Q: It would be great to read an article about how to incorporate an adult feral cat into a household. I often see articles about adopting feral kittens, but I have never seen an article about adoption of an adult feral. Do they ever adapt to an indoor lifestyle?
A: Successfully converting a feral cat into an indoor cat is dependent on many factors. The age of the cat, previous history, his relationship with people, the household he will move in with and his temperament are some factors that influence the length of time and extent he can transition into an affectionate household member. Some wild cats have been household cats previously and are easier to convert back into the household. Others, though feral, are accepting of humans, especially their handouts. Young kittens are relatively easy to convince that domestication is preferable to the wild. After they are about 12 weeks old, the process becomes more challenging and usually takes longer. Then there are the feral cats who want nothing to do with anything human. Sometimes these cats, with patience and lots of time, can be convinced that living under the bed or in the rafters 24/7 isn’t as rewarding as sitting on a sofa or perching on a cat tree.
The first step when converting a feral outsider into a friendly home dweller is to take him to your vet for a checkup and to be fixed. Make sure you tell your vet that you are bringing a feral cat in for him to examine. The vet visit will be traumatic for everyone; you, your vet and the cat. Your vet may recommend a sedative to make the experience easier for all involved. Having your cat fixed can make the transition a little easier. Additionally, cats who are fixed are generally calmer.
Prepare a room beforehand for your newcomer. It should be a quiet room where no other animals are allowed. Have both high perches for the cat as well as sheltered places that he can hide in. Safe places are easily provided by placing boxes so that they face toward the walls. Paper bags with no handles and commercially available igloos and tunnels for cats also are good examples of safe sanctuaries for the feral outsider. The room should also have at least two uncovered cat boxes, comfortable beds, plenty of fresh water, food and interactive toys.
If you find your feral cat initially doesn’t understand what the litterbox is for, encourage him to use it by putting clean garden soil in the box. The boxes need to be cleaned at least on a daily basis and should be situated in a location where the cat feels he could escape and not be cornered.
The three most important tools I have found for convincing a feral cat to become an insider is food, patience and good observation skills. Since security and safety are prime directives for cats, help your feral feel safe by not cornering him or approaching him. He needs to feel secure enough to want to come to meet you. It is important that you set up the situation so that he will think it’s his idea when he does finally feel safe enough to venture forth to meet you. Every time you go into the feral’s room arm yourself with delicious treats and toss tiny little pieces close to him. Talk quietly to him so that he starts associating your voice with you and the delicious food. Bring a good book into room and sit on the floor or in a comfortable chair and spend time with him, occasionally tossing a treat in his direction. It’s important to remember that we humans are tall, big and scary to a small feral cat. Whenever possible, either sit on the floor, or in a low chair so that you don’t look quite so menacing to him.
Take your time and don’t force the cat to interact with you. Success is partially dependent on you allowing the cat to choose when he feels safe enough to relate to you. The hardest part of the process will be your accepting the cat at whatever stage of socialization he is in at the moment. Your appreciation and acceptance of the cat will be manifested by your being relaxed and that will help him feel safe.
It can be done. About 20 years ago, I trapped a 2-year-old whole feral male. He spent the first four months of the relationship hiding under the bed, venturing out only for food, water and to use the cat box. Within about one year he transitioned into an affectionate, lap-sitting cat who for the remaining 12 years of his life preferred the comforts of home to the outdoors.