(How) can I get my formerly feral cat to let me pet her?
August 4, 2017 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I adopted a litter of feral kittens that shows up in my friends' backyard when they were 4-6 weeks old. Two years later, two of the three are now happy housecats who love to be pet (by me and my partner, anyway; still super shy with others). The third (a calico -- my vet says they're genetically predisposed to be standoffish?) still does not want to be touched, and I'm trying to figure out if I should give up on petting her.

Bennet (the calico in question) has chilled out a lot during the past two years, though she's still the jumpiest/shyest of the lot, and she seems happy living here (though she meows at me sometimes to let her into the mirror, and I always disappoint her). She even seems to like me, to some extent; she follows me around sometimes and watches what I'm doing -- sitting on top of the counter when I'm brushing my teeth, chasing the cursor on my laptop, playing with chase toys with me, etc -- and she even sleeps on my feet/legs sometimes. But she is pretty distrustful of hands. She'll occasionally come over to sniff my fingers if I offer them to her, and I've once in a blue moon managed to sneakily pet her haunches a little bit when she's not looking (she usually freaks out when she turns and sees my hand touching her, though).

When the kittens were little, I followed all the advice I could find on how to tame them (put them in a small room and spent hours with them every day, played with them, pet them while I fed them, etc). Bennet grudgingly put up with being touched then in order to get food, but has regressed since I don't force her to let me touch her at feeding time any more (they free feed, so that would be difficult).

All the advice on taming cats that I can find says that I should wait for her to approach me, and to nudge my fingers with her cheek/head before I try to escalate and pet her. But... it's been two years, and she apparently has no inclination. Is there more I can try? Or do I have a permanent indoor semi-wild cat?

Any thoughts or advice would be very welcome. Thank you!
posted by destinationtoast to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Does she respond to string, ping-pong ball, feather on a stick, or other classic cat/human toys? If so, keep doing that, and maybe increase if she's in to it. This builds interactive fun and bonding.

My shelter-adopted calico/ tortoiseshell only ever wanted to be pet on her terms, and it took a good 3-4 years to get to that stage, after being adopted at over 1 year old. She lived to 12 ish and developed new and more human-friendly behaviors every year or so the whole time.

I say give her more time and patience, but do keep trying. Not much to be gained by giving up.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:05 PM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes! She likes playing with chase toys... though her siblings are so much quicker and more aggressive that I have to tire them out first before she'll start to play. But I will keep playing with her. I'm encouraged to hear about the longer term progress with your calico/tortie! Thanks for sharing.
posted by destinationtoast at 4:11 PM on August 4, 2017

Quit freaking her out by petting her haunches uninvited... just keep offering your hands and being patient. Cats are weird.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:29 PM on August 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two years actually isn't that long for a cat who lived the feral life for 4-6 months. My 3 ex-feral kitties (littermates) were adopted when they were 8-10 weeks old, and while they are definitely happy and healthy at nearly 8 years old, all of them still treat new humans with great suspicion, only really acting like "tame" cats around me and my SO. And even then, Brodie still doesn't like being approached - he responds best to me holding out a hand/finger and letting him walk toward me, rather than the other way around. Short answer: no, you don't need to give up trying to pet her, but if she doesn't like to be approached, your best bet is to just give her ample opportunities to be the one doing the approaching. Some cats will never like anyone walking straight up to them, but they can still be total love muffins - Brodie will run and hide if I make a sudden move in his direction, but he will come ask for snuggles of his own accord. :)
posted by aecorwin at 4:31 PM on August 4, 2017

Proper advice can only be given if photos are provided...
posted by hydra77 at 4:44 PM on August 4, 2017 [21 favorites]

1) Many cats don't like being petted anywhere but their face, head, and neck. Recent research suggests this is due to hyper-sensitivity to static electricity, which is generated by the friction of hand-on-fur. Whatever the reason, your cat clearly doesn't like her haunches being touched, so I would follow the advice you've gotten about touching only face and head.

2) Cats don't like being approached from above or from behind. It makes them anxious and tense reflexively, as behind/above are the two directions from which predators attack. This same built-in aversion to predation also explains why cats seek out small, enclosed areas that afford only frontal approach. This is second reason to follow the face/head advice you've received.

