There are many reasons that you may want to gain the trust of a feral cat, but the process is not as easy as you may think. Before proceeding, you should be aware of the high probability that your feline friend will never allow you to touch it. These animals are not quick to trust, so you will need to be very patient in order to succeed in bonding with them.
First, let’s clarify exactly what we mean when we refer to cats as “feral”. This designation is often confused with “stray”, but the two terms are very different. A stray is simply a domesticated cat that has become separated from its home for one reason or another. A feral cat, conversely, looks just like a domestic cat, but has not experienced human contact. Its behavior will be similar to that of a raccoon or other wildlife.
Aside from behavior differences, you may be able to identify a cat as a pet if you see a collar or a well-groomed coat. Feral cats, on the other hand, can sometimes be identified by a missing sliver of ear. The “tipped” ear indicates that the cat has been spayed or neutered by a volunteer group, then released.
Before attempting to befriend a feral cat, be sure that you understand what you’re getting yourself into. You should be aware of some potential problems and risks associated with welcoming an untamed animal onto your property.
Just like any wild animal, feral cats will defend themselves if cornered. Moving too quickly with one of these cats could result in being scratched or bitten. Wounds from cats often become infected, hence the term “cat scratch fever”.
Stray and feral cats may carry a disease called Feline Leukemia Virus. This fatal disease cannot be detected by sight and is contagious to non-vaccinated cats.
Feral cats may also become territorial over their newfound retreat, and urinate, scratch vertical markers, or even chase away “intruders” as a result.
Now that you’re aware of the dangers of cozying up to a feral cat, it’s time to get to work. The first step is to create a place that will seem attractive to a feline friend. Feral cats are focused on survival, so they will surely seek out food, water and shelter.
Choose an area within your property that will serve as your hangout spot. This needs to be a quiet space that you can monitor from inside your home. You’ll need to be able to spend hours at a time in this spot, so comfortable outdoor furniture or a camping chair is a plus. Whatever the item is, it should be introduced to the area from the beginning.
Start leaving food and water in your designated area while no one is home, at least 50 feet away from the door (and your chosen seat) if possible. While dry cat food will often do the trick, you may want to consider a more fragrant food to attract cats more quickly. Some feline favorites include canned cat food, baby food, canned tuna in oil, sardines, and of course, catnip.
Once the cat smells food and realizes that the coast is clear of predators, he will most likely drop by for a bite. This will put your house “on the map”, and in Kitty’s daily routine. Keep in mind that by leaving food out unattended, you could attract other wildlife that may not be so desirable.
Continue to leave food out for the cat for 3 to 4 days, allowing him/her to acclimate to the space with no human interference. After this time is up, you can add yourself into the equation. Begin putting food out only while you are home, but inside, so that the cat can smell you.
After allowing the cat to eat with you on the other side of the door for a few days, try doing the same, but with only your screen door (weather permitting) separating you from the cat. If the cat appears to accept this routine, it is time to sit outside while he eats.
BONDING WITH A FERAL CAT PART 2
Don’t be surprised if the cat doesn’t show up for food on this day- he is unsure of your intentions and is probably watching from a distance. The key is to be patient. Spend a few hours in the chosen area, doing your best to look non-threatening. This means that you should be still and quiet, even if you don’t see the cat. It’s also very important that you do not go looking for it at this point. All you’ll do is scare it.
After a few days of this routine, your feral friend should gain some confidence. If he does approach the food with you in the area, you’re doing a great job! If and when the cat approaches, you’ll want to continue exactly as you were, almost as if you don’t see him. This shows the cat that you aren’t a threat.
For each of these steps, you must settle into your space before the cat arrives, and remain there until he leaves. Any movement can scare your new pal away for good. You should only move the bowl closer every few days if the most recent progress has been accepted. If the cat stops showing up, or is visibly afraid, slow the process down until he seems comfortable. Follow this pattern until the cat reaches 10 or so feet from your chosen sitting area.
If, at any point, you don’t see your feline friend for a couple days, withholding food for up to 48 hours may leave him desperate enough to give you another chance. You shouldn’t let him go hungry any longer, nor should you ever withhold water, as this may cause Fluffy to look elsewhere.
Once you’ve gotten into the routine of sharing space with the cat, the best way to improve the relationship is to understand body language. There are plenty of resources on cat communication, focused primarily on eye, ear, and tail movement. You can even try to communicate trustworthiness to your kitty companion by slowly blinking at him. In the cat world, this is a way of acknowledging an acquaintance while expressing that you are not a threat.
Many feral cats will not let their human caregivers get within reach of them, even after months of companionship. This does not mean that they do not share a special relationship. You may continue to bond with your feral friend for years to come by simply enjoying each other’s company. Some cats may even play with a laser pointer- just be sure not to move too quickly!
Bonding with a feral cat can be extremely rewarding. Earning the trust of a wild animal is an honor that not many people have had the fortune to experience. The process can be tedious and frustrating, but with an abundance of patience and understanding, you can do it!
Written by Jonas Jurgella, Animal Communication Scientist and author of the Cat Language Bible – How to finally understand and speak wth your cat.
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