man is this long and man am i tired. trust me i’d rather be asking about linguistics.
October 16, 2006 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Feral kittens 95% to being perfect housecats... but the last 5% is killing me. Advice?

(& not to beat 32589 of you to the punch, but yes, I’m going to ask the vet about this asap and no I would not like a lecture about letting the cats outside.)

Earlier this year, I started feeding a feral cat in my yard. Soon figured out she had two nursing kittens, not quite old enough to wean. The cat was very wary of people; the kittens were completely wild. My plan was to slowly tame the mother and then start working on the kittens - but she disappeared.

I bought kitten food and started the months-long process of getting the kittens to trust me. They were too young to catch their own food, so I quickly became their sole food source. This helped a lot in the socialization process, but it still took forever.

Now they’re good house cats for the most part. They understand “NO” and stay off the furniture, counters. etc. They (mostly) don’t beg for treats, are affectionate and snuggly, are completely litterbox-trained, and, best of all, almost sleep through the night. They are not fully indoor cats - they spend most of the daylight hours playing in the yard. They are let in at random times during the day, and when it’s dark.

In the beginning, they were hesitant to come into the house. Then they’d come in if I left the door open, but wouldn’t allow anyone to get between them and the door. Then I could close the door if I was quick, but it would cause a major freakout with scratching at the door crack. Finally we had a few weeks of calm acceptance, where they would trot confidently inside and eat, play, or sleep, and wouldn’t care about the door being shut. When they wanted out, they’d skulk around the door, maybe make a few peeps about it, nothing frantic or annoying.

This does not apply to their overnight time though. Everything starts out fine, we have calm dinner, playtime, and cuddling, and then go to bed. When they first started spending nights indoors, at 6 or 7 am there’d be a lot of traumatized yowling and clawing at the door. This is not the same thing as the “midnight crazies” all my previous tame-from-birth kittens have had. They don’t play, run laps, or attack me - they just freak out about that door being shut.

I interpreted this as just another step in their adjustment to housecat life that we would have to work through. Up until a week ago, their night behavior seemed to be progressing the same way their daytime behavior had, with a general calming down. They still wake up at 6 or 7, but there’s been a reduction in crying and they hardly ever claw at the door under any circumstance.

So that’s all good, and was continuing to get better. However, while one of the cats has continued to relax, one of them has suddenly gotten more anxious. When I shut her into the house now, she immediately starts yowling like her heart will break. She doesn’t scratch at the door, but will cry and cry. She follows me around the house and tries to lead me back to the door. Eventually she’ll settle down, but it takes a LOT of crying (10-30 minutes) before she’ll get to that point.

So what’s going on here? Is it just anxiety? She used to be fine with the closed door. What could make her regress?

I can’t decide whether this is separation anxiety, as she’s totally fine with being on her own for most of the day. However, when she’s inside, she can’t stand to be in a room by herself. How do I get her to become more independent?

How should I respond to the yowling? I’ve done a lot of reading on this, and some people say I should soothe the kitty, some say I should treat the yowling as any other bad behavior and give a sharp NO, some say to ignore her. I would LOVE to put in earplugs and go back to sleep, but I’m concerned about sleeping through smoke alarms and burglars.

I hate to punish her for a “bad behavior” when I know it’s just about fear. It seems like scolding her would only make it worse, and my goal is not just to quash a behavior, but to grow an emotionally stable cat. I’ve been splitting the difference between ignoring her and occasionally calling her back to the bedroom. After a while, this works, and she’ll settle back to sleep.

However, to do so, she usually wants to knead some part of my body. I trim her nails but it’s still painful after 20 minutes. This is something she does when she’s very happy or very afraid - it’s a comfort. Which I hate to deprive her of, but damn, I have bruises on my shoulders and I can’t stand it anymore. Last night I refused to let her knead me when she came back to bed, and was treated to a full two hours of the cycle: run to kitchen, cry, come back to bed, frantically search for any exposed flesh, cry, run back to kitchen. I can’t think of any other ways to soothe her other than petting and soft talk, which do calm her down and make her purr, but only in the very short run - and then she’s up again, with a broken heart over the damn door.

