We’ve all seen them — lean cats with large frightened eyes who move across our yards and parking lots like wind on the water.
Feral cats have never had contact with humans. They’re the offspring of stray or feral cats, not domesticated cats who have gone primal.
Feral cats have short lives — 8 to 9 years, as opposed to domestic cats, who, if kept indoors and properly taken care of, have very good chances at making it well into their teens or 20s.
In this 5-part expert guide to how to help feral cats, we’ll discuss:
- The 5 biggest things you can consider doing to help
- All about TNR — and how can you get started with it today to help feral cats in your community
- How to deal with pregnant feral and stray cats
- Learn some quick tips on how to tame feral kittens
- Plus, get the answers to 2 questions we are asked constantly: “Can a feral cat be socialized?” and “Can a domestic cat turn feral?” (You might be surprised.)
Part 1: How to Help Feral Cats
In the course of those short lives, feral cats can add drastically to the cat overpopulation problem.
Here are 5 things you can do to help:
1. Set Up a Feeding Station and Shelter
This is compassion in action, putting your money where your mouth is and putting food down where the ferals’ mouths are.
“There is nothing wrong with your helping this free-roaming cat,” according to the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project of Lynnwood, Washington. “It actually gives you a feeling of accomplishment and fills your human need to care for those whom we deem less fortunate.”
When it comes to feral cat shelters, not to worry: Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to helping improve the lives of cats, has put together a list of various feral cat shelter options, ranging from an outdoor heated cat house to a camper-topper turned shelter. The group also lists the pros and cons of each.
The camper-topper shelter, for instance, can house 10–15 cats, but making the modifications requires a certain amount of technical skill.
You can transform a couple of large plastic tubs into a feral cat shelter much more easily (instructions here) — but it provides less protection than, say, a wooden shelter.
In a perfect world, all these cats would find good homes. But for some ferals, that may not be the solution, and that’s where trap-neuter-return (TNR) comes in.
As the name, suggests, there are 3 main steps to this process:
- TRAP feral cats safely and transport them to a veterinary facility.
- NEUTER all male and female cats to prevent reproduction. Kittens or friendly cats will be evaluated for adoptions. (Many people also have the cats vaccinated while they are at the vet.)
- RETURN the altered cats to their colony while providing food and shelter.
The cats are returned to their original territory, where a caretaker will feed them and monitor their health. The caretaker will also TNR any new ferals who arrive on the scene, causing the colony’s numbers to stabilize and eventually shrink.
The feral cat colony doesn’t disappear completely. But without regular kitten crops coming in, it shrinks.
There are many benefits to a TNR program:
- Cats who have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated will spread less disease.
- A cat who has been altered no longer has a reason to search for another cat for mating. This reduction in roaming helps avoid outdoor dangers, such as being hit by a car.
- Males who have been altered lose many negative behaviors, such as spraying urine and fighting for mates.
- Female cats won’t go into heat anymore, which reduces howling and moaning.
As far as drawbacks, “there is a realistic concern that TNR may encourage dumping,” says Ellen Perry Berkeley in her book Maverick Cats: Encounters With Feral Cats.
However, Berkeley believes that “negatives attitudes are fading, eroded by the news of greatly reduced homeless populations and greatly lowered euthanasia statistics in cities where TNR has been practiced for almost a decade.”
Don’t have a cat trap?
No problem. Local rescues “can sometimes help with trapping or loan out a trap,” says Robin Olson of the rescue group Kitten Associates, Inc.
Olson adds that “some clinics also loan traps for a deposit.”
Identifying Sterilized Feral Cats
With tens of millions of feral cats roaming the United States, how can you tell if a cat has been sterilized yet?
A sterilized cat may be microchipped, but the most visible sign is the missing tip of one ear.
This ear “tipping” is performed surgically by a vet during the TNR cycle. This also helps keep already sterilized cats from filling up shelters and TNR facilities.
How to Get Started With TNR
Check with your local animal shelter, humane society or vet to see if a TNR program is already active in your area.
