All cats are special, but some tug on your heartstrings more than others. If there’s a scrawny, scaredy cat that lives rough in your neighborhood, it’s difficult for any cat lover to walk past and not be moved.
The Caring Begins…
In the winter, you put food out. The cat starts to recognize you and slinks out of hiding, trusting you enough to nibble the kibble. And the first time the feral cat rubs round your ankles in anticipation of a meal, there’s no way you don’t get a big lump in your throat.
At that point you may consider catching the cat and giving him a home. This is a praiseworthy thing to do, but for both your sake and the cat’s, it’s important to be realistic about feral cats and the slim chances of them becoming pet-ified.
There are also a number of factors to consider before you commit to taking in a feral cat as a pet.
Do you have other cats?
This question is significant, because even assuming a feral cat fits in (which is hugely unlikely), there is a risk of the feral cat carrying infections which could be transmitted to your pet. These diseases include:
- Feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
- Feline Immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
- Infectious diarrheas such as giardia, campylobacter, or coronavirus
- Fleas, lice, and other external parasites
OK, so your best bet is to trap the feral cat and take them straight to the vet. Get a thorough check up, including blood tests for FeLV and FIV, a worming shot, flea treatment – and spaying or neutering. Only if you get the all clear from your vet should you consider introducing this guy into your existing fur-family.
Making friends with a feral cat is never guaranteed. It’s a good start if the cat trusted you enough to rub round your ankles, but this a far cry from becoming fully friendly. The trouble is feral cats lack a vital piece of their upbringing which makes them comfortable around people.
The missing puzzle piece is called “socialization,” and for a cat to confident with two-leggers the kitten must be handled daily from just after their eyes open at two weeks of age. If this doesn’t happen, by nine weeks old their young brain puts people in the “scary” box, and it’s incredibly hard (if not impossible) to get reassigned to the “friends” file.
When you think of a hissing, spitting, feral cat, it’s fear than makes them feisty – indeed, their ferociousness is a measure of their fear. Given time and patience you can build bridges, but it takes months, if not years, and there’s no guarantee of success.
Think like a Cat
To win their trust you must think like a cat. Some top tips are:
- Move slowly and avoid sudden movements
- Speak quietly and calmly, never shout or argue near the cat
- Sit or lie on the floor (we tall two-leggers look gigantic and very scary to a cat)
- Try dangling a wing-on-a-string near the cat, inviting him to play but keeping your hands out of harm’s way
- Scatter treats around you, so the cat associates your presence with good things
- Provide regular meals, sit near the cat as he eats and talk soothingly
- Wait for the cat to come to you
- Never chase the cat, forcibly restrain him, or pick him up unless the cat is totally happy and relaxed
Given time, the feral cat may understand you are their caregiver and learn to trust. But you also have to accept that you now own a cat that hides each time you enter the room and lashes out when you try to stroke her.
Consider a Compromise
It might be better all-round to consider a compromise. This could mean leaving the cat where he is, but providing a weatherproof shelter and a feeding station.
It’s also good to think of these animals not as feral cats but as community cats. If you can involve other people in feeding and caring for them, the cats will be covered when you’re on vacation. Give them just a little care and feral cats will reward the neighborhood by keeping the vermin population down.
And finally, if you do nothing else, get the cat fixed as part of a trap-neuter-return (TNR) scheme. This will prevent this cat having kittens and perpetuating the feral cat population.