I’ve read this post, I’ve read the tips from Alley Cat Allies, The Cat Site, theluckyfew, etc., but I’m looking for more advice or anecdotes. Or if you think this guy’s not workable, we need that advice too. Thanks.
posted by feidr2 to Pets & Animals (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm, you don't mention it in this post, but I'm assuming from one of your other questions that you have another cat living in the house.

My previous roommate had 2 feral cats turned domestic, but they were both quite young when she took them in. Honestly, it seems like Mr. Busby may have been content with his life outside and I feel kind of sad for him that he isn't out there anymore. It's kind that you got him medical attention but I think in this situation it's probably best to let the guy roam free. Perhaps you can just take up where your neighbor left off and just feed the guy?
posted by Sal and Richard at 4:55 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Install a cat door in one of the basement windows so he can come and go .
posted by hortense at 5:05 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

We used to have another cat, but he disappeared about 8 months ago - probably coyotes. We really weren't looking to adopt right now, but the husband couldn't bear to see this cat without a home...so here we are.
posted by feidr2 at 5:07 PM on November 3, 2012

I think it can happen. I have a cat who was born feral. She's 20, and a sweet, sweet girl. She was born in my back yard, though, so it's different. She didn't become an indoor cat until she was three or four, but I was able to pet her a little before then. She was probably ten before she became my lap cat, but even now, she can be skittish and is prone to hiding if she gets upset. And while she tolerates my husband and daughter, she doesn't like other people at all. I recommend more of what you're doing. Can you put a comfy chair in his room, so you can hang out and read or take a laptop or something. Maybe not every day, but maybe a couple of times a week, really spend a good chunk of time just hanging out. Take some treats, I highly recommend some really stinky wet food (my cats are super motivated by BFF tuna-based food). Start putting the yummy stink food far away from you and slowly moving it closer, but you know, slooowly. Also, maybe a string-on-a-stick toy. Long before I could pet her, my kitty loved to play and the fishing rod style of toy let us play without her having to be too close to me. I think he won't ever be "normal," but I do think he could be a member of the family.

I say, let him out of the basement whenever you want. Just watch the outside doors, it might make a lot of backwards progress if he gets out at this point. My relationship with my used-to-be-feral cat took a definite turn for the better when she discovered the joy of sleeping on the bed.

We had a similar situation with a neighborhood stray. Some elderly neighbors used to care for him, and we took over after they died. He wasn't really feral, but he wasn't completely tame, I think he had been someone's cat, but had been on his own for a long time. We loved him, he was an awesome cat, but one day he just never came back and I really wish we had tried harder to get him to stay.
posted by upatree at 5:11 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

If he seems content in the basement I’d just let him stay there. Go down there and hang out and go about your business and don’t get all up in his face. Ignore him for the most part. That’s how animals know you’re not a threat. He’ll probably get curious eventually.

I’ve had mixed results. I have one cat now that came in from the cold, but I’m not sure how feral he was. He turned from a constantly fighting, skittish troublemaker into a fat, lazy, cuddling thing.

It sounds like you have somewhere he can stay where it’s not imperative that he get civilized tomorrow, not like a studio apartment, so I’d just give it time and see what happens.
posted by bongo_x at 5:19 PM on November 3, 2012

I did this, but with a younger cat (neighbor was feeding her and moved away too). She now sleeps in my bed and stays near me when I'm wandering around the house. For us, it took lots of time and tuna fish. I started when Little Feet was still outside. We fed her near the front door, and I started having her get used to being near me by sitting at my window inside while she ate outside. Basically she could see me but began to realize I wasn't going to grab her. I was just there. Then I would leave the front door open and sit by the window. Then I would sit near the door. Then I would sit in the doorway (and NOT MOVE) while she ate. Then I sat outside while she ate. Then I sat closer and closer to her until one day I held the tuna can in my hand and she ate from it. I was able to rub her chin doing that but it took a long time before I could put my hand over her to pet her head...she interpreted that as a threat. Each one of these steps took at least a week or two. Eventually we could leave the door open and she would get curious and creep inside, but she always had that escape route and would run out if we moved towards her. She didn't start sleeping inside until 2 years after we started this process and we forced that because we moved and took her with us (that involved a lot of howling for a while!).

