Feral cats are essentially wild. They’ve lived their entire lives without owners or any significant human contact, so they view humans as a threat.
Learning how to domesticate a feral cat is easier said than done. It may be possible, depending on the cat’s temperament and their experience with humans. But like any cat training effort, it takes a lot of time and patience.
1. Get Them Comfortable with Humans
If a local feral cat seems to need a home, food is the way to earn their trust.Put a plate out once a day, always leaving it in the same place at the same time. Be nearby but don’t approach the cat right away. Let them get used to the routine and then try talking to them, calmly and softly, while they eat.
2. Acclimate Them to Touch
Sometimes, after weeks or even months of feeding and one-way distanced conversation, a feral cat will let a human touch them. Start by letting the cat smell a finger or hand, then pet them gently on the head. If that works, try some gentle pets on the back. After what might feel like forever, the cat might let a person pick them up.
3. Get Them Checked
Feral cats are exposed to lots of illnesses and parasites, so it’s important to have a vet examine and vaccinate a feral cat before bringing them inside. Consider asking the vet to spay or neuter the cat as well. Spaying or neutering will make the transition process easier because it calms a cat’s hormonal cycles, minimizing unwanted cat behavior such as:
A calmer and less stressed cat will usually acclimate to home life better.
4. Introduce Home (and the Litter Box)
Once a vet has given the okay to bring a feral cat inside, they can start to explore the family home. Give them plenty of space and let them check things out at their own pace. Make sure food, water, and litter are available and easy for the cat to find. Don’t worry that a feral cat won’t know how to use the litter box! As part of their kitten care instincts, cat mothers teach their babies to relieve themselves in patches of dirt or grass. Adult strays seek out similar settings, so they’ll gravitate toward a sand-style litter.
5. Normalize Handling
Some feral cats will never be purring lap ornaments, but becoming a house cat means getting used to handling. Offer pets and scratches whenever the cat will let you. Pick them up once in a while, but put them down if they struggle.
Supporting the Transitioning Cat
Trusting humans requires a lot of faith and courage on the feral cat’s part. Pet parents should have patience and let the cat’s comfort level dictate when it’s time to take the next step.
If the cat seems particularly anxious, try some cat anxiety medication like a pheromone spray, diffuser, or calming and relaxation chews. This can calm a cat’s “danger alarm” and help them get used to life as a house cat.
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