My boyfriend and I both work from home, so she has sporadic human contact throughout the day, as well as hours of play/lovin at night before bedtime. This cat is not in any way starved for attention. Working from home allows me to put her through several “tolerate the damn house” training sessions every day, when I shut her inside and try various ways to distract her or calm her down. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and it’s been over a week. It will take as long as it takes, I know - but all the other baby steps of progress with these cats have been faster, and I feel like we’re stuck on this one. I’m not convinced I’m handling this part of the challenge the right way.

How can I get to the point where I can leave the cats inside alone, when we’re gone? The weather’s getting colder, and sooner or later we are going to have to go to the store after dark.

Leaving them outside at night is not an option. Cold weather and raccoons. We have no room which will work as a “cat room,” and I think that would be a disaster anyway.

Any insight or references will be helpful. I’m having a hard time even coming up with phrases to google, as this isn’t exactly “midnight crazies” or separation anxiety. And I’ve read the Cat Wants Out thread - but that wasn’t about a (former) feral, which is a whole different trial. Ideas?
posted by jessicapierce to Pets & Animals (27 answers total)
You might try Feliway (a diffuser that dispenses a the same pheremone cats secrete when they are happy). I have used it successfully on my 'reformed ferals'.

With my kittens, I did not go through the same gradual process as you. Once they wandered indoors far enough for me to close the door behind them, they remained inside permanently. Once they got over their fear of me (which took months!), they did not express a desire to go outside, and are very content with sitting at the windows and being housecats.

Sorry if I missed it, but have you neutered your cats? This would make a huge difference. Do you think the female is frightened to be indoors, or does she just want out? Maybe hiding spaces inside, such as boxes with blankets that she can retreat to, will help.

Definitely, I think they should be permanently indoors for a long period of time, if not forever. If you let her out, even once, you teach her that crying and howling works.
posted by bchaplin at 3:06 PM on October 16, 2006

I am socializing two feral kittens captured in a local park. They are 14 weeks, and similar problems: one is getting more and more comfortable being held and playing with people, while the other is getting wilder, hissier, scratchier.

CAT DOOR. Magnetic collars, you can control whether they can go in & out, only out, or only in (or neither). Raccoons etc. cannot get in.
posted by luriete at 3:08 PM on October 16, 2006

My cat's feral and she did that racket as bchaplin says, when she was a whole cat. She wanted to play with the boy cats outside. Once she was neutered she was fine.

She has her very own window that is open during the day. I trap the cat inside at night and she has no issues at all about that. Although there is a dog door that is open 24/7 she thinks it's a hole in the wall that's full of dogs, and refuses to use it. This routine has been working for about seven years.
posted by jet_silver at 3:12 PM on October 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If you let her out, even once, you teach her that crying and howling works.

Nope - when she is playing that shit, she does not get let out. Not once. Even if it's five in the crazy morning, I wait until she is calm and no longer interested in the door - then, assuming it's light out and not raining, I offer her the chance to go out. Sometimes she takes it, sometimes she doesn't.

have you neutered your cats? This would make a huge difference. Do you think the female is frightened to be indoors, or does she just want out? Maybe hiding spaces inside, such as boxes with blankets that she can retreat to, will help.

They're not neutered yet - slightly too young. It will happen, though. I don't think she's frightened to be indoors - not ever, and not at the yowling moments. She doesn't hide or slink. And they have plenty of "caves" (boxes, dark corners) that they often retreat to when they want to be alone - but it's never out of fear, not that I can tell.