Since you already have kitty inside, start by just hanging out in his room, doing your own thing. Maybe sit down there and read a book...be still and don't move around much. Hanging out down there while he eats tuna or another irresistible food would be good. It takes time...lots of time. And lots of repetition. You want to establish trust with kitty that you aren't going to grab him or hurt him.

After we had been in our new home for 2 or 3 months and felt sure Little Feet would come back home to us we would let her go outside during the day. She would always come home at night and never wandered far...she had her territory and would stay near it. She's now 10 yrs old (I started this process when she was about 6 or 8 months old I think) and doesn't go out anymore because she's gotten fat and lazy. But she absolutely loves sitting in a screened window and watch life going by. She still HATES to be picked up, but she will sit in my lap only if she initiates it. Basically she wants to be in control of the contact but she's a loving cat to me. She has to take some time warming up to strangers though by keeping her distance and approaching when she's ready to...they can't force the interaction.

MeMail me if you want more specific info, but I'll bet tuna and time will work.
posted by MultiFaceted at 5:22 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

We did it with much much younger ferals. They were about 2 months and 10-12 months. It took years- literally, 2 years- to get the older one to like petting. She continued to bond to us with visible slow slow improvement for years. She is 13 now and still startles very easily.

The process, bluntly, was to force handling on her at frequent intervals. This was done via the medium of a determined 10 year old whose desire to pet the kitty was stronger than my will to discipline her. She got no sympathy for her scratches, she handled the cat 2-3 times a day, and eventually kitty started letting the rest of us handle her too. And is a lovely house cat now.

The younger one was always bolder, less fearful, and walks around, as my husband says, like a teenage thug with a pack of cigaretts rolled up in her t-shirt sleeve.
She also succumbed to the little girl treatment, and was a bigger scratcher by far.

I worry that Sir Busby is too old to get used to human company. But if you are willing to let him live with you on his terms I would go whim the run of the house and let him find his own spaces.

Good luck!
posted by SLC Mom at 5:24 PM on November 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Since you have coyotes in the vicinity, my fervent hope is that Sir Busby is kept indoors only; a cat does not stand any chance whatsoever against a coyote. As many have said above, time and patience are your friends. Also, since he was pretty recently neutered, that may take some time to help him settle down.

10 is not too old for a semi-feral to become a housecat (I'm counting him as a semi since he's accustomed to humans at a distance). FWIW, my workplace is a dumping ground for cats who then breed, and even those who have survived a few years feral before being trapped by our team have acclimated to home life.

Repeating those above who've said: let him come to you, have smelly, tasty treats (sardines are a winner), just spend time quietly in his area. Use calming cat language; don't make eye contact, look away and yawn and lick your lips. If you do make eye contact, give a long, slow blink. Most cats will come around. It takes time, sometimes a long time. The good news is that Sir Busby is safe indoors with you now and you have all the time in the world.
posted by vers at 5:40 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I adopted a feral mom and a kitten and both became fantastic pets. I had them for 14 years. She, as do many female cats, always kept her distance and I never forced my attention on her. I just let her come and go as she wished. He, the kitten, on the other hand was a total baby and charmer his whole life.
He grew to be a giant cat (over 25 lbs) but a living doll and sweetheart. I find the male cats are nicer and much more interested in being loved than the females.
The cat door is a great idea.
In the beginning I used to just let them out the basement window and let them prowl around (with a little bell break away collar to warn the birds they were around) and after a few hours I would check on them and, sure enough, the two of them would be at the window to come in for the night and for their supper.
Oddly, I found my two "outdoor" kitties to be more healthy than any indoor cats I've had in the past - if fact I think in all that time, until the end, neither of them had ever been ill.
One tip - don't push yourself on them. Let them come to you and give them separate litter boxes. Good luck!! Its a wonderful thing you are doing.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 5:46 PM on November 3, 2012

My aunt did a similar thing with an older feral cat that she started off feeding, then took to the vet, then kept inside for a bit, and eventually let outside again. That cat was cute and eventually happy to hang out with the humans in the same room, but never a lap cat and always wary of being touched (though she would allow it when she was feeling mellow). My aunt ended up installing a cat door and letting Possum come and go as she pleased. Generally Possum would choose to come inside for dinner and stay in for part of the night and some of the morning, but occasionally she would stay away for several days at a time. Eventually she disappeared and since her absences had been getting longer and longer leading up to that, my aunt assumed she'd chosen to go live somewhere else, rather than that something had happened to her.

