Saturday, November 6, 2010
Having lived in the country my entire life, feral cats have always been a way of life. They are everywhere, and they multiply at the rate of two or three litters per year. Each litter averages four to six kittens that can begin reproducing at around five months of age. It’s easy to see how feral cat populations grow out of control.
It's estimated that there are more than 10 million feral cats in the United States. The only difference between stray cats and feral cats is that strays were once someone's pet. They became lost or abandoned and live wild, scavenging as they are able. Cats later born to these strays have not had close human contact and become feral cats. Feral cats generally stay far away from humans, presenting another tricky issue: how do we cut down on the population?
While there are several Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs available in various parts of the United States, they aren't always available in rural areas. Many individual home owners and animal lovers take on the role of caretaker for these wild cats in an effort to tame them, feed them, give them a home and eventually stop them from reproducing and increasing the feral cat population.
I have personally tamed more than a dozen feral cats in the last few years with the intention of spaying and neutering them to cut down the population in my area, as well as give the cats a home of their own. How do you tame a feral cat? It's not hard, at least in my experience, but it does take patience and commitment.
Feed the Kitties
The reason most cats hang around a specific area is because they've found a food source. The first step in taming a feral cat is to feed them. When you notice a feral cat hanging around your home, you should begin to put out food for them to start the taming process. If they are not brave enough to approach your home but simply hang out along the perimeter of the property, begin by putting food where you see them the most.
Make sure to use your bare hands to handle the food you put out for them. This is important as the food will pick up your scent and the cat needs to begin relating your scent with the food. Since food is necessary to their survival, they will begin to see you as also necessary to their survival. At first you may see only a fleeting view of the feral cat as it hides from your presence, but eventually you will see more of it. A feral cat – even one that is being tamed – will be wary of humans and keep a safe distance, but their curiosity and developing trust of you will eventually win out. They will begin drawing closer and allow themselves to be seen.
Name the Cats and Talk to Them
This is a personal rule of mine. I name my cats and consistently call them by name, even when they won't allow me to get anywhere near them. Talking to them allows them to hear the sound of my voice and a regularly-used word or name for them. It might seem crazy, but talk to the kitties hanging out around your home. Use a low, soothing voice at all times, which will help calm the cat.
Don't Force the Issue
Once the feral cat begins showing itself, don't force contact with it. The cat will come to you on its own terms. Continue putting food out and handling it, but don't approach the cat.
Take Time to Sit and Wait
At some point you can attempt to sit near the food you’ve put out when you know the cat is around. Don't sit too close to the food, just within a few feet of it. This will help the cat become accustomed to your presence for a longer period and not just when you are leaving the food.
You may need to do this a few times before the cat approaches the food while you are sitting nearby. The cat may also approach several times before feeling brave enough to begin eating. Once the cat has started to eat the food in your presence, you may start moving closer on subsequent visits. My rule is that I put out the food, then sit down and wait for 5 or 10 minutes. If the cat hasn't approached the food in that time, I leave. After a few days, you should be able to sit within arm's reach of the food.
Don't Make Sudden Moves
Cats are jumpy to begin with, but a feral cat who is wary and afraid of you is like a cat on a hot tin roof – pun intended. Never make any sudden moves when the cat is near you, as it could destroy any progress you've made.
Pay Attention to Body Language
It is important for your own safety, and the cat's safety, to pay close attention to the cat's body language. Laid-back ears, fluffed up tail, arched back and hissing are signs that the cat is upset and you should probably leave. Don't take chances when it comes to feral cats. Always remember the rule: if it has jaws or claws it could hurt you. On the flip side, if the cat presents its back to you, that usually means it is developing trust toward you. You should take that as a good sign.
Take it Slow
Taming a feral cat doesn't happen overnight, so don't rush it. Once you've sat next to the food for a few days, you can try to touch the cat – just make sure you watch it closely for signs that it’s agitated or could become aggressive. There will be a few fits and starts when you first try to touch the cat. Don't try to pet the cat, simply reach out with your hand and attempt to touch its fur. Try to touch only the back, not the head. The cat will jump away at first, but the more times you are able to simply touch their back the more used to it they will become.
I have found that once I get to this point, I will touch the cat's back briefly then walk away. After a few times doing that, I will try to touch them again. When you try to touch them and they don't jump away, then you can try to pet them gently. Usually by this time they have tamed down significantly and will actually want you to pet them.
Once you notice the cat arching its back when you touch them, you know you've seen the checkered flag. After this point, the cat will (hopefully) start to seek you out for company and affection. Remember, though, that just because the cat lets you pet it, it may not be keen on you picking it up. Don't push that issue too fast, and remember that the cat may not become completely tame. He will let you know how much attention and interaction he is willing to accept.
Once you have established a trusting relationship with the cat, you can now consider it more of a pet cat than a wild or feral cat. After you've had time to cultivate this special new friendship, you should plan to take the kitty to the veterinarian for shots, deworming, and spaying or neutering.
Read more articles by Tamara L. Waters