In a Feral State of Mind

See how feral cats and house cats "speak" a different language.

My fiancé and I had Christmas dinner at his brother and sister-in-law’s house. While Kelley mashed the potatoes, John took me to the spare bedroom for a surprise: living there were three young feral cats they were socializing so that they could be adopted. The moment I walked in, one dove under the bed, but one stayed and eyed me with curiosity, and wariness.

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I did what I always do when I think a cat is uneasy with human company, but possibly friendly: I reached for the nearest wand toy. No cat wants to be approached by a stranger – they want to do the approaching, on their own terms – but with ferals, there is a fight or flight instinct that factors into the bargain. I know that if I want to interact with a cat that is not sure of me, I need to keep my distance, keep it impersonal, and make it a pleasant experience. The plastic wand with the string on it was just what the situation called for. The cat happily played with me, and her mother and sibling watched cautiously. Even though the other two did not present themselves other than offering a furtive whap at the toy, and one challenged me by trying to make eye contact (I did not take the bait and kept my eyes averted), they could tell I was probably safe. And safety is what matters to feral cats.

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It is fairly easy to learn the language of house cats. A cat that is accustomed to human interaction will meet you halfway, and even more than halfway sometimes. Cats don’t commonly meow at each other as a form of communication, but they will talk to their human companions because they know it is one way to reach them. They want to forge a stronger relationship with their humans, and they are sincerely hurt when their signals are misread. Scratching furniture, jumping on forbidden surfaces and the dreaded “inappropriate elimination” are all ways in which your cat is trying to communicate about an unsatisfactory situation. If you learn to understand the motives behind these actions, it will go a long way to solve the problem.

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Feral cats are an altogether different situation. They are in survival mode. They don’t care about having a relationship with humans. They care about being safe, about making it to the next meal, to the next day. At best, humans get in the way of that, and at worst, humans are a threat. Only when you deeply understand and respect that, do you have a chance of turning a feral kitty into a cat that will accept human companionship.

Kelley learned that lesson the hard way. Early on with these cats, they were kept in large enclosures in the evenings, and Kelley reached out a hand to connect with one. But the cat did not see a kindly hand reaching out – she saw danger and felt trapped, and she lashed out. Fortunately, Kelley is a fast learner. She has found other, less threatening ways to spend quality time with these cats. And slowly, one by one, they are coming around. The friendliest one was even briefly adopted, but the family didn’t have the patience to let the cat come to them on her own terms. When the cat spent the better part of two weeks under the bed, instead of learning how to coax her out of her shyness, they returned her. It wasn’t a good fit. Maybe next time will be better. Even after they have become acclimated to human beings, formerly feral cats require patience, a slow approach, and lots of respect. But they also offer great rewards because you are doing more than learning a new language – you are learning a whole new feline culture.

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