A step-by-step-guide to taming feral cats

Belle
Here is a step by step guide on how to tame your feral cat scaredy cat. Follow this to help your kitty transform from being immobile with fear to seeking you out for affection and company, just like a ‘normal’ cat.

On this page

The three golden rules

The most important things when working with timid cats are to:

(a) confine them to a ‘sanctuary space’, so they have a feeling of safety

(b) use food to help them see that you’re the good guy

(c) don’t lose them! They are very hard to find if they get out of your house.

Over time, with each positive experience they have with you, their fear will gradually dissipate. Food is critical to achieving this, as they’ll develop a positive association between you and food.

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What type of cat is yours?

Your cat’s fear level will depend on their background, their experiences with humans and their genetics. They may be someone who is a:

  • former companion cat who was abandoned by their family, or who became lost, and who has been fending for themself, perhaps for many years
  • first generation unsocialised cat, the offspring of ‘tame’ cats, but who was born and raised on the streets with little human contact
  • second generation unsocialised cat, the offspring of first-generation feral unsocialised parents
  • multi-generation unsocialised cat, the offspring of generations of feral unsocialised parents.

The ‘degree of difficulty’ of socialising them may be affected by this. Also, their level of friendliness is partly affected by their genetics, especially from their Dad. So it’s hard to know how much of their fear is ingrained and how much is learned.

Regardless, the method you’ll use is the same.

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Understanding their body language

Your cat will tell you how they’re feeling through their body language. Take a crash course in ‘speaking cat’ so you know what’s going through their furry mind and where they’re at in terms of fear. .

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Treat foods – find out what their ‘kitty crack’ is

When you’re working with them, use something extra special, extra yummy, rather than their staple food. Its extra specialness will encourage them to stretch their comfort zone and push through their fear barriers.

In America, Gerber meat baby food is very popular with cats. In Australia, our baby food is mainly vegetables, so not suitable for cats.

Australian feral cat scaredy cat tamers have had success with:

  • Hills a/d tinned food
  • fresh liver, especially if warm
  • dried liver
  • Royal Canin Persian dry food (must be Persian!)
  • Ultimates tinned fish cat food
  • Peck’s Ham and Cheese spread
  • prawns
  • roast chicken

for taming.

Experiment!

Your kitty may have their own ‘kitty crack’ – one cat made progress with Ultimates tinned food; another with dried liver treats that no-one else liked.

Experiment to find out what your kitty’s ‘crack’ is!

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Step-by-step guide

Follow these steps to socialise your kitty.

Starting out

1. Desex and microchip them.

2. Never stare at them.
This is threatening and rude to a cat. It’s cat language for ‘I’d like to beat you to a pulp’. Use a ‘cat kiss’ instead. Look at them with your eyes partially closed. Very slowly, while thinking or saying ‘I love you’, close your eyes, then very slowly open them and keep them soft.

3. Confine them.
Use a collapsible wire dog crate (42″ or 48″) or comfortable, small room.

4. Have radio, TV or background noise.
Help them get used to human voices by leaving a radio on talkback, or a TV playing, at low volume. A number of foster carers have also had good results with PetCalm music. David Teie’s Music for Cats may also help.

If you know where they’ve come from (for example, if they were born as a stray on your property), consider making a recording of the noises outside, so they have something familiar.

Use food as an incentive

5. Use treat food for taming.
Use the food that they most love for the taming sessions. They can eat their normal meal afterwards.

6. Calm yourself before starting taming.

7. Put food on small plate.

8. Announce food every time, with the same word eg ‘Breakfast!’ ‘Meal time’.

9. Turn your body ¾ to them.
Present a small cross section so you don’t look as much like a predator. Keep your eyes relaxed. Be quiet and slow. Gently tell them what you’re going to do.

10. Push plate into crate.
Keep hand below their chin level so you’re not like a predator. Keep fingers relaxed, not out straight (straight fingers look like a paw about to attack). If they spit or lunge at you, refer to the fear-aggressive cat page.

