Taking In A Feral Cat

Discussion in 'Pets & Critters' started by Ken Anderson, Nov 6, 2019.

  1. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    Don’t try to handle the cat at the beginning of her contact with you. She’s testing you out, to see if she can come near you, or even touch you, without being killed.

    What you can do, however, is to play with her. Cats remain playful as long as they are healthy. While Bird was still feral, I would watch her playing with toys that she would dig up, sometimes involving other neighborhood cats. From somewhere, she had come up with a plastic ball that was somewhere between a softball and a beachball, in size. She spent hours hitting that thing and chasing it around. Then, when she was done with it, she pushed on it until she was able to wedge it under the vacant house where she was living so that no one else would take it. Throughout her life, Bird claimed every cat toy in the house and a whole lot of things that weren’t intended to be cat toys, such as my pens.

    Put a couple of cat toys in the room for her. Let her play with them herself, and if she bats one near you, flick it back near her. At some point, you might find that you’re playing catch. That’s a good start.

    Introduce a tease-type toy, which could be a regular cat toy like Da Bird, if there’s room for it or any cat toy that involves something dangling from a string. Don’t make it too short of a string, though, because you want to keep your fingers safe. Da Bird comes with a fairly long string, which is why it may not work well in a small bathroom. It's the favorite toy of most cats, though.

    da-bird.jpg

    I have a really short tease-toy that I use with Ella, and she frequently goes after the fingers holding the toy instead of the toy itself, and she’s a long way from being feral. She just gets caught up in the play.

    2019-11-08 13.17.58.jpg

    Once you can get to where she’s having fun with you, you’ve come most of the way. She now has a comfortable bed, great food, and she’s having fun with you. Food, comfort, and fun. Safety is still a question in her mind, as well as the fact that she's confined to a small room.

    More later.
     
    #16
  2. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    If you are not already in tune with this, learn to read the signs in the cat. Feral and tame cats exhibit the same signs, the key difference being that the feral cat is more likely to act on such things as fear, stress, anger, etc.

    I like the sentiment behind the statement that cats are people, too. But they’re not. Not really.

    For people, eye contact is very important. We use it, consciously or subconsciously, to judge whether or not to trust one another. However, staring is an assertive behavior in cats. Rival cats will often try to out-stare one another as a peaceful means of resolving conflicts.

    Cats are aware of eye contact. Try it with your tame cat sometimes. While your cat is busy grooming itself or even, supposedly, sleeping, stare at it for a while. Very likely, it won’t be long before she will stop mid-groom, or even wake up, and look at you as if to say, “What? What are you looking at?”

    That’s not a problem in your tame cat because she knows, first of all, that you are not a threat to her and, secondly, that you like to pretend that you’re in charge sometimes. When Ella catches me staring at her, she will stop whatever she’s doing, and stare back at me. If I keep staring at her, she is likely to come over to me and put her nose right up to my eyes. It’s pretty cute.

    The feral cat might take it as a challenge. While she is unlikely to take up the challenge, it is more likely to make her uncomfortable than to be helpful in building trust.

    Once you’re confident that the cat isn’t going to physically attack you, which isn’t likely, one way to build confidence is to do the opposite. When you know that the cat is looking at you, slowly close your eyes and leave them closed for a while. Cats only do that around other cats that they feel comfortable with, and that’s the message you will be sending.

    Another difference between cats and people, as far as the eyes go, is that cats take in a great deal of information from the edges of their eyes, what we would refer to as our peripheral vision, whereas we view more through the central portion of our eyes, looking directly at the things we want to view. Cats tend to use their peripheral vision unless they need to fix their eyes on something in particular, such as prey.

    Dilated pupils, in the cat, can be a sign of fear, but it can also be a sign of excitement. Of course, the amount of available light will play into this as well. Narrowing or widening of the eyes can mean interest, anger, or fear, as with people.

    When a cat is happy and relaxed, the pupils will dilate or constrict according to the available light demands. The less light, the wider the pupil and the blacker the eye appears. A relaxed cat will probably not have its eyes wide open, and you may see a slow blinking or closing of the eye That is a sign of contentment.

    Between cats, blinking can break the aggressive stare that makes both cats feel uncomfortable.

