Madame X sits atop the bookcase staring out the window when I walk into my study. She gives me a look, then jumps down and scurries under my desk.
Madame is a feral tortoiseshell cat that I’m fostering for a local rescue group. She is also pregnant.
Most of the time she stays tucked away under the desk, only coming out 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. She is, the veterinarian says, carrying 1 or 2 kittens. How, I wonder, will she behave once they’re born?
Feral or Stray
Of course, it’s possible that Madame isn’t really feral. She may have had a home once, which would explain her calm acceptance of her new digs.
Stray cats are, according to Alley Cat Allies, “socialized to people. Feral cats are not socialized to people. While they are socialized to their own colony and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.”
Sid, a flamepoint Siamese, and his sister, Birdie, showed up at a feral-cat feeding station when they were kittens. Sue, the woman tending the station, caught them and brought them inside. Sid slipped out. Birdie, however, tamed down and got adopted.
Sometime later, Sid reappeared — drawn, no doubt, by his ties to the colony in general and to Birdie in particular (never underestimate the bond between litter mates). He is back inside Sue’s house now, and we’re both working with him.
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 re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to re-acclimate.”
A feral feline 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 modus operandi for dealing with feral cats has been a fairly straightforward one: trap-neuter-return (TNR). TNR proponents believe these cats aren’t prime pet material. Because their only ties are with the other cats in their colony, releasing them back into the territory they know — with someone to look after them — may be a better option.
A pregnant feral presents a 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 (TKS).
That’s 1 option. The other 2 are:
- Trapping the whole family once the kittens have been weaned.
- Getting the mom into a Havahart trap during the last week or so of her pregnancy and fostering her until her kittens are ready to be socialized.
TKS believes in trying to “make fostering a more viable option” and has worked with a number of pregnant feral cats with that end in mind.
Setting Up the Nursery
This can be as high- or low-tech as you like. Madame’s setup includes a litter box, food, water dishes — and, of course, her under-the-desk lair.
The TKS scenario is much more involved. It includes:
- A white-noise machine “to help mask human/unfamiliar sounds”
- A web camera so that 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
This video (the first of a 3-part series) from the Urban Cat League shows how it socializes feral kittens:
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 give them “the comfort of a mom…minimiz[ing] any stress from losing their own mom earlier than is ideal under normal circumstances.” TKS advises checking with your vet first so “you are not putting either group of kittens at risk for diseases.”
Madame won’t be returning to her old haunts once she’s spayed. It’s too urban and 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.