3) I can second SaltySalticid's comment about behavior changing considerably over a cat's lifetime. I had one cat that pretty much never came out from under a bed for about six years. Then one day, for no obvious reason, she started venturing out during daylight hours to eat, drink, and use the litter (she had previously only done these things when I was asleep). Then she stopped hiding under the bed altogether, which, within 2 or 3 years, led to her accepting my most lavish affections.

So, yeah--be patient.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 4:46 PM on August 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

We had one of these, and like the others are saying sometimes it just takes longer. She was standoffish for several years, then was semi-interested in us after that for a few years, and then suddenly in her old age she got sweet and cuddly, but only on the bed. Cats are weird, yo.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:57 PM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

When you're gently playing with toys on sticks and she's grabbed the toy, bring the stick part in close to her. As she gets used to the stick, use it to lightly touch her on her cheeks, neck, and between the ears. Only a bit at a time, and only increase the duration if she leans into the stick. Don't poke her, use a stroking motion. This gets her used to an object that's touching her and moving of its own volition, and learning that it feels good to be stroked in those areas. Weeks later when she is used to that, you can begin holding the stick up higher so your hand is closer to her when you touch her with the stick. Over the course of days and maybe weeks, bring your hand closer to the end of the stick and eventually you should be able to reach your fingers out and stroke her at the same time as the end of the stick.

But if you're okay with never petting her, be okay with it. She has other cats to get physical affection from, and she's enjoying your company and the safe place you've provided her. She's not going to have a lessened life if you don't pet her, and frankly the patience required might be beyond the abilities of most people.
posted by Mizu at 4:59 PM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you for being such a wonderful pet owner. Not many folks would keep a cat so challenging.

I would say you are winning the battle, if she sleeps on you, that is major. It means she has physically bonded with and is getting attention on her terms. Just be patient. Cats tend to mellow with age, and become more physically affectionate so you may see slow changes in that direction. And in addition to the good cat feng shui petting advice above, try offering some nice, smelly snacks a few times a day. Snacks can go along way. Start with the healthy ones like salmon snacks or Greenies, and if they don't work, head to Temptations (the brand), highly addictive. Not because you are going to pet her when you give snacks (although you could), but because you get associated with them and she may come around more often to 'check in' on you.
posted by nanook at 5:18 PM on August 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

Go right ahead and keep playing with her. Don't touch, just wiggle your fingers on the ground and sit and sweet talk her.

Oh, yeah. Go ahead and keep it up. In no time, she'll be in your face trying to suck your breath and life out of you. And you will regret. You. Will. Regret.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:19 PM on August 4, 2017

hydra77 -- good point! Pictures of the kitty in question. :)

Thank you, everyone! Especially BadgerDoctor (I had gone for the haunches because she seems to hate being approached from the front, and I thought it might slowly desensitize her, but all of that makes sense) and Mizu. I will try the stick trick, and see if I get anywhere. And I will strive to be patient, as everyone advises. :)

Oh, and nanook -- that's awesome to hear! Thank you! Sadly, she scorns almost every treat I've tried with her as an adult cat, including Greenies. But I'll try Temptations. And I remember she loved chicken flavored baby food when she was a kitten -- that was advised for use in taming feral kittens -- so maybe I'll try that again, too.

As for whether I'm okay with never petting her... it's suboptimal. Partly because I love snuggly cats, but also because it's been a huge pain whenever I've had to capture her and take her to the vet (and she's now legendary at the vet for having mauled two vet techs and escaped the spaying room three times, twice under heavy sedation). I worry about what will happen next time I have to take her to the vet, or if I need to give her medicine or something. And I worry about the fact that I can't do basic things like trim her claws (though, tbh, I've also given up on that with the other two for now, because they hate it and I am weak, and the vet said they're currently doing a good enough job on their own). So I'd like her to at least be more handleable, and I long for her to want to snuggle. It sounds like, if I am patient enough, that's not necessarily impossible.
posted by destinationtoast at 5:49 PM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lived with a skittish cat and a super-snuggly former feral. What worked on skittish cat was making him touch me before I fed him. Both cats got kibble am and pm, and I'd hold out my palm-down hand for headbutts. Snuggly cat was excellent at demonstrating what needed to happen for both of them to get fed, and skittish cat caught on quickly. I gradually upped the required contact from "any" to "a couple nuzzles".