Can't. Not without remodeling the house. All outside-leading doors are glass. Stupid house.
posted by jessicapierce at 3:18 PM on October 16, 2006

About how old do you think they are? If it's around six months or more, she's definitely going into heat. She wants out so she can breed. If this turns out to be the case, I'd get them both to the vet asap
posted by blueskiesinside at 3:31 PM on October 16, 2006

My first thought is that it sounds like neutering is the solution. Her hormones may be turning on. Many shelters will neuter kittens before they are let out the door between 8 and 12 weeks now, just to make sure they've beaten the clock. But supposedly 5-8 months is more standard. You don't say how young the kittens are, but they may not be as young as you think. It's worth talking to the vet about. Your little girl may be becoming a yowling woman!
posted by dness2 at 3:32 PM on October 16, 2006

Response by poster: I've known them since May so can date their birth to at least then - they're around six months old. I don't think it's heat. I've had several cats who have gone into heat, and experienced the joy of a few friends' hot cats as well. I guess I shouldn't describe this as "yowling" as it's more like insistent, panicked mewling. Um. Hard to describe in text. But it's not the same thing, and she doesn't have any of the other behaviors associated with heat. They're both still getting fixed, of course.
posted by jessicapierce at 3:47 PM on October 16, 2006

Response by poster: ...that said, "hormones turning on" makes a lot of sense, and is something I hadn't considered.
posted by jessicapierce at 3:51 PM on October 16, 2006

Yeah, I would say six months old is a really good age to get previously wild kittens fixed. My experience with feral kittens is they seem to mature earlier anyway. You don't want to risk puberty with them at all. They already have an outside urge and if you let them get too far into their teenage years without the hormones in check you'll never get them back (slight overdramatication, but only slight). At any rate, 6 months is not at all "too young". The yowling is right around the corner.
posted by dness2 at 3:59 PM on October 16, 2006

They're 6 months old? Definitely old enough to be spayed/neteured, especially with the mewling. That noise describes almost exactly what my 5 month (non-feral) kitten sounded like, and the vet took one phone call from and said "bring her in and you'll sleep better for it, i promise." He was right...
posted by cgg at 4:01 PM on October 16, 2006

Interesting situation. One of our housecats snuck out last night without our realizing, and by the time we woke up around 7 am it was obvious from the howling that he couldn't *wait* to get back in. It will be interesting to see what effects this will have on his perception.
posted by Big_B at 4:05 PM on October 16, 2006

Best answer: It sounds as if you have done really well with these kittens, well done for taking them on.

Overall the best advice I can give to you is to give the situation time, lots of time, more time than you can imagine, and then some. Often new behaviours are transient and will resolve themselves with consistent responses from you.

For a feral kitten to be brought into a domestic environment, even gradually and with the care you have taken, it can be quite traumatic and it can take some time for certain aspects of this event to become apparent. Sometimes, when we take on a feral kitten, we lavish them with boundless love, welcoming every inch of trust they show, without realising it, with very young kittens we are behaving as a substitute mummy cat. Then as we see them grow and develop, perhaps we withdraw some aspects of this intense attention without realising it. Sometimes a feral will become overy reliant on the attention and even a slight reduction in it will result in anxiety.

On no account punish the kitten, all punishment teaches is fear of more punishment. Even a sharp "NO!" during an episode of anxiety can be harmful and increase fear.

Kit out your home with some Feliway diffusers, one in each room. With the Feliway spray, treat every area that the kittens rub against at their head height. Especially doorways and your sleeping quarters. This little one needs some reassurance that everywhere inside is 'hers', the Feliway pheromone which matches the scent she leaves behind when she head rubs objects will give her the right message.

Wear an old shirt or a sweater for a few days and let it get real stinky, cut it up and place large pieces of it in the places where the anxious kitten sleeps or hides away. Maybe put some stinky shirt on you when the kitten wants to knead, gradually move the cloth away with her on it. This one takes a while for them to accept, but I've used it several times with success.

If any of the above partially work, it might be possible to further lessen the anxious kitten's fixation on you a little by using her sibling as a decoy. When the anxious kitty demands attention and comfort from you, give attention to the more relaxed cat, when the anxious kitty comes over, only give her the attention she needs when she appears calm. Let her see the attention the calm kitten gets. Use a some feline communication with both of them, a long slow blink where you look away immediately on opening your eyes, followed by a slow yawn, is cat language for "Hello, I see you, all here is well" The decoy trick needs you to reward the slightest calm behaviour from her immediately. Gradually she will learn.