If no program exists, start by contacting these organizations or your vet to ask if they would be willing to sterilize the cats. Some will do this for free or at a discounted rate.
Then, do the following:
- Estimate the size of the feral cat colony you want to help. This is important because your vet may not have enough space to house all the cats before their procedures and during their recovery (the average recovery period is 48 hours).
- Ask if rabies vaccinations will be administered at the time of sterilization. Cats who test positive for incurable diseases may be euthanized.
- Arrange to have some volunteers help you with trapping and transporting the cats. Ask friends, family and neighbors to help in your efforts to control the local feral cat population.
- The traps themselves are essential. Estimate your need based on the number of feral cats observed and add a few extra just in case. This can be expensive. Ask local shelters, friends and vets to lend their traps with the guarantee that the traps will either be returned or replaced.
- Before you try to trap them, feed the feral cats regularly. Once the cats get accustomed to the area and the food source, they will return. Establishing this consistency will help you trap the cats.
- Coordinate the ideal days for all volunteers. Some vets or sterilization facilities may not work weekends, and your volunteers may be available only at that time. Try to find 3 consecutive days where the vet and your volunteers will be available to bring in the cats and return them after their recovery.
TNR Training Programs and Additional Resources
Some cities or national organizations offer training programs to help get you started with TNR in your community.
You may also encounter issues with the local government, which may see you releasing sterilized cats and assume you are abandoning them.
Heidi Bickel of Stray Pet Advocacy details these issues, advice and more to aid in your program. Her website offers extensive information, tools and worksheets.
You may face roadblocks, questions and opposition, but sterilizing even one cat can make a difference. The cats are already there — the problem is in your neighborhood.
Do nothing, and the cats will continue to multiply. Start with just one cat, and you might inspire others to help you with your TNR initiative.
TNR is the only universally accepted humane and effective method for controlling the feral cat population.
“If there is extreme opposition from neighbors, then moving the colony may be the best option,” Bickel says. “Moving a feral colony is never the first choice, but in extreme situations it is better than having animal control trap and euthanize the cats as the only way to handle the complaints.”
3. Got a Barn? Participate in a Barn Cat Program.
A number of rescue groups now have barn cat programs.
These programs allow the cats to start a new — and better — life after being vaccinated and spayed/neutered by the organization. It’s an ideal way of dealing with those ferals who seem to defy socialization.
The Oshkosh Area Humane Society in Wisconsin operated such a program a few years ago.
The farmers didn’t get a medically up-to-date mouser for nothing, however. They were required to make “a commitment to providing your new barn cat with a forever home” that included food, water, veterinary care and “adequate, safe and warm shelter in a barn, stable, garage or warehouse/other building.”
The society advised “adopting 2 barn cats whenever possible” — after all, most feral cats are used to living in colonies.
4. Adopt or Foster a Feral Cat or Kitten
A lot of people think feral cats cannot be adopted, but it probably depends on the cat and person.
Berkeley and her late husband, Roy, got to know a number of feral cats at their home in Vermont. Over the years, 4 of them became loving pets.
So don’t rule out a feral cat as a possible pet, because you never can tell what difference a permanent home can make.
You might also consider becoming a foster parent. “Kittens that are young enough can be socialized and adopted,” says the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project.
“Foster parents are always needed to help care for these kittens until they can be altered and placed into adoption.”
5. Be a Part of the Solution
- Help spay/neuter a feral cat or an entire feral cat colony.
- Donate to a group like Alley Cat Allies that helps feral cats.
- Volunteer at a free or low-cost spay/neuter clinic.
Part 2: Yes, Sometimes Feral Cats Can Be Socialized
Conventional wisdom says you can’t have a relationship with a feral cat — that they will not socialize completely with humans.
That’s why so many rescue groups advise either TNR or barn cat programs.
The truth is, a feral cat “will usually bond with his/her socializer,” according to Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County. In other words, yes, a feral cat is capable of forming a relationship with you.
That’s exactly what author Andrew Bloomfield discovered when he and his roommates began looking after a colony of feral cats.