My aunt's strategy for "taming" Possum was basically just to spend a lot of time around her, especially when delicious food was on offer, and not to try to touch or pick her up ever (her kids, on the other hand, would be all grabby grabby sometimes, and the cat never liked them much). I think it took about a year from the first vet visit until Possum was acting even a little bit like a house cat (tail up, less hiding, choosing to stay in a room with lots of people around.)
posted by lollusc at 7:07 PM on November 3, 2012

Three more things someone reminded me of.

Little bits of plain roasted chicken can be even more enticing than fish.

Among the several dozen feral and semi-feral cats we've homed, only one needed to be rehomed to being a barn cat. That means Sir Busby's chance of coming around eventually is very good.

And above all else, you are doing a very good thing by taking him in. Thank you for the kindness you are showing him.
posted by vers at 8:04 PM on November 3, 2012

A soft radio, maybe playing NPR (lots of talk), might help him get more used to human noises and relieve the silence.
posted by amtho at 8:44 PM on November 3, 2012

I have a cat that lived as a stray for many years, that I re-socialized. It took a very, very long time and boatloads of patience. I do think she was a housecat originally, but she had been outside as a stray for the majority of her life.

It took her probably two months to stop hissing at me every time I approached her, and longer than that to stop hissing when she was upset or frightened. And for the first several months she would hide and only come out at night. I took to calling her spider cat because each hiding place was more outrageous than the last.

She is still skittish as hell. If the doorbell rings, she will hide for hours. But she trusts me now, at least, and loves to be picked up and to sit in my lap and purr. It took probably six months or longer to get that point, and this cat is naturally incredibly sweet-natured.

I think you need to give him more time. For the first few months I had this cat, I did think I had made a mistake and that she would never be close to normal. She's never going to be normal, but she's close. If this cat would hang out in someone's house and let them touch him, I think you have a chance, but it's going to take time.

One thing I did do was put worn sweatshirts/t-shirts down on her cat bed. That way even when I wasn't there she could get used to my smell.
posted by ZeroDivides at 8:48 PM on November 3, 2012

Eight years is a long time for a feral cat to survive. He's lucky to be alive. I second the tuna and hanging out ideas. Put the food in view. Now and then show up before feeding time, and sit for a while before you put the food down. Greet him without moving toward him. Look for cat signals, such as rubbing on a nearby box or whatever, and praise him by name. Use your cat voice for all this. He may never get tame enough to pet. It would be tempting to introduce another cat into the basement. But it could have disasterous results, considering Sir Busby's age and experience.

We have four pet cats, all were born feral. Two more feral cats, Bubba and Porji, live in our yard. Bubba is sweet and tame, loves pets, and to be brushed. He sleeps on the back porch, and spends his evenings watching us through the sliding door to our kitchen--we are the equivalent of cat TV, I guess. Porji is still as wild as a shithouse rat, and won't come onto the porch until we go inside. All have been "adjusted."

One of inside/outside "pet" cats wouldn't go back outside for over six months....dunno why, she just kept as far away from an open door as she could get. Another one had some sort of agoraphobic problem for three years, and couldn't go outside until just this summer. Now all four come and go at their pleasure. All four are well-mannered, if somewhat pushy laprats. One of them likes to lay across my face at night and purr.

In all, we trapped over a dozen feral cats in our neighborhood. These six stayed around, the rest took off for the forest at a dead run as soon as I opened the cage. A couple of them came back a few times for chow, but then they all drifted away.

I guess my experience seems to indicate that you may never get to hold Sir Busby in your lap and pet him, but eventually he may come to think of you as harmless, or maybe even helpful with a brush now and then as long as you don't try to restrain him. Take care that his reflexes don't give you the wrong idea. He's never learned to not claw when he swats, and the first time he hits you he will draw blood. He won't intend to do as much damage as the razors on the ends of his paws will inflict.