Skittish cat also liked being brushed, which helped - he'd come up when Snuggly was getting brushed and I'd brush both. He would tend to present his butt for brushing and then sometimes get freaked out if he saw that it was a *human* touching him.

I also never forced skittish cat to interact with me and let him walk by me on the couch to get to the window or whatever without trying to engage. He's still not a cuddlemuffin, but last time I saw him he came into my room and demanded ten minutes of pets, which is crazy for him.

I've always had to pin cats by kneeling over them to trim their claws, and I generally just did a paw or two at a time. They forgave me within 1-2 feedings.

The Acro Cats / Rock Cats promoted training your cat to go into their carrier at the sound of a whistle, but I've never done it. It is a way to make your cat portable without handling. When I was clicker-training a cat, I just fed him his dinner kibble as treats (with the remainder as a "jackpot" when he started getting bored), he wasn't food-motivated unless he was a bit hungry. Good luck!
posted by momus_window at 6:11 PM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I lived in a house with a calico cat for 2 years. The owners of the house & cat had had the kitty since kittenhood. Calico kitty never ever warmed up to anyone. She barely tolerate her lifelong owners holding her for medicine or whatnot. No one could pet her. Sounds like you're doing just fine.
posted by kerf at 6:18 PM on August 4, 2017

I've found that sitting around on the floor and offering my stinky toes for sniffs does wonders (mmm, feet!). And my very skittish cat also took a while to warm up, and still wants to be petted only on her terms. But she wants more and more cuddles and pets all the time, it seems.
posted by backwards compatible at 6:46 PM on August 4, 2017

Step 1. Dip your fingers in tuna water.
Step 2. Let her sniff and leek (lick) them.
Step 3. Let her Leeek leek leek leek.
Step 4. Gentle pets around back of head and neckish.
Step 5. Skitch gentle right at the front of the ear.

She'll come around.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:50 PM on August 4, 2017

Move at her pace, and take comfort that she clearly has trust and affection for you even though she doesn't accept petting. I don't know if the calico stereotype is true, but I had a calico kitten who rarely accepted any touch of any kind and was a fiesty hell demon. She stayed that way until age four when she began to mellow out. Now, at age six, I can't keep her off me!
posted by missmary6 at 6:58 PM on August 4, 2017

I have had more than one calico and they really are salty (which I obviously love). I am currently sitting underneath one that I have had for five years. She sat on my lap the first time three weeks ago. It takes sweet calico girls some time but once they show they love you they just can't stop. Your sweetie is just precious.
posted by We'll all float on okay at 9:13 PM on August 4, 2017

Something i found worked on at least a short term basis (and i would project a longer term basis; i just didnt have time to find out) is to give her a treat, pet her head, give her another treat, pet her head again, etc. After a while i would progress to some upper back pets (dont pet all the way to the tail). Sort of along the lines of what you did when she was a kitten. I did this while i was a volunteer at an animal shelter if the cats were extremely skittish, and after a while they would be a bit more comfortable and wouldnt run away from my hand (still very wary and would still shy away sometimes but would come back). Sit at her level and do this. It might take a lot of treats for a while, so maybe tiny bits of chicken or something like that might be healthier, but that is totally up to you. Use whatever she responds to. :)

(This is something that i found worked for me. It is possible it is not a "proper" way to do this, so hopefully if someone knows they will chime in).
posted by miss so and so at 11:16 PM on August 4, 2017

This is actually my current cat, including the name -- although he's a male and spells his name with two "tt"s. It's also the first time I've ever had a cat who kept his distance. He wasn't feral, but he spent the first 3 years of his life in a wire cage (something we only learned after we took him home).

What worked for me was crooning. At first, he would only come near me when I was sitting in the bathroom peeing at 3:00 a.m. Basically, every night. I would croon/sing "Is he a good boy? Oh yes, he's such a good boy, etc etc" Very soft, as lovingly as I could manage at 3:00 a.m., and continuous. First he would stick his head out to be petted, then he'd lie down close. After a month or so he would come near during the day if I was sitting still and started to croon.