You don't say how old the kittens are, but I've known female ferals start oestrus/calling just before they are 4 months old. You don't mention how old the kittens were when you started taming them? If they were very young (below 6 weeks) it's possible that they have missed out on alot of supportive behaviour from their mother, it may be that the mother was inexperienced and didn't know what to do with her brood, again this will have an effect on their development. Just remind yourself that cats do develop different personalities and needs, just like we do. The mother cat may be still around but hiding herself, it sounds as if the kittens have been away from her long enough to have forgotten she is their mother and the anxious one feels threatened by her unseen, but scented presence. I've seen this happen a few times too.

Have a look at your own anxiety levels when she starts demanding attention, it could be that she's picking up the tiniest signals of exasperation from you and this initially adds to her anxiety, before you get into the successful petting and soothing.

Don't be hard on yourself, you are doing a great job, and a difficult one too.

Good luck!
posted by Arqa at 4:15 PM on October 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

For the kneading -- one of my cats loves to do this at night, and I avoid the pain by draping a small blanket over my lap. It doesn't seem to deprive her of any of the joy o' the claw, and it saves my skin every time.
posted by vorfeed at 4:34 PM on October 16, 2006

Response by poster: I understand that they are old enough to be fixed. I am going to have them fixed as soon as possible.

The idea of having her knead on a layer of cloth instead of my skin is a good one but it works really seldom. If she's sleepy she'll make do with the quilt, but when she's awake and worried, it's my skin or nothing.

Arqa, thank you so much for an incredibly detailed and helpful response. This is such a long and tiring process; I haven't had a full night of sleep in months. It's rewarding, of course, in general and at moments like this, but it's often miserable too. It's very encouraging to hear from other people who've been through this and ended up with sociable kitties.
posted by jessicapierce at 4:53 PM on October 16, 2006

I adopted Clint Beastwood ( He got that name on his first day here on account of his dealings with my former mice. ) about five years ago.

That was back when I was doing interior trim and fine woodworking for the shamelessly self-indulgent. Back then we were working on a spooky Victorian mansion, with local legends of family lunacy, child drownings in the pool etc., that had attracted feral cats.

Clint showed up there as a kitten, just big enough to hunt. When anyone got close, he would vanish into the labyrinthine ductwork. But, over the months, the carpenters won him over with sausage biscuits. By the time my trim crew started the job, Tom ( his old “name” ), was a regular at lunch. He always brought a mouse to share with the guys

When I brought him home I had to leave the doors ajar, as his main condition in our negotiations was his freedom to come and go as he pleased.

So I installed a cat-door thru the bathroom wall and taught him how to use it.

We lived happily until he taught me how to open people doors for him. Then he got carried away with a lust for power. He would come upstairs and get me to come down to open the door. Now I’m pretending that I’ve forgotten that trick.

So far the fool seems to have bought it.
posted by Huplescat at 5:50 PM on October 16, 2006

From the look of those photographs you and your chap are doing a brilliant job! Moose & Spoons - excellent names for a couple of very lucky cats.

That last 5% is probably alot closer than you think :)
posted by Arqa at 5:52 PM on October 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks! I'm very grateful for the way they've been responding so far. They shock us daily with their good behavior in a lot of ways, and they're the lovingest cats I've ever seen. I am by no means a perfectionist and don't mean to sound complainy about the last 5%! I just want to make sure I'm doing the best I can to help them feel at home here. Sleeping through the night again would pretty much rule, too.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:06 PM on October 16, 2006

It's cruel to keep cats indoors all the time, so I don't think that's a viable solution.

Leaving them outside at night is not an option. Cold weather and raccoons.

In Atlanta? (Or are you at a different location to your profile?)

