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Can a Feral Cat Make a Good Pet?

Picture of a wild cat

What is the definition of a feral cat? A feral cat is a feline who has never had contact with humans, or once experienced human contact but does not any longer. Feral cats live on their own, outdoors, and are generally afraid of people. They are different from stray cats, who are likely to have been someone’s pet at one time before they ran away and/or got lost.

According to the Feral Cat Project of Lynwood, Washington, it is almost impossible to estimate the population of feral cats across the United States. One guess is that there are 0.5 feral cats per U.S. household. Some cat lovers wonder if a feral cat can ever make a good pet. There are pros and cons to trying to domesticate a feral cat, which we will discuss here.

How to Tell if a Cat is Feral or Stray?

The first thing you must determine when attempting to adopt a “wild” cat is whether or not it is a stray or if it is feral. Here are some differences that can clue you in to a cat’s status:

  • The cat will not approach humans easily. This type of cat is usually feral, and has had little, if any, socialization with humans during her lifetime. Stray cats, on the other hand, will more easily approach people.
  • The cat runs in a “pack.” Feral cats are more likely to belong to a colony or pack of cats. Stray cats are more likely to survive on their own.
  • The cat’s behavior. If a cat is feral, she will tend to stay low to the ground, protecting her body with her tail. She will rarely make eye contact with humans, and will usually run from them. Stray cats will act more like a typical house cat (as most of them were at one time), making eye contact and not being as fearful of humans.

Kittens Born to Feral Cats

Feral cats can be difficult to bring into your home because they are not socialized. One of the most successfully adopted types of feral cats, however, are kittens that are born to feral cats. If they are socialized at a young age, these kittens can get used to human contact and become loving companions who will enjoy living in your home. Many of the groups specializing in spaying and neutering feral cats will attempt to socialize and adopt out a feral cat’s kittens. More on this is examined below.

Adult Feral Cats

Groups who trap feral cats to neuter them often advocate returning them to the outdoors once they are neutered, in what’s known as Trap-Neuter-Return programs. These groups are against trying to domesticate and socialize feral cats, feeling that this is not in the cat’s best interest. Other groups will attempt to adopt out some feral cats, especially if they are kittens. Kittens have not yet gotten used to living in the company of other cats, without human contact, and are therefore easier to socialize and domesticate.

If you see an adult feral cat, the best thing you can do is to call one of the Trap-Neuter-Return programs in your community. A listing of some of them across the country can be found here. Your local shelter may not be the best place to contact, as they will often euthanize feral cats.

It is generally not recommended for a “layperson” to try to bring a feral cat into their home and turn it into a pet. If you have some veterinary knowledge or experience and want to turn a feral cat into a house pet, you will have to dedicate much time and patience to the endeavor, and be ready for failure. You can’t overwhelm a feral cat and try to bring her into your home the first time you encounter her. Think of a feral cat as a wild animal- -you wouldn’t try to bring a raccoon into your home after first encountering her, either. Don’t force yourself upon a feral cat, but rather, let the cat set the pace and decide if she wants to interact with you. Encourage the feral cat with food and play (a cat fishing pole is a good toy to use, as it allows you to stay a safe distance from the cat).

If you do eventually trap or “lure” a feral cat to you, the first thing to do is to take her to the vet. If she’s not spayed or neutered, make that your first priority. You will also want to have her health thoroughly checked and get her up-to-date on necessary vaccinations. This is especially important if you already have cats at home – you don’t want your new kitty to spread any diseases to your cats. Once her health has been checked, you should keep the feral cat in a room by herself for a while before acclimating her to your home and other pets you may have.  You will likely need to train the cat to use a litter box, and have much patience in this area, too.

In general, however, most cat experts agree that feral cats are happy living in packs in the wild. Threfore, once a feral cat has been spayed or neutered, it is recommended that they be returned to live outdoors with their cat colony. Making a feral cat a pet is not necessary for the cat’s well-being. Contrary to popuelar belief, human contact is not essential to a cat’s quality of life.

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