It's been a year and a half now, and he will jump up on the bed to be petted - vigorously! -- and then will settle down next to me. He has no desire to play, he is totally uninterested in any kind of food treat, doesn't like to sit on laps, but he is super interested in the world, and obviously likes to hear what a good boy he is, yes he is, the best boy in the world.

It's different from any other cat relationship I've had, but I adore him. Good luck with your girl!
posted by kestralwing at 1:45 AM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Many years ago a very feral boy siamese cat (with balls intact) adopted us and started hanging out in our yard (he never came indoors). He was very chill but touching him was Not Ok, though we could sit near him on the lawn and he'd hang out with us. After he'd lived with us for about 2 years, something clicked one day and within a very short period of time he went to Absolutely Loving face and head scritchies from us. We called him Neutrino, because he was elusive. We were never able to get him into a carrier to take him for a vet checkup. One time my mom tried a "trap" carrier baited with tuna. Our neighbour's cat fell for it instead, while Neutrino sat nearby and watched. My point here is that sometimes cats can go for years liking you but not accepting being touched, and then something clicks and they're like, ok, you can pet me now.

We used to go over to feed our neighbours' two cats when they were away, including a very shy calico girl, who was a cuddle monster with them but extremely skittish around strangers. We would feed her in their basement, and at first she would hide behind stuff until we went upstairs before she'd come out to eat. After a while she started to get used to us. We pushed her a little by staying nearby (but very still) when she was eating, and then gradually making her come closer to us to get the food. After a while (maybe a year of occasional cat-sitting?) she decided we were ok and would let us pet her, a lot, while rolling around purring and kneading our socks. She would still jump up and dart for safety when startled, though. I think it is a characteristic of calicos.

A couple other tricks: We leave our cat carriers around the house with their doors open (a clothes-pin on the door helps keep it from swinging shut) and a towel inside. Our cats will hang out in them -- this makes the carriers a normal part of cat furniture as opposed to a sign of imminent vet horror. A couple days before a vet appointment, we'll stick in a fresh towel, which makes the carriers even more attractive for lounging in. A few times we've been lucky enough to be able to casually walk up and shut the carrier door (with the cat inside) before heading to the vet.

Every cat owner should know about the "cat burrito" technique. Get a blanket, a couch throw is a good size -- bath towels may not be quite wide enough. Lay the blanket on the floor, put the cat in the middle, and wrap it up right-side, bottom (mind the tail), left-side, like a burrito. The cat is now basically immobilized and you can administer pills or whatnot quickly, leading to less overall distress. The fold over the bottom keeps the cat from backing out of the burrito. You may need some finesse to keep the cat from climbing out the front end.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:43 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pictures of the kitty in question

Oh, she is sooooo beautiful! *melts*
posted by heatherlogan at 7:48 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Awww, Bennet is such a beautiful kitty! (And so are her siblings.)

One general cat bonding trick (that you may already be aware of), is the slow blink. Basically, look at your kitty, and blink your eyes slowly at them. My cat almost always responds with a slow blink back of his own. For cats, wide open eyes is a sign of alertness and sometimes even distrust, but the narrowed eyes is a sign of trust, and a slow blink is basically like a kitty "I love you." You may already have heard about this, and I know it's not directly related to petting, but it worked well when I adopting my incredibly skittish kitty a little while ago.

Also, I know you said she's picky about treats, but have you tried the freeze dried chicken treats? (I use pure bites brand, but there are others.) My kitty will try a lot of foods, but he's rarely very enthusiastic, but he loves these kinds of treats. They have other varieties of meat aside from chicken. The duck treats ended up being his favorite.

(Just as a heads up, the duck treats in particular are prone to get crushed in shipping, so if possible, you may want to try to buy them at a local pet store. I get mine at petco.)

If you find treats that your kitty is enthusiastic about, that might make the bonding process easier.

Good luck! She's an adorable kitty, and I'm sure it takes a lot of self restraint not to try to constantly snuggle her.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:23 AM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Aww purdyyyycat! She may always just be a don't-pet-me-please cat, it's a possibility. I also have good luck getting kitties who are less than enthusiastic to have closer contact by giving them Laxatone hairball control stuff (or similar product) - just a short strip on my finger. Two of my three cats were shy scaredy-cat ferals when we adopted them and now all three happy dance as soon as they see the tube come out of the fridge, then jockey for position, sometimes crawling onto me, for first lick. They go NUTS for the stuff.