    A fearful cat will have dilated pupils, and the eyes may be wide open. On the other hand, between cats, an angry cat that is asserting itself, but feels confident in its position, may have its pupils constricted to a slit.

    Because a cat’s eyes react so rapidly to light changes, the eyes can be hard to read. The ears can be an important indicator of what to expect. A cat’s ears are controlled by twenty or thirty muscles, allowing the ears to swivel widely, and to move independently of one another.

    When annoyed, a cat will turn its ears back, pupils constricted, and whiskers bristled forward. A frightened cat will look much the same, except that the ears are more likely to be flattened. The frightened cat is not likely to attack you unless it feels threatened, as it might if you try to touch it or pick it up. The annoyed cat isn’t necessarily going to attack you but is much more likely to.

    An open-mouth hiss and snarl are more likely to mean that the cat is afraid than that it is about to attack you, except that, of course, a cat that is afraid is one that might attack. The hiss and a snarl are more likely to be intended as a warning, asking you to back off. A hiss and a snarl are likely to precede an attack, but if the cat intends to attack you, these signs will come immediately before the attack, not giving you a chance to respond.

    Licking of the lips can be a sign of anxiety, but when a cat sits there with its tongue hanging out, that’s usually a sign of relaxation. Yawning, too, is a good sign.

    Tails are used to communicate, as well as for balance. When used for communication. If you watch your cat when she doesn’t know she’s being watched, you might find that a cat walking in the house or in its own yard outdoors, where there are no other cats, will often just let its tail trail along behind. Once it meets another cat or a person, then the tail is employed as a tool of communication.

    When it comes across another friendly, familiar cat, or when it comes across its owner or another person who it likes, the tail will go up, sometimes pulled slightly over its back, and kinked down a little at the tip. The reason for that might be a little disgusting but if you’ve noticed how cats (and dogs) familiarize themselves with one another, through scent, you’ll figure it out.

    When they get near, cats will often lower the tail, wiping it around your legs, hands, or whatever, in the hope of being fussed over, fed, or bribed with a treat.

    Cats who are prepared for action will often flick their tails, or maybe just the distal part of it, back and forth. As the cat becomes more alert, the tail will swish faster and harder. This can signify anger but, among familiar people or cats, it can be an invitation to playfight. Tail thrashing can indicate high excitement or imminent aggression. In a cat, a wagging tail means the opposite thing than it does in a dog.

    More often seen in its behavior when confronted with another cat, or a dog, that the cat views as a threat, the cat might assume the Halloween cat mode, with the hairs on its tail erect, often doubling in size. It might assume a sideways posture, with the back arched, the idea being to look as big as it possibly can. The hairs on its entire body may become erect. At this point, the cat is still trying to back down its foe.

    halloweencat.jpg cat.jpg

    On the other hand, a submissive, scared cat, might shrink into a crouch, trying to look as small and unthreatening as possible. It may even roll over onto its back, exposing its stomach. That’s not the same as the submissive, belly-up posture that you might see in a dog. A cat that has assumed this posture is one that has gone as far as she is going to go in order to avoid conflict. Continued aggression on the part of the other animal will be met with all four claws and teeth, all of which are in place and ready for action.

    Of course, tame cats will often roll over in play, or even as a greeting. Some cats actually enjoy having their stomachs tickled but others, even tame cats, will let you have it if you try to tickle their stomachs.

    In respect to your feral cat, if she rolls over onto her back in your presence, that’s a very good sign, although it is not an invitation for a stomach tickle. Ella is as tame as they get, yet I will be left bleeding if I tickle her stomach. She's not angry, but she has the idea that if I tickle her stomach, she can playfight with claws out. I still do it, of course, but I’m fair game when I do that. On the other hand, Cutie didn’t care if I tickled her stomach.

    Before you try to touch your feral cat, you need to help her adjust to your hand. To begin, you might place your hand flat on the floor, palm-side down. Don’t move it all the way up to her, but place it near her, and let her come to your hand. She may not be ready to do so on your first try, but eventually, she will be ready to explore and to see if you are a threat.

    Keep your hand a short distance away from her at first. As she becomes more comfortable with it, move it (and the rest of your body) closer to her. The first actual contact should be initiated by her, or you might get scratched or bitten. She is likely to simply sniff your hand. The sense of smell is an important sense in a cat, so she's storing this information away. That's a good thing.

    More later.
     