11. If they’ll eat in front of you, stay, so that they associate you with food. If necessary, turn your back t5o them and sit low on the floor, so they feel less vulnerable. If they won’t eat after about 10 minutes, leave.

12. Spend time in their room, ignoring them.
Do computing, reading, watching TV, listening to music, sleeping – whatever your day to day activities are. They’ll slowly learn that you’re not a threat.

Progress to touching

13. As they get more used to you, stretch their comfort zone:

  • Put plate in, don’t leave
  • Put plate in, near front of crate
  • Put plate in near front of crate, stay there so they must approach you to get food
  • Open crate door, announce food, they must approach you first, then you put plate in
  • Food on spoon, keep hand below their chin level
  • Food on finger
  • Food on finger AND you must firmly touch them with other hand, on side. Use the back of your hand if necessary.

14. When touching them, be calm, deliberate, not scared (meditate, visualize). Stroke them with the authority of being a MumCat.

15. If in doubt, use a taming wand
If you’re not sure how they’ll go being touched, use a ‘taming wand’ – piece of polar fleece or something soft held onto a long thin stick – or feather. This is less threatening than hands and means you can touch them without being as close to them, or getting bitten or scratched.

16. Do not be tentative.
Tentative means, about to attack, testing out the enemy.

17. Always move hand/arm below their chin level. This is quite important.

18. Use relaxed, curled hand/fingers at all times

End on a high note

19. End each session on a positive note
The length of each session isn’t as important as finishing a session when your cat is comfortable. If they’ve just hissed at you, stay a little longer. Offer another special treat. They’ll remember their last interaction with you more than their first.

20. Next stages:

  • Food on finger AND you must firmly touch them, now with both hands (then you offer the food)
  • To get food, they must let you touch on both sides and LIFT a micron
  • Same – lift more, food
  • Same – lift several inches, food
  • Same – lift towards you, set back, food
  • Same – lift to your chest, don’t look at cat — too threatening, return, food
  • Same – lift to chest, turn, turn back, return, food
  • Same – take a few steps, return, food
  • Same – walk around, return, food.

21. If at any point they fuss, return to the previous step in the hierarchy.

Graduate to a room

22. Once they’re comfortable being handled, transition them from their crate to their ‘graduation room’- maybe your bedroom, or a spare room. Most cats prefer staying in, or near, their crate for a while until they get used to the room, so put that in there as well.

Over time, they’ll stop using it as their ‘safe place’.

In addition to the crate, you’ll need one or more good hiding places and their other necessities – here’s a list.

Continue to work with them in the room, using food as a reward for interacting with you.

You could try using ‘snuggle sessions’ to fast track them. Here, you’ll encourage them to move from their hiding spot onto a blanket on your lap. Wrap them in the blanket, including their face (make sure they can breathe).  Then stroke them over the blanket, then under the blanket, to get them used to human touch. Watch the Plan B video on TinyKittens’ site which demonstrates this.

After the snuggle session, carry them in the blanket back to their hiding place.

Read a good four page account of this kind of taming.

Your timid cat will make progress, gradually. Celebrate each milestone

Celebrate each milestone with people who understand

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Things to celebrate

If your cat does any of these things, congratulations! You’re making progress.
Eyes blinking at you Celebrate! They’re saying that they feel safe enough with you to not constantly watch you.
Ears forward They don’t feel the need to protect them from possible attack
Arms folded upside down under their body They don’t feel the need to be ready to run
Lying on their side Very relaxed

Purring Contentment (unless they’re in pain). This means wonderful progress. Give yourself a big pat on the back (and give your cat extra treats!).

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Be ready for one step forward, two steps back

Socialisation will plateau up and down. One day, they’ll suddenly NOT let you pick them up. Go back to what they WILL allow. This up and down is quite normal.

They will almost certainly go backwards when they graduate from a crate to a room, and again when they move from their room to the rest of the house. Give them time, and continue with hand feeding and ending each session on a positive note, and they should get back to the levels they achieved in the crate.

Based on Gesine Lohr’s summary from Yahoo Feral Cats group with modifications that we have found work.

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