In this case, I might try reducing her petting-stress by not pushing that specific kind of contact at all, instead I'd try coaxing her to lick the hairball goo off my finger with my arm outstretched as far as possible so there's still good distance between us, establish that this hand is a friendly hand that will give her good things, and then slowly get her comfortable with my hand _near_ her, still w/out even trying to pet her. Then in future attempts I would try positioning my hand nearer to my body so she will need to come a leeeetle bit closer to get at the good stuff. I had success doing this with our two scaredy cats.
posted by mcbeth at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

It took 2.5 years for my stray cat to accept a stroke. She was about 9 when she moved herself in. I made an agreement with her that I'd only take her to the vet if I really, really had to.

Anyway, we got there after a couple of things. I met a cat who only liked a pet if you started at his shoulders, i.e. didn't start directly on his head. I suspect it's a bit like dogs, a hand swooping down towards your face can be threatening. So I tried that with her.

The other thing, I realised she'd been asking for pets and attention for a while, just in her own poorly socialised way. She would climb on the back of the sofa and sit right next to my head, occasionally bumping me on the way past. When I tried petting her then, reaching my arm round behind me, she got right into it, purring and rolling around so much she almost fell off the back. It took several weeks (no joke) before she'd let me try again, but after that we were good. A good six months later (no joke) she stopped running off if I turned round to look at her when I was stroking her.

Basically, take her on her own terms. But just check you're not missing out on any awkward kitty attempts at social interaction.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:38 PM on August 5, 2017

RE: the vet, you might see if there's anyone in your area who will make house calls. I adopted a poorly socialized cat who was sick when I adopted him. Fortunately there was a vet in my area who would come with an assistant. We did vet stuff the bathroom of my apt.

But it sounds like you've made progress, so I also wouldnt give up on the cat getting friendlier and more comfortable with being touched over time. Just because it's taking longer than with the other two doesnt mean it will never happen.
posted by mrmurbles at 2:43 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

We adopted our calico at 8-10 weeks from the crawlspace under an abandoned house. She became a lap cat fairly quickly, but rubbing always devolved to biting immediately. Over time she came to accept back rubs. But she was about 3 before she could tolerate head rubs. Even now, at 10, she's about 50:50 on "head rubs are awesome":"I kill you". She is just spicy.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:10 PM on August 5, 2017

We adopted a tricolor as a kitten from a friend's feral litter; she was second smallest in the litter. We adopted her orange tabby sister, too, who was the largest. They get along great & the orange tabby is friendly. Not so much the other; after 3 years she is still skittish, although she will sit near us until we approach with hands. I was telling a friend about her who said, "We have a cat like that. She's quite friendly/ snuggly now." So, how long did that take? The answer--12 years. So there is hope for the patient.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 9:05 PM on August 5, 2017

My previously-feral-calico cats only liked to be scratched on the top of the head when it came to petting. Over the years they got used to that and let us extend the range, but they were definitely head first pets. Whatever else you try, you may want to incorporate that.
posted by SLC Mom at 5:52 PM on August 6, 2017

I have found with nervous kitties that extending a fist gets better results than an open hand or wiggling fingers. A fist is about the size and rough shape as a cat's head. Reach out to one side of the cat, not directly toward the face, at an angle around the same height as your cat's face, with your arm as comfortable as you can get because it can take a while. Occasionally tilt your fist at different angles, like the way cats "talk" to one another by head dips; mirroring helps if the cat seems curious about what is going on. Avoid direct eye contact, talk softly to the cat for as long as you can maintain the extended arm, and then gently disengage until another time. I've built up to friendly head bumps with some really skittish cats this way.

My current cat will come up for head bumps any time I hang my fist down from my chair, and often then will pass back and forth to pet herself against my hand. I can flatten it out after the initial bump without weirding her out.
posted by buildmyworld at 9:34 AM on August 7, 2017

My cat loves rubbing his face on a brush -- my hairbrush, his cat brush, anything with bristles. Could you start by presenting that to Bennet's cheeks? It might get her used to the rhythm of being scratched/stroked as well as coming to you for lovely affectionate touches.
posted by gladly at 11:19 AM on August 8, 2017

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