    #17
    Last edited: Nov 15, 2019
  3. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    Pay attention to the cat’s body language and efforts at communication. When it seems safe to do so, get her used to your hand, as above.

    If she touches you first, with something other than her claws, such as her paw, or perhaps rubbing the side of her head on your hand, or a nudge with her nose, that’s an invitation.

    Some of the books will tell you to put your hand just below her nose so that she can smell it. That may work with a dog, but I don’t know that it’s the best thing to do with a cat. Cats don’t seem to know what that’s all about.

    Instead, in your first overture in petting the cat, I suggest bringing your hand slowly to the cat’s eye level, hold it there briefly to give her a chance to back off if she wants to, then pet her slowly, on the back of her head.

    That’s not a cat’s favorite place to be petted but it’s probably the safest as a first start. Pay very close attention to the cat’s body language. Tensed muscles, a swishing tail, dilated pupils, and flattened ears suggest that you should stop and give her some space.

    As much as you might like to make the best of it, keep your first petting session brief. Too much of a good thing can scare a feral cat.

    Even after she had been acclimated to our home for more than a decade, my feral kitty couldn’t handle too much affection at one time. While petting her, she might be purring loudly and obviously loving the attention, then suddenly something would click in her head, and she would lash out and run away, usually followed very quickly by an apologetic return.

    It was as if the voice in her head was saying…

    I love it.
    I love it.
    I love it.
    I love it.
    I CAN’T STAND IT!
    DAMN YOU!

    Then, a moment later, after running away…

    I’m sorry.
    I’m really sorry.
    I didn’t mean it.
    Please forgive me.

    Yeah, I know. It doesn’t make sense, but I think it’s a PTSD thing. It’s best to stop petting her before she lets you know she’s had enough.

    Once Bird had become acclimated to living with me, I got the idea that it was probably a good thing for her to work through this. Because I didn’t consider a few scratches on my hand to be the end of the world, I would bring her to that point, and it seemed to help her to better tolerate more affection, knowing that I wasn’t going to hate her for a reaction that wasn’t fully under her control. But that is probably not a good idea when you’re first getting to know your cat.

    Next, we’ll talk about picking her up.
     
    #18
  4. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    To continue, the dangers associated with picking your feral cat up for the first time are mostly to your arms, face, chest, and anything else that can be reached with claws and teeth. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

    I bypassed that problem by letting her make the first move. She jumped up on my knee before I ever picked her up. When I tried to lift her up in my arms, she got skittish, so I let her go. She ran away from me, but came right back and jumped up on my knee again.

    If you don’t have the luxury of time or a place where you can get to know her in her own environment, you might try a towel. Once she gets comfortable enough with you that you can do so, you can put a large towel over her and pick her up, wrapped in the towel, to avoid getting scratched or bitten. You should already be at a point where you can pet her before you get to the picking up part.

    She will probably panic, but if you avoid getting excited yourself, and talk to her calmly, theoretically she will come to realize that you’re not hurting her, and she might even enjoy the petting.

    After Bird began coming inside the house from time to time, and my cats became comfortable enough with her so that the cats weren’t all on edge, I would pick up one of my other cats, holding her in my arms and petting her. That’s important, anyhow, to reduce the jealousy that a new cat might bring to your current cats.

    Cutie, or her mom, Baby Girl, was best for that because I could do anything with them and they’d be comfortable with it.

    Bird (the feral cat) would watch me while I was holding Cutie, or rubbing her stomach, or carrying her around. At first, it seemed that she was thinking, “Why are you letting him do that?” Then, in my imagination, anyhow, I believed she was thinking, “That doesn’t look so bad.”

    Whatever she may have actually been thinking, after I had spent some time with one of my other cats, Bird would want to come up and sit next to me on the couch. Before long, instead of sitting stiffly on my knee, she began crawling around on me. That seemed to be the time that I could hold her in my arms, and it was.

    She never got to where she would cuddle on a regular basis, but she did get to where I could sweep her up in my arms and carry her around without any bloodshed, and she would purr loudly when I hugged her, although she never wanted to be hugged for long.

    She never became like a cat who had never been feral, but she did come to enjoy human contact.

    Next, I'll probably talk about playing.
     
