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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!


18 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.

  5. A year ago today our cat disappeared and my daughter went to our local shelter to see if he had been brought in. My daughter saw a cat that looked like ours but was labeled a barn cat…(if our cat was captured he to would act like such) So she adopted him and brought him home. He had been nurtured and shots given and ear cut to show was nurtured. Right away went into hiding.
    My daughter was living in a motor home, and has worked with Tommy ever since, mostly later evening hours with feeding, watering, toys, blanket, clean litter box always, and lots of talking ,cooing, and now petting to the point he comes out some but not much. Or he will start meowing loud when she is sleeping. She has left the window open in case he didn’t want to stay but he stays. She recently moved to a nice quiet calm place, and Tommy is hiding first place he found – under the bathroom sink.
    The problem is!!! Others are telling my daughter he will never be “normal” – that its cruel to keep him- on and on. My daughter is heart broken and loves Tommy but yet don’t want to be doing the wrong thing for Tommy. She has very few people over and consistent with the one she has. She loves him forever but doesn’t know what to do and I don’t know how to advise. And we don’t know exactly the things she should be doing to bring him out!!! We just want what is best and him to know and feel loved and belong.
    Thank you for any input regarding this matter truly!!!!

    1. Hi, Celeste,

      I apologize for the late response.

      So… in cases like these, it isn’t like you can just release him outside after he’s been confined indoors all this time. Many of us who tried to socialize an older feral have ended up with a semi-feral living with us because we can’t let him go now and he just doesn’t want to socialize easily. That’s when we all learn to STOP taking in older ferals because people are correct, it isn’t fair to force a terrified cat to live inside with the very humans he’s scared of!

      However, it seems he isn’t all feral and your daughter worked very well with him in the original place, to the point he felt safe inside and didn’t leave the first chance he got.

      It’s just going to take time at the new place to get him to feel safe again. Cats don’t like change. Cats who can’t rely on humans to feel safe, REALLY REALLY hate to change their homes even more!

      If he responds to her, purrs for her, and even plays some, I’d tell her to continue working carefully with him. He’ll eventually accept her, at least. If they’re home alone together. If he’s completely miserable and hiding 24-7 after all this time, THEN I would consider trying to find a barn for him to be relocated to where he can take over a tack room for a few weeks before being released into the barn.

      Just because a cat doesn’t act normally around strangers though, doesn’t mean the cat isn’t happy when the cat is home with their preferred human, though. Normal is overrated. You just want to ensure the cat is happy or content and not stressed and miserable.

  6. How do you know if a cat will become socialized if you don’t know what age they are? I began as a kitten tamer at a local rescue this year. I TNR’d all the big boys around my apartment building. Then a new guy showed up.
    I thought he was a girl- so much smaller than my puffy-cheeked boys! I trapped him because he was very food motivated and the rescue did a quick eval and said he could be tamed -but i’d need to do it. I got him back after his neutering & vac and took him home. The rescue warned me that he was hissy and aggressive, which surprised me. I thought it was because they tend to be aggressive in socializing. I decided that if that didn’t work for him I’d try something different. I asked to rescue workers for advice. The head of the rescue told me I had a week. I didn’t ask “a week to what?”
    As I thought, she just was very scared and apprehensive and didn’t care for the aggressive approach. I have been taking things slower and gentler, and so far I have him eating out of my hand, sleeping near me in his bathroom, and we started on petting today after 4 days of 5 hours a day with him. He’s never been aggressive with me. He’s in a totally new world and he’s understandably apprehensive. I know I need to do a lot of repetition of the socializing steps with him, and it’s going to take more than a week! Is he tame able? When can I tell? What are the signs that point to no?
    He looks like a young cat but not the 10-week kitten type i’m used to. No puffy cheeks and small body.
    I don’t want to make him a “limbo” cat but from what i saw of him outside he’s not a good feral, unlike my big boys.

    1. Hi, Kathy,

      Cat ages can be hard after about 12-16 weeks old, so it’s basically guessing. And sometimes kittens are smaller than they should be! And it definitely sounds like yours is tameable and possibly had SOME socialization at some point, but it’s also very likely that they may be timid with strangers their whole lives. Sigh. My best advice is to try and see. You already have him and it’s best to continue working with him at this point.

      Some kittens just do not respond to typical ‘forced’ socializing techniques and I almost never use those myself. I work to earn the kitten’s trust, not force them to understand I’m not hurting them. Does that make sense? I’ve had kittens react very negatively to being forcefully cocooned and held, even at very young ages, but respond easily to food and sneak pets during their meals to the point after the third or fourth time, they’re realizing I’m not trying to hurt them. Then I push boundaries without making the cat TOO unhappy. Until they start accepting and enjoying it and I reward everything with nummies.

      Hopefully your kitten socialized okay!

  7. Hello!

    I had been caretaking a small colony of feral cats for a few years, already TNR’d. A new little cutie started coming around on a schedule, and he wasn’t part of the crew, and had a hard time fitting in. He seemed like a stray- not so feral, meowing, and rolling around to get belly rubs. No response to a month or two of trying to find an owner. I finally got him trapped, and no chip, so we have him in a small bathroom- living like a king with regular wet food, cat nip toys, litter.. It’s still be only about 1 month, but he hides behind the toilet all the time- though he comes out and eats every bite and uses the litter box. But hisses when anyone walks in… Is there hope you think? Just take a lot longer? I feel guilty because he is certainly not happy now. We have a few stray/ feral that adjusted and live in the home (though still private, quiet). ? Any advice would be really appreciated??

