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Can You Tame a Feral Cat?

Can You Tame a Feral Cat?

One of the most common questions that I am asked is whether or not you can tame a feral cat. So can you tame a feral cat? Why don’t rescues and shelters tame feral cats to get them off the streets? Can you adopt a feral cat? Why? Why not?

The short answer to this question is not the full answer. A lot of the time, people call any free-roaming cats “feral” which isn’t actually true. Most of the time when people tell me they tamed a feral cat, they mean that they taught a scared cat to trust them. Or they tamed a feral kitten.

However, it is totally possible to tame an adult cat that is legitimately feral if given enough time and cat behavior expertise. But the question we should be asking is not “can you tame a feral cat?” We need to ask if we SHOULD tame a feral cat.

Wait? What?

That’s right. I’ll explain why.

What is a feral cat?

Feral cats are cats that are not socialized to humans. This either means the cat was born outside and has had no contact with humans or the cat was socialized so long ago and lost all contact with humans that they’ve become feral.

Feral cats are the exact same cat as our house cats, but they just live without humans. Feral isn’t a genetic trait in cats, it’s a behavioral trait because of the lack of human contact.

Most community cats aren’t truly feral but fall somewhere between feral and friendly. Cats that live in cities and human settlements often have had some contact with humans and most have been socialized to some degree. Cats isolated in the wilderness or islands are more often the truly feral cats.

Related Post: What’s a Feral Cat?

Feral Cat Trapped for TNR by a volunteer

Can you tame a feral cat?

Technically, yes. You can tame a feral cat with enough time and cat expertise. If the cat is a young kitten, then this can happen overnight or take a few days. If the cat is an older kitten, it might take a couple of weeks. If the cat is a teenager, it might take a few months. If the cat is an adult, it could take a few months to a few years.

However, chances are if you tame a truly feral adult cat, that cat will only be tame to YOU. So then you’d need to have the cat work with strange humans over a long period of time so that they start to accept other humans. This can also take months to years to achieve. And they may never accept everyone.

The longer you can work with a feral cat, the tamer they will become. After a decade, you may even get them to act like a friendly cat in the local shelter. Too bad by then, he or she will be a senior cat.

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Should you tame a feral cat?

If you want to adopt that feral cat into your home for the rest of his or her life, then I am all for anyone taming a feral adult cat. In fact, you’ll be my hero!

There are only a few instances when you should consider taming a feral cat.

  • You want to adopt the feral cat yourself.
  • You have the space and time to take months or years to work with the cat.
  • You have the ability to keep the cat if taming him or her for adoption fails.

You also have to consider what’s in the best interest of the cat. A former feral cat is not going to enjoy meeting and moving into a stranger’s home. It’s going to be traumatic for them to be ‘abandoned’ by the ONLY human they trust in the world to go to a scary stranger who might “eat” them (in their minds).

Cats are not big on moving to a new environment. And the older they are, the harder it is on them.

Of course, not all cats are the same and some appear to accept change fairly easily. That said, most cats are also VERY good at hiding their emotions when they’re stressed or hurting.

You also have to keep in mind, that former feral cats aren’t often that accepting of strange people. They’re often shy and scared of strangers and strange environments. Most people looking to adopt a cat often look for friendly, happy cats.

Grey Kitten

Why don’t rescues and shelters tame feral cats?

The reason why your local Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program insisted on returning the newly neutered kittens to your yard is that they’re old enough that taming them isn’t guaranteed. And because it will take so long that they won’t be able to help other cats while the feral teenage kittens are being socialized.

All kittens have a socialization window. This is the age that the kittens are most easily introduced to people, other cats, carriers, strangers, harness training, and the vet so that you can have a cat that is not fearful of new people or situations. The primary socialization window in kittens is between 3 and 9 weeks, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. This is the BEST time to introduce kittens (both feral and not) to new experiences. After 9 weeks, the socialization window starts to slowly close and it starts becoming a bit more difficult.

With regards to taming feral kittens, it is best to do so when the kittens are between 5- and 16-weeks-old, but the earlier they’re socialized, the better. After that, it becomes quite a bit harder. Alley Cat Allies recommends not taming kittens over 16-weeks-old, except in special circumstances.

Why wait until 5 weeks? Because you don’t want to take kittens away from their mothers before that period. It is actually best if a kitten remains with their mothers until 8- or 12-weeks-old, but as taming feral kittens at 12-weeks-old takes more time and effort than at 5-weeks-old, it’s a matter of priorities.

In the best-case scenario, you can trap the mother and kittens and then begin to work with the kittens at 3-weeks-old until they are old enough to be fixed and adopted. However, if the mother is completely feral she can teach her kittens to fear you as kittens often take behavior cues from their parents and siblings. It’s not that easy to socialize kittens to humans when the mother is hissing and swatting at you.

TNR groups, animal shelters, and cat rescues often return kittens over 16 weeks old to their outdoor homes after being fixed during TNR, while they will foster younger kittens to put them up for adoption.

This is simply the best allotment of resources. It takes too long and has no guarantee of success to socialize older kittens and cats, when they COULD be helping younger kittens and getting more adult cats fixed.

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When is it NOT a good idea to tame a feral cat?

You should not tame a feral cat if you don’t have the time, space, or inclination to keep that cat. It’s that simple.

Say you tame a feral cat and then realize he’s never going to be adopted because he hisses and swats at strange people? What do you do with him? Put him back outside after months of indoor life? Months where maybe he LIKES indoor-cat life now? Dump him back in his old outdoor home that he likely won’t recognize anymore?

