Taming Feral Cats

    I divide feral cats into two groups;  passive-response cats and active-response cats.  Both groups are terrified of people.  During kitten hood, they missed a critical window of socialization that removes their fear of people.  As adult cats, they view humans with trepidation.  The passive-response or scaredy-cats freeze when forced to interact with us.  They avoid eye contact and flatten onto the ground.  The active-response cats follow their fight or flight instincts.  They will do anything to escape.  I had a friend lock a feral cat in her tack room overnight.  The next morning, the place looked like a war zone.  The cat urinated and defecated all over.  It knocked tack off the racks and left bloody paw prints on the door.  If you corner a active-response cat, look out.  They will fight to the death.

    In my experience, it takes a miracle to tame an active-response cat.  I am sad to say, there is little hope of success with these animals.  The passive-response cats, on the other hand, can become loving pets.  Here are my tips for working with passive-response cats.  I cannot overstate the following:  This process may take months and must unfold at the pace the cat chooses, not the one we hope for!


1)  Confine the cat to a small room.  This forces it to interact with you.  Bathrooms work well because there are limited places to hide.  They are also easy to clean.
2)  Provide a hiding spot for the cat.  A box or small carrier works well for this.  Do not place your hands inside the carrier.  Remember, this is the cat’s “safe” spot.  Respect this area.
3)  Place a litter box, food and water in close proximity to the hiding spot.  Keep food and water available at all times. 
4)  Allow the cat a few days to acclimate to the room before moving on to the next phase.  Do not start phase two until the cat is eating well. 
5)  Choose one or two people to work with the cat.  Do not allow other animals or people to enter the room. 


1)  Stop free-choice feeding the cat.  Leave the empty bowl in the room.
2)  A few times a day, offer the cat a small amount of food while you sit outside the carrier.  Talk to them in soft, soothing tones.  Wait five minutes before leaving.  The goal is to teach the cat to associate humans with food.  Food is good so therefore, humans are good.  Place the bowl right in front of the safe area.
3)  Eventually, the cat will stick their head out to eat in your presence.  Do not try to touch them!  Let them eat undisturbed.  Do not move until they are done eating and back in the carrier.
4)  When the cat sticks their head out before you put the food in place, start to move the bowl away from the carrier.  Move it three inches at a time until the cat must completely leave the carrier to eat.  Again, do not move or try to touch the cat.  Move onto the next phase when the cat runs to the food bowl and waits for you to scoop up dinner.


1)  Slowly, move your hand towards the cat while it is eating.  If the cat is frightened, stop immediately.  Over time the cat will let you get closer and closer.
2)  Reach towards the rear end, not the face.  Most cats enjoy a good scratch along their back, just in front of the tail. 
3)  When the cat purrs, slowly move to other areas of the body.  Save the top of the head for last.
4)  With time, the cat will jump into your lap for more attention. 


1)  Introduce the cat to the rest of the house.  Open the bathroom door, sit on the floor outside and let the cat explore at will.  Always keep the door open so the cat may return to the safe area if frightened.  Do not force the cat to leave the room.  They will leave when they are ready.  It took my cat Kalani a week of peering out the door before he decided to leave the room.  
2)  Once the cat is comfortable out of the room, introduce other family members.  Always give the cat a means to escape.  Do not let children chase the cat into its safe area.


1)  Continue acclimating the cat to novel events such as nail trimming, carrier rides and brushing their teeth.  
2)  Train them to come when called.  When they arrive, reward them with a tasty treat.

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.