When Domestic Cats Turn Feral: The Taming of Scrabble

When we took in 3 cats from a friend in need, one of them transformed from domestic cat to feral feline.

Has your cat starting hiding from you? By: Bev Goodwin
Can a domestic cat turn feral? By: Bev Goodwin

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 the cats. My plan was to take one in at a time so that our felines 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 with the matroyshka figures, 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 tortie girls lost whatever socialization they’d had.

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Kenya 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.

Going Feral

The time alone in their old home had turned Scrabble and Sushi 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 blue Abyssinian, befriended her.  Circe was a very sociable girl, and some of that seemed to rub off on Sushi.

Scrabble, however, was another story. She growled, hissed 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 that her mom was returning to.

Chantal had adopted the abandoned kitten, bottle-feeding her and giving her the mothering she needed. So losing Chantal had been just one more abandonment to the rotund little tortie.

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.

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Socialization had never gone very far with Scrabble, I learned. To all intents and purposes, 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,” she remarked, “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.

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She 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.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, which was the winner of a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized.

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