How to socialize a feral cat – From hiss to purr

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angry cat hissing

This post is a follow-up to my previous post about socializing cats. The steps that I detail in that post are significant for cats that are familiar with humans. However, feral cats, those that have never been around humans, need a different approach. Read on to learn how to socialize a feral cat.  

What should your expectations be?

It’s not always easy to socialize feral cats, but it is possible. One of the essential tools for this process is patience. For example, feral kittens can be tamed more easily than feral adult cats because they are still young and open to learning how to interact with humans.

Most feral cats may never become as affectionate or friendly as a housecat. However, most feral cats can be socialized enough to develop a trusting relationship with their caretakers. This means that feral cats can often live in homes and no longer need to hunt and survive independently.

Not all unowned outdoor cats are ferals

But what about the friendly cat that hangs out in my neighborhood?

This cat may likely be a stray. It is a cat that has become partially or fully socialized with humans, even without living in a house. It could be that early on in its life, it had positive interactions with humans. This is in contrast to a feral who only ever interacted with other feral cats from birth. puts it this way,

“No two cats are alike, and there’s no one way a cat lives, experiences, or interacts with people. That’s why socialization is so much more than two opposite points—socialized or unsocialized—on a single line. There’s a wealth of gray area between those points that represent the many degrees of socialization in cats. Socialization is a continuum.”

Socializing a feral cat

a beat up older feral

If you want to socialize a feral cat, here are some guidelines that should be followed:

  • Go slowly and let the feral cat set the pace.
  • Do not attempt to socialize feral cats during breeding season, as they will be more aggressive during this time.
  • Provide hiding spots, such as crates, as this will allow the cat to feel they have a safe territory to retreat into when they become uncomfortable. Do not enter into their hiding spot or block it off. This contradicts my post on socializing a cat, specifically about scared, shy cats that have been around humans previously.
  • Turn your back on feral cats when they hiss or growl. Hissing and growling are normal feral cat behaviors; if you turn away from a feral cat, it may feel more comfortable with you and approach you in its own time. Continuing to pay attention to feral cats during times of fear will only make them more scared and less willing to socialize with humans later on in life.
  • Be patient. It may take months for feral cats to become socialized, even with regular contact from humans. Many people think that buying food for feral cats will “bribe” them into socializing with humans or that feral cats can be made to like humans simply by regularly feeding them. While feral cats may take food from a person’s hand after a while, they won’t start to trust their benefactor right away.
  • Make humane traps. If you have feral cats in your area and you want to get them socialized so that you can adopt them out, consider setting up humane traps in the feral cat’s territory and waiting for the feral cat to enter it.
  • Take the feral cat to a veterinarian immediately for shots and spay/neuter surgery. Feral cats who have been spayed and neutered tend to be much friendlier than feral cats that haven’t undergone the procedure.
  • Get down to their level. Feral cats are easily agitated and fearful. By staying on the ground instead of standing over them, they will see you as less intimidating and more likely to approach you.
  • Be careful not to touch feral cats or give them food before they approach you. Petting feral cats and feeding them should be done only after the cat has gotten comfortable with your presence and proven it will not hurt you.
  • At first, keep the cat away from other cats as it will choose to only socialize with them, limiting how much they trust you. As they come to tolerate you more, allow them to see you with other already socialized cats and interact with them in a way those cats find enjoyable. If the socialized cat likes being pet but does not enjoy being picked up, you will pet them and refrain from picking them up.
  • Wear thick clothing and gloves when near the cat. Even if you are not attempting to touch the cat, they may still strike out at you and a cat scratch or bite could become infected.

Taking your time

Since feral cats are only used to the presence of other cats, it is essential to be patient with them. It can take weeks or months for feral cats to become used to you before they will show any signs of accepting you, let alone any affection towards you.

Setting up a humane trap for feral cats

cat in a humane trap

If you have set up a humane feral trapping system, keep the trap covered until it is time to trap the feral. Feral cats should not be exposed in cages for long periods, as some can die from stress or dehydration.

Keep their cage clean by adding fresh litter daily and washing out soiled litter once per week. Wash your hands before handling food to reduce the chance of transmitting diseases. Use thick gloves when handling a feral cat, as they will try to scratch and bite you. Avoid getting your scent or the scent of other humans on traps when leaving them out overnight. Leaving your scent on the traps could lead to feral cats avoiding them.

Watch the feral cats’ behavior closely

A feral cat may try to run away or hide if they feel scared or threatened by you. If feral cats do attempt to leave when they see you, refrain from following them. Wait until another day when they are out before trying again.

To get a good understanding of body language to look out for, check out the chart below.

Cat behavior chart from the RSPCA

Chart borrowed from

To rehome or not to rehome, that is the question

While it can be very challenging to socialize a feral cat, the rewards are endless. You get to see an angry, scared creature learn how to trust and even love strangers.

Once your firey feral friend has come to trust you and shows their sweet side, it is time to consider the next steps. Whether or not you choose to rehome this cat is up to you; only you know what’s best for you and your family.

relaxed long haired cat laying down

Do you have any questions about or experience with socializing feral cats? If so tell us in the comments below, we look forward to hearing from mew!

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