Abandon him? Because that’s what it is. You taught him to trust you, even if just a little bit, and to just say, “Hey, I can’t keep you so out you go!” and expect him to go back to his feral cat ways? Once he’s learned humans bring yummy food and it’s warm and dry inside?

Or he could be a cat that is absolutely miserable indoors even after months, so you bring him back to his old home outdoors. He might not recognize it anymore or his siblings and other cats might not recognize him anymore, and chase him away.

It’s a kind of big mess, if you think about it.

The only possible option for a cat that failed to tame properly is to find a barn home for him or her, but that can be difficult to do even in emergencies.

Tabby Cat After TNR

What is the best thing for the cat?

That’s what you have to think about. What is the best thing for that particular cat, both mentally and physically?

In a perfect world, there would be enough fosters to tame and keep every single feral cat in the United States. That’s the goal of those of us who spay and neuter feral cats during Trap-Neuter-Return. But right now, there are too many cats to get fixed, too many kittens being born, and not enough fosters or adopters available.

So if you want to adopt that feral cat you’ve spent years feeding into your home, more power to you! Please remember that he may never adjust to being an indoor-only cat and it might make him miserable. But if you’re determined, know cats, and want to keep him for the rest of his life, then you’re awesome and should tame that feral cat.

If you want to find the feral cat a home after taming him, then you’re best just leaving him be unless you can keep him for the rest of his life if it fails. With a dedicated caretaker, he’s likely happier where he’s at outdoors than having to be re-abandoned later on.

I learned this lesson the hard way with my former feral Tweety.

Have you tamed an adult feral cat? What happened? Did you keep him? Let me know by leaving me a comment below!


8 thoughts on “Can You Tame a Feral Cat?”

  1. My daughter began feeding a feral a couple of months ago only to find out she was pregnant and gave birth to 3 lovely kittens. They are quite large now and not yet weaned but getting wilder and roaming out further into the front yard so we fear for their safety. We don’t know what to do but your article will be helping us make a decision.

  2. Precious was a 4-5 week old cat that was rescued by the son of my now late sister (d. 1/21). Her non-stop meow screaming made my nephew insist that my sister take the cat in.

    On May 20, 2019, my mother took the cat for my brother who has survived several medical incidents…

    During the last 2 years, I have helped Precious overcome Pica issues, trust issues and her feral nature.

    Today, she is resting as we speak completely comfortable in my big laundry basket (with her bedding) after having about 3 hours of outside play (on harness and leash).

    She’s already sleeping as we speak.

    What a cat.

    Cats can be tamed.

    1. Hi, Michael,

      Yes, they can be! Especially when they were only 4-5 weeks old. Feral cats are no different than pet cats, they just live like wild animals, they are not actually wild animals. So take a young one, you can tame it overnight.

      Thanks so much to you and your family for taking this poor kitty in! I’m sorry for your loss. It is nice to see a family come together to care for someone’s beloved pet after they’re gone. So thanks from all us cat lovers!

  3. I have a roughly 14 month old cat who was trapped at 4-5 months, which seems to be near your maximum for taming. I didn’t get her directly though, she and her brother were kept in a foster situation for another few months but was pretty far from tame.

    I worked very hard to get her to trust me, and she basically became a spoiled lap cat who was given whatever her heart desires or that she begged for. Unfortunately, part of that was harness training outside and four days ago she slipped everything she was wearing and bolted when something startled her. We’ve since seen her twice on our outdoor cameras but no luck getting her back yet.

    I’ve been having an awful time feeling like some part of my heart is just wandering the neighborhood with her. I don’t regret working with her though, every day was a gift.

    1. Hi, Jemand,

      I’m sorry about your cat! Harnesses have to fit perfectly and be tight or this can happen. So sorry! I hope you found her by now!

  4. Thank you for this article. I adopted 2 brothers, they were trapped at about 6 weeks old. Their foster Mom kept them until they were 16 weeks old.
    I didn’t know they were born to a feral Mom. I got them Nov 4th 2020 and have worked with them every day. One is sweet, affectionate, still jumpy about noise however is improving.
    The other won’t let me touch him.
    So while the sweet one was taken in for his shots. I’m at a loss how to get his brother to the vet. Right now I’m throwing treats in to the carrier and he does go in. I’m worried about how he will act once locked in. I wish the woman who advertised them had mentioned they were feral. I had no clue

    1. Woah! Did she not work to socialize them at 6 weeks old? It doesn’t matter that their mom was feral, because it’s behavioral, not genetic, but at 6 weeks old, most kittens can easily be tamed if done constantly at that age.

      At 16 weeks, though, it takes longer. But certainly still possible. You just need to push on handling him with treats and food and play.

      However, he’s likely never going to be comfortable with strangers if he’s still that leery now. It may be a good idea to talk to your vet about a mild sedative like gabapentin they give animals that are hard to deal with or aggressive at the vet. At least to just get him in for vaccinations/neuter!

      It’s also possible he’s tame, just scared of new situations and people if you haven’t had him long.

      Also, the Kitten Lady has an instructional video on socializing hissing kittens on YouTube. She’s pretty famous so it should be easy to find. I’d check that out and use those suggestions to get him around to where you can at least handle him, even if vet visits are a nightmare.

      And any fosterer/rescue or whatever should absolutely be honest about a cat/kitten and their circumstances. If he is just scared, she should have been forthcoming that he is shy and takes awhile to warm up. If he’s actually still unsocialized, that should have been brought up too!

      I’m sorry you had that experience. Hopefully, he turns out sweet, just a scaredy cat.

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