I can't comment on the raccoon situation, but here in Northern Europe where we know the meaning of cold, and I'd say, from people I know, at least 50% of people put their cats out at night. Growing up with my parents, every cat of ours was out at night. They had somewhere sheltered to retreat to if they wanted, but they seemed to prefer prowling and hunting. This is what cats do, and I'm totally unsurprised that a feral cat is wailing at being indoors at night.. that's prime hunting time! Keeping a cat like that indoors at night is like stapling a guy's wiener to his leg so he can't use it.
posted by wackybrit at 7:12 PM on October 16, 2006

Response by poster: I really appreciate being able to ask random questions of a group which is diverse enough to contain plenty of people who'll be able to help with said random questions.

I do not appreciate the persistent opinion (of some) that the original poster is ignorant. If I didn't run into this on every single question I post, and most I read, I guess it wouldn't be an issue.

I know where I live, I know what the living/sleeping situation is like for a cat in my own backyard, I know what temperatures and conditions I am not willing to force a cat to sleep in when there's a nice warm cat bed for them inside. And I guess I know whether there is a raccoon in my own yard.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:34 PM on October 16, 2006

You mentioned that you can't have a pet door because you have glass doors everywhere. Assuming at least one of them is a sliding glass door, something like this might interest you.
posted by oddman at 7:41 PM on October 16, 2006

I have never been in colder weather than when I lived in Atlanta. No, the cold doesn't last long, but I saw 1 degree F there, quite a bit colder than I have experienced in the (not-so) far-north climes in which I live now.

You might be able to put a cat door in a window. We made a wooden insert that fit a window opening, then cut a hole that fit a cat door. Worked great.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:52 PM on October 16, 2006

Arqua's advice is so great, so let me just offer a bit of comfort instead: we have an ex-feral barn kitten who was all those things you're dealing with and more (in addition to all his other behaviors, he had a scary component of violence to boot). I truly believe that sustained love and a secure environment over time heals the majority of these behaviors for most young feral cats. Mine is still a bit of a diva, but he's also incredibly loving and hysterically funny, and it is totally worth putting up with his occasional lapses into bad attitude to have him for a companion. He's sweetly asleep on my desk right now. It's good odds that there's a hard-won reward waiting for you at the end of all this, so hang in there.

And thank you for being a good-hearted person and adopting these needy cats.
posted by melissa may at 9:06 PM on October 16, 2006

Response by poster: The sliding-door idea is smart! But I only have French doors, no sliding, so that won't work. I don't think any sort of window insert is feasible for us either, for various reasons (due to a tall crawlspace all our windows are pretty far above ground, i.e. would work for exit but not entrance; alarm system wired in windows; don't want to give would-be robbers a weak window to exploit). It's a good idea and I would love it if the cats had their own controllable door - but even if it were workable, anything a cat can get through, a raccoon could as well. The thing's already made one horrifying appearance in the kitchen back in the days when we had to leave the door cracked to entice the cats inside.

Technically I *could* leave them outside overnight, but I don't want to, for practical reasons: it's just a good idea for them to be able to stay in the house calmly overnight, or for extended periods, or really whenever I think they should. The nights are not freezing cold yet, but they're certainly getting uncomfortable, and sooner or later it will rain or sleet at night. Or we'll have a tree surgeon over. Or we'll need to leave town.

Beyond practicality, I also reasons of love and concern that go without saying. I want my pets to be comfortable and happy, and I think a warm safe bed at night is rather a given.

Thanks again for the answers and encouragement. The sleeping situation sucks it, but I have no doubt it'll be worth it at the end - it's worth it right now, it's just hard.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:19 PM on October 16, 2006

all our windows are pretty far above ground, i.e. would work for exit but not entrance

People near us have built a cat ramp (with slats to prevent slipping) from the ground up to their high kitchen window. Not jutting straight out, of course, but a skinny plank rising up along the wall from the ground to the window ledge.