Bubba nailed me and RedBud both a couple if times. Reflexes. Our hands were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now he's figured it out, but it took months of patience and close attention on our part to his postures and expressions. He tapped RedBud the other day, playing, but kepts his claws retracted. I mention Bubba, because he was three or four years old when I trapped him, and had been well-schooled as a feral tomcat.
posted by mule98J at 11:49 PM on November 3, 2012

Here's the thing with special needs animals: you need to change the metric from "can this animal ever make a good pet?" to "can I give this animal a better life?" That's the goal. That's it. Anything beyond that is bonus.

I'd put some food down, open the basement window, and let him do what he wants to do. If he comes back, you can keep the door from the basement to the house open and let him explore at his leisure.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:34 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

The ferals we adopted that became the most housecat-like were ones that we had forced interactions with, ie administering medicine. They still retained a lot more of a flight response to stress than cats raised with humans, but at some point they all became willing to sleep on the bed and be petted occasionally.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:42 AM on November 4, 2012

It is possible. We had a very unwilling feral cat that we took in because of a major snowstorm with temps below freezing. We fed her by the sliding glass door for a few days until she was close enough to grab and slammed it shut. She hid for 3 days. I think behind a file cabinet but we were never sure. She was never a lap cat but did grow to love being petted. It took a long time.
By the way, don't ever try to pet a feral cat by putting your hand towards their face! She took it as a threat and would swipe the hell out of you frighteningly fast. Always pet by putting your hand behind the head.

The things I learned are cats like people who ignore them and will then pay attention to them (also known as the cat haters paradox). They consider them less likely to harm them and therefore mostly harmless. Cats are big fans of mostly harmless.

Cats love music. All the ones we've ever had would push open the door to the bathroom if the radio was on, blithely disregarding your views on public nudity.

When most cats eat a big meal, they mellow out and nap after. We've named this the cat food coma. It is your friend.

So hang in there. Sir Busby is probably never going to be a cuddly lap cat but he'll probably warm up to you. Go hang out in the basement with the radio on after you bring some canned cat food down for him. Ignore him and read, watch TV or surf on your phone or lap top. Show him that you're mostly harmless and it's safe for him to investigate you. It will probably still take longer then you'd like but he'll start being more friendly.
posted by stray thoughts at 9:52 AM on November 4, 2012

I used to put the smelliest canned cat food out, and then sit. Lots of patience. My daughter finally got impatient, grabbed the cat and brought it in the house. The cat lived in the ceiling tiles of my basement for a few months, only coming out to eat when we were gone to work. In the end it was the other cats that brought the feral around. They showed her that lap time was the stuff. The feral was still easily spooked, but ended up being the biggest lap baby of the bunch. In the end they all have their thing and you just let it be.
posted by PJMoore at 10:32 AM on November 4, 2012

Reiterating LOTS of patience. And canned food helps, as well. But we've adopted a few adult ferals over the years, and some have sought out/adapted to human interaction quicker than others. We had one that never did warm up to me but who eventually attached herself to my husband. She'd run away if I attempted to touch her, but she'd happily curl up on Mr. Adams' lap.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:18 PM on November 4, 2012

Thanks for all of the advice and encouragement! We have been feeding him canned food as well as dry food, and he especially loves the tuna-based wet food, so that's become our staple. The roasted chicken is a good idea, we might try that. I like the idea of the radio as well. Playing with a string toy seems like it might be too scary for him at this point, but I'd like to try it in the future.

We're going to be spending more time with him in general, and around feeding time, so he will feel more urge to come out when we're around. I know he needs to get comfortable around us on his time, but I do want to challenge him just a bit. We are hoping to move some time in the next several months (I know, bad time to take in a cat), so eventually there may be some forced handling.

We've talked about putting in a cat door, but because of coyotes outside, and raccoons and squirrels that might like to come inside, we're not leaning towards that option.

Thanks again for the stories. We know he may never be a lap cat, but if we can at least live in the same space and he is healthy, we'll be content (and hopefully so will he!)
posted by feidr2 at 1:39 PM on November 4, 2012

I don't think cooked chicken is recommended for cats, because of the possibility of it containing small bones that can splinter. They generally LOVE raw chicken, though! Especially with the bones left in.
posted by lollusc at 10:48 PM on November 5, 2012

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