    1. Hi, Kim,

      So I apologize for the late response, but I’m still going to answer in case other people are having similar issues.

      Sometimes, confining the cat will make them act MORE feral then they originally were to begin with. And the longer you confine them, the more scared and violent they can become as the stress continues.

      If a cat is reacting badly to being confined like this, is when I find a bigger area for him to be confined in. An entire room, for example. Once they don’t feel like they are ‘trapped’ without an escape, they usually start to relax.

      I tend to find the cats that react badly to these situations are the LEAST feral cats out of the colonies, usually the friendlies. Whether it’s because they don’t exactly fear humans as ferals do, so they feel safe enough to lash out in anger and fear more, or something else, I don’t know. It’s almost always a cat that someone swears is friendly and adoptable and they bring him or her inside, confine him, and it will turn them vicious. It’s weird, I know.

      So my advice in these situations is to bring the cat out of the bathroom and into the bedroom or a spare room. Let him have his own ‘cat cave’ where he can escape when nervous and where you don’t bother him at all, but continue to interact with him during meal times and hang out with him. When they stop feeling cornered in a tiny room/cage with no escape, they do tend to chill out a bit. Then you can work with him more.

      Hope that helps!

  8. To quote you: “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.”

    I very much disagree with your opinion that it’s acceptable to keep a cat long term in any situation that makes them miserable. . . . Whether indoor-only or in an outdoor cage, or a mix of the two. . . .

    So many cats would be very happy in such circumstances that a person should opt to help one of those, rather than to selfishly make a ‘wild’ cat miserable for life, no matter what reason the person thinks they have to do so. . . .

    Cats need to be allowed to make certain decisions for themselves, and when/if their circumstances have led to them being miserable/terrified living among humans, they should retain the right to remain free of human contact as much as possible . . . that should be their right . . . to *NOT* be traumetized.

    Making them miserable for years trying to get them used to what is -to them- a terrifying environment, takes a HUGE chunk out of their lives, anyway . . . while at the same time introducing ongoing terror & fear & unease (things that stress them awfully) . . . and for what . . . ? So the person can claim to be ‘helping’ them . . . ?

    We should help them to live *happier* lives . . .
    rather than lives that fit our ideas & agendas . . . even when theirs do not coincide with ours.

    1. Hi, Pam,

      I did not say they should keep a cat that is MISERABLE inside. I said if they WANT to tame them because they want to adopt them they need to keep in mind that they may never adjust to being indoor-only and it may make him miserable! I didn’t say ignore that and bring them indoors anyway! I said they may never adjust to being an indoor-only cat. A person can ‘keep’ a cat that isn’t inside, or is indoor-outdoor, etc. You made the assumption that ‘taming’ equals “indoor-only” that they’re two very different things. Many people let their pet cats outside that are all perfectly tame, even to strangers. And some people try forcing a completely feral cat to live in their apartment, where it lived for 5 years under the bed, scared and miserable. Both issues are completely different issues.

      I keep cats who live outside and refuse to come inside. I have a few that come in at night. And I have some that are indoor-only. Taming doesn’t mean ‘indoor-only’ and ‘keeping’ a cat doesn’t mean indoor only.

  9. I have been feeding cats at my old apartment complex (it’s OK with management) as I TNR them. One had the friendly switch flip on last November, became really friendly and affectionate, so I put him in a carrier (easily) and had him overnight (and found I am allergic to longhairs!), and he was taken to an adoption center last weekend and has a new family!
    Another cat that I wanted to become friends with has warmed up to me, and tonight was the first night he’s showed up since the last guy was taken away, and he is very loving already! Head-butts, loves pets and head-scritches, and I heard some purrs and got a few flops on his side from him. He was TNR’d last August and didn’t come back after his release for 10 days. He used to run if I acknowledged him. Now, he’s also flipping that switch! I’m so excited. I hope he doesn’t have any fatal disease, as the previous friendly kitty tested positive for FIV and has a heart murmur (so glad he’s going to get cared for and be an inside kitty now). I am hoping my newest buddy will choose to come home with me soon.
    The other kitties I feed do what you mention here — they recognize me but keep their distance. I don’t force interaction on them, so if they are happy and surviving in this area (which is not a great area IMO) then I love them enough to let them live on their terms.

    1. Hi, Kathy,

      Thank you for taking such good care of them! I’m happy you were able to get the long-haired kitty adopted! I love hearing of TNR/feral cats getting adopted! I do hope the new friendly kitty is healthy too. Living outside like they were, ESPECIALLY as unfixed male cats, they fight and mate so much that they are often the cats that test positive for FIV (and FeLV) instead of the fixed cats or even unfixed females.

      And an even bigger thank you for loving the standoffish ones just as much as the ones that flipped the friendly switch on. Once you gain their trust, it’s always fantastic. Even more, if they turn friendly enough to be adopted! Huge thank you for all the work you’re doing with these cats. If only everyone worked so hard to save their colonies!

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