Pick a crap window that you don't mind knocking out, put in a cat door, and run a ramp up to it. If you need to make it pretty, turn it into a sort of trellis, too, or put up a real trellis and then add the kitty ramp to it if the trellis isn't easy enough to climb on its own. After stuff grows, the cats will be able to climb up through the flowers to their door. You might even be able to manage a trellis that disguises the cat door, so the cats just pop in and out of the flowers growing up your wall.

And you could use a collar-activated door to keep out intruders, if the cats will wear collars.

If you still cannot do the cat door, consider the ramp as a way the cats could climb up to a safe place and get your attention at a window when they want to come in. And while you're home, you could leave the window open for them to come and go.
posted by pracowity at 5:58 AM on October 17, 2006

Response by poster: Holy Jesusing God. I. Am. Not. Remodeling my brand-new, just-bought house for some cats. It does not have any "crap windows." It does however have an alarm system which is wired to every window. I am not willing to alter this. I live in the city and leaving a window open is not going to happen for several practical reasons.

I love the cats dearly and I have adapted to them in about a billion ways. Living in my building, as it is, is an adaptation they are going to have to make.

I understand that these window / door / ramp ideas may work for someone else, but they will not work for me. I am not looking for suggestions on how to change my house into a cat castle. I am looking for insight and advice on the cat-behavior end of the issue, which I thought I made pretty clear. I don't think it's insane to expect cats to (eventually) chill out and be able to tolerate being behind a closed door without crying me a river about it every time.

I know (dude trust me I know) that taming ferals is a tremendous challenge, and that some ferals are untamable, etc. But I know these cats, and I've seen them make steady, remarkable progress towards full socialization and general tolerance of strange new things. They used to be terrified of the color yellow, for chrissake. They got over it. So I have no reason to believe they can't get over this problem. I'm just trying to help them along correctly.
posted by jessicapierce at 11:34 AM on October 17, 2006

I've had several cats over the years that were inside/outside mostly inside cats. I set up litterboxes for them in the house, which they used. But they all seemed to perfer using the "bathroom" outside. I have found that when I no longer provided litterboxes, they would hold it until they were outside.

My latest cat goes to the door and meows and bats at the door to go out. I let him out and within 10 minutes or so, he is ready to come back in. Every once in awhile he will want to go outside at about 2:00 am. He will jump into the bed and meow in my face until I get up and let him out, sure enough, few minutes later, he wants back in. We both sleep until morning. I have started putting him outside a few minutes before we go to bed, this has cut down on the 2:00 am potty breaks.

It sounds like you have done a great job with the kittens. This 5% behavior problem with the one cat may be that he does not want to potty in the house. What happens if you let him out in the evening? Will he come back when you call? Maybe come back faster with a bit of food in your hand?
posted by JujuB at 12:07 AM on October 19, 2006

Response by poster: JujuB, I've actually got the opposite problem - they prefer the litterbox to outside. I think it's because our yard is mostly clay and doesn't cover very well. It's fine, but a little obnoxious when they want to be let in SOLELY to poo, then want back out immediately. Thanks for pooping in my house, bye!

There's no problem with getting them into the house, save for a little of the standard cat b.s. of asking to be let in, then lingering on the doorstep & not quite making up their minds about it. We've worked really hard on making the house a safe, fun, and delicious place to be, so they love being inside for the most part. I think they just want the option to leave whenever they want, which, really, they do have, except not in the middle of the night, and not when they freak out and yowl about it.

Anyway, if anyone's still reading this, we have seen enormous progress in the past couple of days. We were forced by a tornado to keep both cats inside for almost 24 hours straight, which was almost three times their normal stay inside. The worse one went through several bouts of crying in the morning, and her brother echoed her, not nearly as insistently or annoyingly, but he was clearly not happy with staying inside. And then they magically just got over it, and slept and played and were completely charming housecats for the rest of the day. When the storm cleared, we let them out, and they hung around the back door and came back inside minutes later. Since then, the morning crying has decreased significantly. We're not completely past it, but it's way better than it was. Hooray for breaking their tiny little spirits!
posted by jessicapierce at 9:15 AM on October 19, 2006

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