Working with Ferals?


If you have feral cats in your neighborhood, you may have resources available to you. Many places offer free or low-cost spay/neuter for ferals who are trapped by concerned citizens. Some areas also have a local TNR (trap-neuter-release) program, which is a safe, effective, and most of all, kind and compassionate way to deal with a feral colony. Neutered cats--usually identified by a clipped ear, to distinguish them from uncaught ferals or strays--will hold the territory but not reproduce...so over time, the colony dwindles and fades out on its own.

If you are feeding ferals or strays, you are morally obligated to trap, neuter, and either adopt out or release them. Feeding a colony that can reproduce (and will do so *faster*, since they have a sufficient food supply) will only lead to more misery and suffering in the end. PLEASE, be a part of the solution, and not part of the problem. These cats depend on you.

If you are willing to adopt and/or rehabilitate ferals yourself, GOOD FOR YOU! Be aware, though, that it can be a slow process.
Kittens under 6 weeks or so usually come around easily enough, when properly handled. If you have taken in "bottle babies", you may want to have a look at this awesome site on caring for newborns.
Adult ferals may never be "normal" pets...but you don't know until you try. Personally, I have made friends with quite a few adult ferals, although most do not generalise their friendliness to everyone; they may bond only to one or two people who handle them the most.

With feral cats, food is your biggest tool. Once or twice a day, put "special" wet food, or real meat, out for the cat(s). (Dry food should be left out 'round the clock. And, remember...most cats are lactose-intolerant--so the proverbial "saucer of milk" is really not an appropriate offering.)
Then, just hang out. You may want to try sitting, since a sitting person can be seen as less of a threatóbut I've seen it work both ways. It won't take long before the ferals will eat with you nearby...then a little closer...then right beside them. Once they are eating comfortably while you walk around near their food, you can try reaching down and briefly touching them.
Many cats will let you pet them at feeding time, and ONLY at feeding time, long before you can handle them anywhere else. (The other exception tends to involve them creeping into bed with you while you sleep. ;-)

Cats respond VERY well to "Treat and Retreat". Toss them a morsel of "people food" or a special treatóthen go away. Shy cats also respond well to being ignored. If your policy is "I'm not going to touch you, I just want to walk from room to room, or open the fridge, or get a shower" then you will soon find cats in all of those places, starting at you defiantly, as if to say "YOU PROMISED, no touching". You can even try a version of treat/retreat where you walk right up to them or past them, then praise and walk away.
I've taken in feral litters and found myself tiptoeing cautiously around my own house, trying not to look any of the little custards in the eye. It sounds silly but it works; being more forceful about giving them "tough love" is often much less effective, at least in the early stages. Once they are no longer over threshold just by being touched, then you can begin brief pettings, and later progress to scooping them up for love. (TINY kittens, 4-6 weeks or less, usually do respond very quickly to involuntary, gentle handling. However, with older kittens and grown cats, most of the time "slower is faster".)

Individual cats may have different preferences on how they like to be petted or handled; your cats will show you what they like (or don't) if you observe them carefully. You should check out some feline body language pictures to be sure you are 'reading' them correctly. More on body language: 1 . . . 2
Most cats prefer to have their back end supported (I rest the backs of their rear legs on my arm, to support them without giving them the urge to "kick off" from me that they'd have if I supported the bottoms of their hind feet! ...and if I'm afraid they will freak out, I might also gently hold their scruff) and of course very few cats will tolerate being held upside-down like a baby.
Here is a great link on cat handling for shelter staff which will give more insights into holding, carrying, and otherwise working with nervous cats.

Having any fearful animal inside means extreme diligence. Never leave an open window unattended; be aware of which doors are open, because your animal most likely is. If a feral cat sees an open window, she is probably gone forever. Cats can easily leap from the second story, so if they have access to those rooms, mind the windows there as well.

Never carry a fearful cat in your arms when not confined to a house or pen. (It's not a good idea for any cat, if you're going to walk past something scary, like a dog.) An exploding cat is almost impossible to hang onto; you'll be hurt and the cat will get away. Crates are your friend. :-) If the cat is semi-social, you can pick her up by the scruff, and lower her feet-first into an up-ended crate. Be quick about closing the door! If she is still wild, your best bet is to buy or borrow a "live trap", and use that to catch her for vetting or transport.

Cats feel much more secure in high places. If they must be crated, always put the crate up on a table or chairónot on the floor. When petting shy cats, try petting them when they're at chest level or higher. See if that makes them feel more at ease. You'll also want to make sure that the cat's environment has some "higher ground" available to them--this can sometimes slip folks' minds when the ferals are sequestered in a separate room. A cat tree, chest-height "cat shelf", or even a piece of furniture can do wonders for their state of mind.
Remember, too, that a happy cat with a great quality of life is more likely to bond with you. You can't over-spoil a cat; unlike dogs, they get much easier to live with when they are reassured of their royalty. *g*

If you need to medicate a cat, here is a terrific video on getting it done without it being an ordeal. ;)
Pills can also be ground up and put into wet food, or crushed and dissolved in a tiny bit of water which can be sucked up into a syringe and squirted into the corner of the mouth. (Cats have a place on the side of their mouth where their teeth don't meet, which is perfect for just this purpose.) Personally, I hold cats to medicate them, and let them back up into me while trying to escape. One hand usually holds the scruff, since this calms and "deactivates" them. Go slowly, let kitty swallow, and be sure to reward immediately afterwards with catnip or special food/treats. Some cats will bolt as soon as you release them, so you may need to reward FIRST the next time. The idea is to create a positive association whenever possible. Positive reinforcement training works on cats almost as well as it does on dogs. :) And remember: you are trying to convince these distrustful animals that you are a FRIEND...and good things come from interacting with you.

Ferals can be very rewarding! There are few things in life as sweet as cuddling up to something that, just a few months ago, was essentially a wild animal. As with any creature, if you control the environment, set it up to succeed, reward the things you like, and pay attention to what works for that particular animal, you're off to a great start.