    #19
  5. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    My feral kitty was a toy player. Given that the other cats, even after they had accepted the fact that she wasn't going anywhere, wouldn't play with her, she would amuse herself for hours with cat toys. At Christmas, we'd buy cat toys for each of the cats but, before the week was up, Bird would claim every one of them as her own. She would actually put them away, not the sense of neatness, but in order to clarify that they were hers, I think. One week, she might bring all of her toys under the couch, and another week it would be in a different location. For a while, she was even returning toys to a toy box that I bought her. Of course, anything she could carry off was apt to be a cat toy so that was where I would find my missing pens, combs, and other things. She would carry a bouncy toy to the top of the stairs and drop it, chasing it to the bottom. Then carry it back up and do it again.

    She loved her toys. Cutie would play with her once in a while, but she was usually on her own. But, particularly given that the other cats would rarely play with her, I would make time to play with her as often as I could. However, I learned what might have been the reason the other cats wouldn't play with her. She played rough. She loved fighting games, but she was apt to forget, at some point in the game that came without warning, that we were only playing, and her claws would be out. She tried. I think she tried very hard to remember to play nice. She'd swat at me with her claws in so that no one was hurt, and most of the time, there were no incidents.

    But, sometimes something would click in her head, probably a PTSD-type thing, and she would no longer be playing. Sometimes, I think she'd just forget to retract her claws, but other times she would be really trying to hurt me. That would last for only a few seconds before she'd realize what she had done. She might run and hide somewhere as if she was afraid I was going to beat her, or she'd go to the door in what I took to be an "I don't deserve to be an inside kitty thing." Whatever it was, she clearly realized that she had done wrong, and she seemed to be so grateful to be forgiven for it.

    Those incidents decreased over the years, but there were times when playing with Bird came with some bloodletting, more so than with cats who were born domesticated. Then again, my born-indoor cats have made me bleed, too.

    Eventually, she improved to the point where I could openly tease her while she practiced restraint, even to the point where she might hiss at me but still not lash out.

    That's pretty much it. I might make some more comments to this thread from time to time but once you've gotten your feral kitty to the point where you can pick her up, you're well on your way. A feral cat is not for everyone, but the challenge is exhilarating, the rewards are significant, and you can have every reason to feel great about having made a big difference in the life of a cat. The little things will become big things, and you'll never forget your feral cat. The first time that she rolled over onto her back in front of me, exposing her stomach to my tickles, that was a big moment for both of us. She showed me that she loved me enough to trust me, and she learned that it didn't kill her.

    One last thing. While I have stressed the importance of patience, challenges are also important. Once she has cleared one hurdle, place another one in front of her (and yourself), so that she can clear another one. It's a continuing process.

    bird1.jpg
     
    #20
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2019
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  6. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    Has anyone here taken in a feral cat?
     
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  7. Jim Veradyne

    Jim Veradyne Well-Known Member
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    No. It sounds like it could be a lot of bother; compared to picking one up at a shelter or something. Why would you want a wild one when tame ones are available?
     
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  8. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    The disadvantages may well outweigh the advantages. It all depends on what you want in a cat. Cats that you get from a shelter come with certain characteristics too. I've never met a cat that was just like any other cat. Someone who wants to have a cat around as a pet may well do better with one that has already been domesticated.

    I love bringing out the best in my cats, not only in longevity but in noticing and taking advantage of the characteristics that make each cat an individual so that I can use that to make it a happier cat. For example, two of my cats (Cutie and Lydia), sisters who died at the ages of 28 and 26 respectively, would have been perfectly okay as indoor cats. While they liked to go outdoors sometimes, it wasn't all that important to them. With Ella, on the other hand, a whole new world opened up to her the first time I let her outdoors. While she might be safer indoors, being restricted to the house would degrade the quality of her life.

    Most cats will attempt to communicate with the people they love and depend on. Cutie would bribe me when she wanted something. She learned that from Bird, who would bring me a toy when she wanted me to play with her. Cutie wasn't interested in playing with a toy but she noticed that Bird got my attention when she did that, so she would bring me a toy in order to get my attention. Once gained, she would lead me to whatever it was that she wanted: the food bowl, a water bowl, or a door that she wanted me to open. If I didn't respond immediately, she'd leave a trail of toys to whatever it was that she needed. Lydia wasn't all that sociable, but she would want to be cuddled or petted every now and then, and she had ways of letting me know that.