It started with Tiny, a calico kitten who’d essentially been abandoned at birth by her feral mother. Bloomfield and his roommates saved the little kitten and started looking after the other cats. They fed the ferals, got them fixed and fended off predators (coyotes and raccoons) when possible.
Bloomfield in particular became “part of the equation,” as he puts it in his book Call of the Cats: What I Learned About Life and Love From a Feral Cat Colony.
As time went by, Bloomfield realized he “couldn’t fully understand outside unless I joined the colony,” metaphorically speaking. So he began sitting outdoors at night and studying the feral cats.
Over time, a bond developed.
Bloomfield ended up raising and keeping some of the kittens indoors, but even those cats who remained outside with the colony seemed to understand he meant well. Some of the cats were even playful.
But can all ferals be tamed or “homed”? Probably not. In fact, don’t even count on it.
WebMD insists its research has found that most feral adult cats “simply can’t be tamed.”
“They are wild animals, like raccoons,” the authors say. Adult feral cats “tend to stay away from humans, hide during the day and, when adopted, are very difficult to socialize.”
The authors also share this important cautionary advice:
“Just like you would never try to handle a raccoon, you should never try to pick up a feral cat. Call for assistance from the humane society or other animal welfare center.”
Watch this friendly feral cat, who has become used to the human who feeds her after much interaction:
Part 3: Can a Domestic Cat Turn Feral?
Let me tell you a true story from my own life.
Three cats — Scrabble, Sushi and Kenya — were unexpected arrivals at my house, courtesy of a friend. Chantal and her husband had to foreclose on their home, and they couldn’t take the animals with them.
Because of the circumstances, I agreed to foster these cats. My plan was to take one in at a time so that our own cats wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the 3 strangers suddenly descending upon them.
Kenya, the male, came first and lived in my study. Scrabble and Sushi, the 2 females, remained in a room in the basement of their soon-to-be-sold home.
Chantal went over to feed them but was too heartbroken over the situation to visit with them long. As the weeks went by, the female cats lost whatever socialization they’d had.
Kenya, the male, became extremely territorial. Thanks to the efforts of another friend, he ended up in a home where he was the only cat.
Scrabble and Sushi arrived soon after (we had to speed up our original plan). By “arrived,” I mean they scooted down to the unfinished part of our basement and refused to have anything to do with us or the other cats.
Domestic Cats Turned Feral
Poor Scrabble and Sushi. The time alone in their old home had turned these domestic cats feral with a vengeance.
At first I wasn’t too concerned. I’d worked with a number of stray and feral cats over the years. Given shelter and affection, all of them had settled down relatively quickly.
Sushi pretty much followed this script. Yes, she bit my thumb and peed on my foot the first time I brought her to the veterinarian. But she was, on the whole, a good-natured cat and mellowed out even more after Circe, our own cat, befriended her. Circe was a sociable girl, and some of that seemed to rub off on Sushi.
Scrabble, however, was another story. She growled, hissed at and swatted anyone who came near her.
The Cat Who Came With Baggage
Scrabble had been born in a basement.
She had been left behind when her feral mother decided to move the kittens to a less peopled place. Scrabble’s right hind foot wasn’t fully formed, and that made her a liability in the world to which her mom was returning.
Chantal had adopted her, bottle-fed her and given her the mothering she needed. So losing this person had been just one more abandonment to Scrabble.
Spirited away to a strange place with new humans and other cats, Scrabble moved into the built-in workbench shelf. I put her food and water up there, and she left it only to use the litter box or to swear at me from the shadows.
Socialization had never gone very far with Scrabble, I learned. I might as well have been dealing with a feral cat.
The fact that she was also 9 years old and clearly set in her ways meant that the task in front of me was going to be all that much harder.
Starting From Scratch
I talked with my friend Bernadette, who has fostered countless cats and kittens over the years.
“Whenever I’ve had a cat like that,” Bernadette told me, “I’ve just talked to it.”
They get used to you and the sound of your voice that way, she explained, and tame down in spite of themselves.
So, as I puttered around the cellar, I talked to Scrabble. I made no effort to touch her.
