You’ve probably heard that feral cats can’t be tamed, that they can never learn to trust humans or to live indoors. Well, we are here to tell you that’s not true. This is a story about love, patience, trust, and a splendid creature known as Yard Tiger.
1. Cat Shows Up
After Yard Tiger showed up the first day (pathetically and desperately eating single grains of rice off the pavement near the trash cans), Ruby tried to catch her - as we had done with many stray and runaway cats before - but she freaked out and scampered off.
She returned a few days later, picking through our trash for scraps. Chris put out a bowl of cat food and she scarfed it down; he refilled it twice and she never slowed down.
2. Feed Kitty
Over a period of many months, we fed her and attempted to build trust. She wouldn’t let Ruby within 20 feet of her for more than six months. By the time Chris went up to the farm full time last spring, Yard Tiger was willing to tolerate his presence (but not Ruby’s). Yard Tiger had to get used to Ruby last summer because she was the only source of kibble.
We recommend feeding regularly, whenever you see the cat, and once they are coming around for food, feed at certain times of day. The higher quality food, the more often they will come by and the easier it will be to build trust. Regular kitty kibble (dry food) is fine, but she will love you faster if you give her some canned wet food and occasional treats like tuna or hamburger or chicken (cooked of course and no spices on it).
Make sure she sees that you are the source of the food (don’t just leave the bowl outside; it will attract other pesky friends, and she needs to know the food is coming from YOU, not magically appearing at your house).
Sit or stand far away, like 20+ feet away, when she eats, or go back in the house if she is too scared to eat while you're there with her.
ALWAYS KEEP FRESH, CLEAN WATER AVAILABLE FOR KITTY, EVEN IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN HER FOR A WHILE. Cats can go days or longer without eating, but just like us they will die without water.
3. Increase Proximity SLOWLY
Once she lets you get near her, try standing closer to her or sitting on the ground (keep your back to her or your head turned away from her.
Don’t make eye contact! Eye contact can be perceived as a threat or aggressive move, so try to avoid it. If you do make eye contact by accident, slowly blink a couple of times, keeping your eyes closed for 30 seconds each blink, and then turn your back to her. This shows that you are not a threat and gives her control of the situation.
After probably a long time, maybe a short time, you will be able to sit next to her when she eats.
4. Play it Coy
Never ever reach out to her or move towards her.
This is the most important thing if you want to build trust with a feral cat (or any scaredy cat): NEVER EVER REACH OUT TO HER OR MOVE TOWARDS HER.
ALWAYS LET HER COME TO YOU. Then ignore her when she does.
Play it coy — even if she comes to you and looks like she wants pets, do not give the pets. This is the hardest part for us, not reaching out to pet when it looks like they want pets, but the best way to build trust with cats is for them to be 100% in charge of the interaction.
She will touch you when she is ready, and even if she wants pets, she may be freaked out when she gets them. So let her mark you or pat or swat at you or sniff you or whatever is her way of reaching out.
Be still and patient. Do your best to ignore her and let her explore you.
Especially in the beginning, keep your back to her, turn your head away from her so she can see you are not looking at her, pretend to be fully occupied by other things. IGNORE HER, especially if she comes near you.
5. Provide Shelter
We built a simple little shelter for Yard Tiger the first winter, using a styrofoam cooler and a plastic bin with some blankets inside. This is easy to make and it can absolutely be the difference between freezing to death and surviving for feral cats in winter climates.
We cut an entry hole in the styrofoam cooler and put some blankets inside. We draped some blankets over the cooler, but not covering the door hole. We covered the cooler with a plastic bin with a hole cut in the same place so she could come and go from her cozy shelter.
For her second winter, we added a small heating mat (the kind for gardening/starting seedlings, NOT the kind for treating sore muscles-those get too hot and can burn kitty or cause a fire hazard). The seedling mat should come with a temperature gage so you can set the minimum temperature for the heating pad to turn on and the maximum temperature for the mat to turn off. It stays over 50 degrees in there even when it’s below freezing outside.
We put the little “house” up off the ground so it was more defensible for her, and we added a tarp over it so she has some space where she can get out of the rain/snow but not have to be curled up in the box.