    Each cat had things that made them an individual, and a large part of the enjoyment of having cats was in noting these differences and playing to them. This is true of domesticated cats who have been raised identically, as seen in Cutie and Lydia, who were sisters from the same litter whom most people, including my wife, couldn't tell apart. Yet they were very different.

    This is particularly true of a feral cat. Watching and participating in the new experiences that Bird went through, learning to trust a human being, and the ways in which she would interact with myself, my wife, and the other cats, was just fascinating. She tried so hard to make friends of Baby Girl (Cutie and Lydia's mom), Cutie, and Lydia, but doing so in the only ways she knew, which was as a feral cat, and was mostly rejected. She brought a dead bird to Baby Girl, setting it down in front of her, clearly as a gift, but Baby Girl walked away. While the cats came to accept her as a member of the family, she was never a very well-liked member of the family to them, and that was sad. Since the other cats were unwilling to play with her, she became a toy player. She claimed every toy in the house and could spend hours amusing herself with the toys. My own playtimes with her became more important too, and it was clear that she appreciated it and that it was important to her.

    Watching her transition from a cat who viewed human beings as a threat to becoming a domesticated house cat was amazing, and she did so while retaining her feral skills and many of her characteristics, although adapting them to a domesticated lifestyle. Until she was in her 20s, she could travel the trees like a squirrel, walking to the end of a branch, then crossing over to another tree.

    While I can't say that I enjoyed all of the gifts she brought me, I was thrilled with the idea that she cared enough to bring me dead birds, mice, branches and leaves, a clod of sod, and crumbled cigarette packages that she dug out of someone's trash. We used to leave the cat door open for the cats to go in and out throughout the night, and sometimes there would be a pile of gifts outside of our bedroom door in the morning.

    She was pregnant when we took her in, so she had one litter of kittens. Watching her train her kittens in the things that she thought were important, like climbing a tree, hunting, and crapping in my garden outside rather than the litter box inside. Her kittens were born domesticated and they didn't care much for any of that stuff, but it wasn't for a lack of effort on the part of their mother.

    With my little feral kitty, the experience was as much a part of the enjoyment on my part as was the product. What some people might view as a bother was a big part of what I enjoyed about having taken her in. Then too, while I enjoyed cuddling with all of my kitties, there was something special about it when Bird finally decided that this was something she might like to do, too.
     
    #23
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  9. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    If we had a feral cat population in the town I live in now, I'd take in another.
     
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  10. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    This isn't specifically for feral cats but it pertains to all cats.

    cat-tail-speak.jpg
     
    #25
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  11. Beth Gallagher

    Beth Gallagher Veteran Member
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  12. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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  13. Dwight Ward

    Dwight Ward Active Member
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    I've adopted two feral cats. Barnie, the one I have now, took days and days to get to the point of being touched. I would feed him out on the patio and mostly just kept my distance, although I talked to him frequently. Finally, one day I put his dish just inside my open patio door and made myself scarce. He came in, ate and then flopped himself down on the patio.
    By a few days later he was fully inside much of the time. When he finally let me pet his head he suddenly leaned over and pressed himself against my leg as hard as he could. It was uphill from there.I now have one of the smartest, most affectionate, and people-oriented cats I've ever owned. Every time I have other people come over I make them each give him treats so that he is not afraid of other people and even looks forward to meeting them, especially if they talk to him and pet him. Like some of the other feral cats mentioned, he doesn't know how to play. If you tease him in that way he will claw the bejesus out of you. But otherwise he is very gentle and affectionate. He loves to lay down next to me in bed and sleep with me pressed up close. He is a totally indoor cat and shows no desire to go back outside except when he spots another cat outside through the window.
    I live alone. He is my only companion and we are just going along, enjoying each other's company and getting old together.
    I have a good story about my other feral cat, Felix for another day.
     
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  14. Beth Gallagher

    Beth Gallagher Veteran Member
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    Hello Dwight and welcome. I like the name "Barnie." :D Thanks for sharing the story.
     
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  15. Dwight Ward

    Dwight Ward Active Member
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    Thank you much for the welcome, Beth. I'm new here and It will take me a while to learn the ropes. I'm looking forward to boring a new set of people with my health troubles. I've exhausted my friends and family on that score and I need some fresh victims.
     
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