Then, one day when I was in the cellar, she came out of nowhere and rubbed against my ankles. After that, she began to hop down and greet me whenever I came to the cellar. She still occasionally swatted at me, but she kept her claws in.
Gradually Getting Better
Happily, Scrabble and Sushi are still with us.
We still can’t pick either of them up, and they still have to be tranquilized when they go to the vet’s office. But Scrabble spends more time out in the open now and sometimes even ventures out into the finished part of the basement.
And just a few months ago, I headed down to the cellar only to see Scrabble coming slowly up the steps toward me.
Part 4: How to Deal With Pregnant Feral and Stray Cats
Madame X, a feral tortoiseshell cat I’m fostering for a local rescue group, is pregnant.
Most of the time she stays tucked away under the desk, coming out only at night to eat and use the litter box.
She’s not ready to interact with me, but she doesn’t seem particularly frightened either. My vet says she’s carrying 1 or 2 kittens. How, I wonder, will she behave once they’re born?
Feral or Stray?
Of course, it’s possible Madame isn’t really feral. She may have had a home once, which would explain her calm acceptance of her new home.
According to Alley Cat Allies, stray cats are socialized to people, but feral cats are not. “While [ferals] are socialized to their own colony and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.”
So, the categories aren’t clear-cut. A stray cat can turn feral “as her contact with humans dwindles,” says Alley Cat Allies. “But she can also become a pet cat again. Stray cats that are reintroduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to reacclimate.”
A feral cat has had little or no contact with people. Used to surviving on her own, she isn’t about to walk up to you and let you touch her.
Her kittens can be socialized, though, which is why experts advise taking them away from her as soon as possible.
Trap, Neuter and Foster
The usual way of dealing with feral cats is a fairly straightforward one: TNR, which we discussed above.
TNR proponents believe feral cats do not make good pets. Because the cats’ only ties are with the other members of their colony, releasing them back into the territory they know — with someone to look after them — may be the best option.
But a pregnant feral cat presents a whole new set of problems.
“Conventional TNR wisdom has long held that to allocate very limited resources most effectively, we must come to terms with spaying pregnant females and write off any kittens,” says Tiny Kittens Society of British Columbia, Canada.
Write the kittens off? Ooof. Well, that’s one option.
Two other options are:
- Trapping the whole family once the kittens have been weaned
- Getting the mom into a trap during the last week or so of her pregnancy and fostering her until her kittens are ready to be socialized
Tiny Kittens Society believes in trying to “make fostering a more viable option,” and the organization has worked with a number of pregnant feral cats with that goal in mind.
Setting Up the Nursery
This can be as high- or as low-tech as you like.
Madame’s setup includes a litter box, food, water dishes — and, of course, her under-the-desk hiding spot.
The Tiny Kittens Society’s suggested setup for a pregnant feral cat in your home is much more involved. It includes:
- A white-noise machine “to help mask human/unfamiliar sounds”
- A web camera so you can monitor what’s happening in the nursery and keep human interaction to a minimum at the same time
- A 36-inch reacher stick to make contact with the mom cat without actually touching her
- Logs and litter boxes filled with dirt, pine needles and leaves to make her strange new world a little less strange
If you have another nursing mom on the premises, place the feral queen’s kittens with her in time to help with their socialization and to give them “the comfort of a mom, … minimiz[ing] any stress from losing their own mom earlier than is ideal under normal circumstances.”
Tiny Kittens Society advises checking with your vet first so “you are not putting either group of kittens at risk for diseases.”
A Safe Haven
Madame won’t be returning to her old haunts once she’s spayed. It’s too dangerous.
Instead, she’ll go to the rescue group’s no-kill shelter. Whether she can be socialized and adopted remains to be seen.
But, one way or another, she’ll have a safe haven — perhaps the first she’s ever known.
Part 5: How to Tame Feral Kittens
If you have a cat colony in your area, or if you’d like to volunteer with a rescue that helps feral cats, it’s possible that you can not only successfully perform TNR but also remove and domesticate any young feral kittens you find.