6. Spay / Neuter & Vaccinate
Once kitty is accustomed to coming for food, you can work with your local SNYP (“Spay Neuter Your Pet”) or other local group or vet to trap kitty and get her spayed or him neutered. This is super important for several reasons:
A. They will roam less and be exposed to less danger if they are not looking for a hot date. Boys will spray urine less and girls will live longer.
B. You won’t have a litter of kittens (or several) to deal with, and you can focus on rehabbing this one cat.
C. You will be helping keep the feral population down.
Once kitty is fixed and ideally also vaccinated, she can be released back to her normal hunting ground once she has recovered from the surgery.
7. Introduce Her to Indoors
When you feed her, open the door to your house. She may not be interested for a long time, but eventually she will get curious. You can try putting her food bowl inside the front door or just outside it so she can see inside and start to get used to this new concept.
Let her decide when she is interested in exploring indoors, and assume that she needs you to be a lot farther away than what she is comfortable with outside. It took many months of Yard Tiger visiting inside before she would let us have “indoor pets.” In the yard, she would snuggle and demand pets, but she didn’t want us within 10 feet of her in the unfamiliar territory inside the house.
If you have other pets of any kind, keep them contained. She needs to explore without any distractions or any possibility of aggression from other animals (even if your pets are the sweetest and they love all cats, it will be better for your feral if she gets to explore new territory on her own without any other animals to deal with). Also make sure your pets are up to date on their vaccinations, and check with your vet about whether there are additional vaccinations that may be recommended for an indoor-only animal who is exposed to a feral cat.
Never close her in the house until she is completely comfortable there. You can tell when she is completely comfortable because she will go to sleep. Once she regularly displays that behavior, try slowly shutting the door (while she is awake and can see what you are doing). Always let her out if she gets panicked or lets you know she wants to go. the worst thing, and the biggest set-back is if she feels trapped in the house. It will take a long time for her to muster the courage to try again.
8. She Controls the Pets
Eventually, she may become interested in physical contact with you. For Yard Tiger, this happened when another stray showed up. We called him Dopey Jr. He has clearly had experience with humans, so he knew how to meow for food (she didn’t!) and he knew that pets are awesome. So she saw him get pets, and get picked up, and meow for food, and meow for pets, and she started trying those things too.
Soon, she got jealous and would smack Dopey across the face when he was getting pets. When it became clear that she was no longer going to tolerate him (and he was a sweet guy easily adoptable), we brought Dopey Jr to the local Humane Society and he was adopted by a lovely family with kids.
After Dopey was gone, Yard Tiger became much more affectionate, but we always let her call the shots. Refer to step 4, Play it Coy.
It took us the better part of two years, but Yard Tiger comes inside every night and sleeps ON Ruby. Her story shows that with time, and patience, and a lot of treats, feral cats can become snuggly lap cats if you follow these steps.
IMPORTANT WORD OF CAUTION: FERAL CATS ARE WILD ANIMALS, NO MATTER HOW SWEET AND LOVING THEY BECOME OVER TIME.
THIS is what will happen if you don’t let feral cats have control over all physical contact and proximity.
Ruby was carrying Yard Tiger and didn’t put her down when Yard Tiger warned Ruby with angry meows that she didn’t want to be held anymore. Ruby didn’t listen and didn’t put her down.
The bite and scratch injuries sustained to both hands and Ruby’s abdomen required two doctor visits and a heavy course of antibiotics, and it could have been a lot more serious — even fatal because cats carry a lot of dangerous bacteria. Yard Tiger was back to snuggles 30 minutes after this happened, but Ruby was shaken.
ALWAYS REMEMBER: EVEN WHEN YOU HAVE A SNUGGLE CAT, THEY ARE STILL WILD AT THEIR CORE. They revert to feral behavior when they are scared or something is unfamiliar, even after years of being the perfect snuggle cat.
This is not meant to discourage you from snuggling, just to remind you to always let the cat decide the parameters of your interaction or there can be very dangerous and painful consequences.
Yard Tiger enjoys the great snuggles and comfortable evenings inside the house, and she enjoys living her life outdoors, catching mice and rats, roaming the neighborhood, lounging in the sun, climbing trees, being wild and free. We hope you will be encouraged to support your local feral cats now that you know it’s a myth that they can’t become the sweetest snuggliest cats you’ve ever seen. Here’s a slideshow of cuteness, we have waaaaay too many pictures of our favorite girl than what would fit on the blog post…