Socializing a feral animal can be a difficult but very rewarding experience, and the outcome will have a lot to do with how old the animal is, how feral the animal is, and your personality and patience level. The hardest cat to socialize is an older, totally-feral animal. This type of animal has spent a long time in the wild and will be very wary of ever accepting human contact. However, if you can socialize a totally-feral cat, that cat will likely develop a deeply devoted bond with you, and you only, and you may want to consider keeping this cat as your pet. These cats, once they allow themselves to trust that one person, take time trusting anyone else, and if abandoned by that one person can revert to their wild behaviors. Of course, the easiest cat to socialize is a young kitten. Kittens at about 5 weeks old will start to exhibit feral behaviors, thus if you can get them before or near 5 weeks your task will be easier. Here are some tips on socializing a feral animal:
- Once the cat is in your home, keep the cat in a very small area, because too large of an area will stress and frighten the cat. Make sure that this room is quiet and calm and that there are no other animals or small children in this room.
- First, only ‘visit’ the cat to take care of his/her personal needs such as food, water, and the litterbox. Again, food is a very big motivator for feral animals, so get the cat used to the fact that you are the one taking care of his/her needs. While you are taking care of the cat, feel free to talk to the cat very slowly and softly, this will also get the cat used to you and your voice. And always move slowly around the cat.
- Once the cat seems comfortable with your presence, try sitting with the cat for a few hours a day. Don’t try to touch the cat yet–just sit near him/her and talk to the cat. Each time you ‘visit’, you can also try to sit closer and closer to the cat, being sure to pay attention to his signs. Remember that anytime the cat gives you a signal to ‘go away’, do so. Never push. Let things go at the pace the cat chooses.
- Once the cat seems comfortable with you near, you can try to touch the cat. You may want to wear a long shirt or gloves just in case you get scratched or bitten. When you start, always move your hand slowly towards the cat and let the cat smell your hand before you touch him/her. If the cat seems calm enough you can try to pet the cat gently. Again, don’t push it. Start slow, pet the cat for a minute or two the first day, and work your way up to more time. At any time, if the cat seems to be angry or scared, stop. And remember, most cats strongly dislike their paws and backsides/tails to be touched so try to stay away from those areas at first.
- If the cat is resisting touch, you can try a few tricks: try to give the cat a little tuna or shrimp before touching to coax the cat into trusting you, or tie a sock or a piece of clothing of yours (with your smell on it) around a stick and ‘pet’ the cat with it from a distance. This contact is a big step, so be patient.
- Once he/she can sustain long contacts and seems comfortable with your touch, you can try to hold the cat. You can start off by holding the cat for short periods of time and working your way up to longer ‘hugs’ and putting the cat on your lap.
- If he/she allows this, and seems comfortable with you and the room, you may want to then try to show the cat other parts of the house or other animals. You may also want to try to get the cat to play.
If the cat is too wild to be a housecat and you release the cat, you will need to monitor the cat and its colony. This will give the cat the best chance possible for a long and happy existence (especially if the cat is deemed unadoptable). Since the cat trusted you to give him/her food before the trapping, you should continue to put food and water out. You also should make a few shelter areas outside so that the animal can have a dry and warm place in which to hide from harsh weather. Also, once one cat in the colony gains your trust, you may be able to trap-neuter-and release other animals in the colony. A colony of ferals that is monitored by humans can live long and happy lives. But you will want to make sure that you have all the cats (or as many as you can) in the colony spayed or neutered, that you feed and water them, that you provide shelter for them, and that you watch them to see if any get ill or hurt and need to go back to the vet. If you are planning to take care of a feral colony, you may want to search for and contact a feral cat network in your area who can give you tips and assistance.
Remember that although it would be great if all cats could live in a big house with lots of love and attention, there are more cats than homes, and some cats will never be socialized well enough to be pets. So with some cats, we need to compromise and do what is best for them, and that isn’t putting them to sleep. For some cats, the best case scenario is living in a home, and for others it is living in a monitored cat colony. But either way, if we can keep up efforts to spay and neuter as many cats as possible and slow the population of feral cats in the first place, we have accomplished a wonderful goal and saved many lives!