This could turn the kittens from wild, hissing scratch-machines into happy, adoptable house cats.
Here are some quick tips on how to tame feral kittens:
Get Them Seen by the Veterinarian
When the kittens weigh more than 2 pounds, take them to the vet for spaying/neutering, vaccinations and flea treatment. Yes, it’s necessary.
Try to get them to the vet as soon as possible after you catch them, so that the trauma of going to the vet will be over at the beginning of your domestication.
Provide a Safe Space in Your Home
Once you are able to bring the feral kittens indoors, create a safe space for them in a bathroom, spare room or other confined space, where they won’t be around humans, dogs or other cats.
Install a litter box (they’ll instinctively know what to do with it) and supply food, water, beds and cat toys.
At first, the kittens will be scared of you and won’t come near you. They’ll hide when you enter the room and hiss and scratch at you if you get too close. This is all perfectly normal behavior.
Ignore Them at First
If you try to get the feral kittens to come to you before they’re ready, the only result will be hands and arms covered with scratches.
When you first start working with them, the best approach is no approach: Ignore them until they’re ready to investigate you.
Unfortunately, it could take days or weeks for them to start coming around, but your patience will pay off eventually.
Read to the Kittens
One trick to get feral kittens accustomed to being around humans is to sit in the room with them and read aloud from a book.
The book serves 2 purposes:
- It keeps you from getting bored, of course.
- And, crucially, it lets the kittens get used to the sound of human voices.
Visit them for about 15 minutes at a time, as many times a day as your schedule allows.
Introduce Them to Play
With enough time and patience, you’ll find that the kittens will start investigating you — let’s hope sooner rather than later.
Don’t grab at them or make sudden moves, which can set you back days. Instead, arm yourself with a couple of string toys, the kind that have a feathery mouse dangling off a short pole, and tease them into pouncing on it.
With a toy, you’ll be able to engage with the feral kittens without having to get too close.
Handle the Kittens With Care
Once the kittens begin to respond to your presence and play with toys, take things a step further by initiating physical contact.
Go slowly and let the kittens come to you. Don’t grab them, and don’t pressure them into doing anything they aren’t ready for yet.
When you are able to handle them regularly, do so as often as possible. Your primary goal at this point is to acclimate them to human touch.
Final Thoughts on Taming Feral Kittens
If you’re able to successfully tame the feral kittens, the payoff will be huge.
You’ll be giving a safe, long life to little beings who will bring love and comfort to their adopters. You’re also helping to halt the feral cat overpopulation problem.
But the biggest reward?
That would be the satisfaction of watching these wild beasts become happy, socialized kitties, ready for adoption.
This video shows how the Urban Cat League socializes feral kittens:
- “How You Can Help the Cats.” Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project. http://www.feralcatproject.org/how-you-can-help.
- “Feral Cat Shelter Options.” Alley Cat Allies. https://www.alleycat.org/resources/feral-cat-shelter-options-gallery/.
- Berkeley, Ellen Perry. Maverick Cats: Encounters With Feral Cats. The New England Press, Inc. 2001.
- Olson, Robin. Kitten Associates Inc. http://kittenassociates.org/.
- “U.S. Faces Growing Feral Cat Problem.” National Geographic. Sept. 7, 2004. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2004/09/feral-cat-problem/.
- Bickel, Heidi. “TNR and The Law: What Feral Caretakers Need to Know.” Stray Pet Advocacy. 2004. http://www.straypetadvocacy.org/tnr__the_law.html.
- Bloomfield, Andrew. Call of the Cats: What I Learned About Life and Love From a Feral Cat Colony. New World Library. 2016.
- “Helping Stray and Feral Cats.” WebMD. May 2, 2019. https://pets.webmd.com/cats/helping-stray-and-feral-cats#1.
- Falconer, Julie. “How to Help Your Neighborhood’s Feral Felines: Tips for Keeping Neighborhood Cats Safe.” The Humane Society of the United States. July 1, 2016. https://www.humanesociety.org/news/keeping-neighborhood-cats-safe.