When my husband and I embarked upon our first feral cat rehab journey back in 2007, I was a ferret person of twenty some odd years. I knew nothing about cats. I had a bit of limited experience with friends and family and had heard a whole lot of cat nightmare stories slapped together with bad information gleaned from people who probably shouldn’t have had pets to begin with. Moon kitteh was a circumstance we sort of fell into, and it turned out to be one of the best circumstantial experiences we’ve ever had. Cats are a lot like ferrets in many ways, so we already had a lot of valuable knowledge as far as care and feeding, in particular the care and feeding of shelter and disabled animals.
Over the five years we worked with Moon in situ, I read and read and read. As much information as I could find. I got in touch with TNR groups, local and National. Alley Cat Allies being one of many. I talked to my veterinarian, who I’ve been with for twenty years. And I started watching and following cat people on TV and on the net: Jackson Galaxy and The Way of Cats blog are just a few of the great sites out there. There are so many people out there willing to share their knowledge that to ignore it is to invite disaster. So I thought I would start journaling my experience with Rupert, our current house cat in progress.
The first thing you should do when the idea of rehabilitating a free-roaming cat strikes you is to sit down and ask yourself the hard questions:
As in, can I do this? Do I have the desire to learn everything I can about the situation? Do I have the financial resources to take this animal on, because free-roaming cats come with a fuck-ton of medical shit to deal with, parasites being only a small part of it? Do I have the patience and calm resolve to endure setback after setback? Do I have the space in my home to dedicate to this animal for 6 months to a year, a room that will stink and be messy? And do I have the time to devote to this, because it does take a lot of time: a lot of very strictly regimented time? Cats need structure and routine in order to feel safe. Sleeping through a regular feeding and interaction session because it’s the weekend is not an option. Lastly, are you and the people you live with on the same page? Everyone living in the home has to be a can-do person as well. If not, the project will fail and possibly tear your family apart in the process.
This has more to do with the cat than you. If you answered “yes I can” to all the previous questions, then you need to determine the type of cat you are dealing with, and there is much misinformation out there.
Humans love to label things. So you’ll see the terms: Feral and Stray along with the term impossible and a variety of synonyms to that effect. You’ll also see statements like: They are happier outside. They don’t need your help. They’ll never adjust to the indoors. They’ll never be a lap-cat. Blah. Blah. Blah.
All of those statements are true and also not true. People have just as much trouble bringing a new cat home from a pet store as they would have bringing in a free-roaming cat, which is why cats get dumped outside and in shelters to begin with. The reason these disasters happen is simple: The human lacks the knowledge required to care for the animal properly and they don’t know what kind of cat they are dealing with.
Cats have personality types, and it doesn’t matter what label we slap on them. Feral, Stray, Shelter, or Pet store cat. Their background might influence their type, but they have a personality type from birth. You won’t know what you’ve got until you start working with the cat, and that is best done in situ – Outside – in the environment they are comfortable in. This is the start. Start trust building first before you kidnap them. Yes, kidnap. That is what it is going to feel like to them, so build the trust early. It’ll go a long way later when they have to forgive you.
For the purpose here, we’ll break cats down into two personality types because regardless of the label, these two are the most important to know before you begin and it will answer the Should You? question.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Or rather, how does the cat instinctively react to Fear?
Do they react like a cornered mountain lion, or do they run and hide?
To put it more simply: Are they Aggressive or Timid?
Aggressive = Fight
Timid = Flight
Friendly = Just fucking friendly, so proceed.
So how can you tell? You watch them. You interact with them and you watch them over an extended period of time. Day one will tell you very little. Building trust and a rapport takes time. Day 31, 61, 91, or 361 will tell you a lot more. If you have no patience for this, don’t do it. Leave the cat alone unless it is in dire need of assistance, and I do mean dire. A skinny cat needs food and a warm shelter first. It does not need you pouncing on it. A bleeding, injured cat needs immediate medical attention. Know the difference between the two, and…
NEVER EVER EVER GRAB AFTER A CAT YOU DON’T KNOW WITHOUT SAFETY GEAR AND A PLAN. YOU WILL GET HURT.
Now I like the Alley Cat Allies chart as it identifies basic body language/personality types, sans the inaccurate labels. You can find their fact sheet here. Both true Feral Cats and Free-roaming once-indoor cats can and do show all of these traits depending on their personality type, so it’s not as black and white as it might appear to be. What you want to gauge here is responsiveness and receptiveness towards human contact. A timid cat often becomes a friendly cat with time, trust, and patience.
Friendly and Timid Cats – Feral or otherwise:
- May approach people, houses, cars, porches, etc. Or they might not and will seek hiding spots.
- May or may not belong to a colony.
- Might walk with tail up like a house cat, which = friendly, or they might stay crouched low to the ground with their tail curled around them.
- Might look at you, blink, or make eye contact, or they might not and avoid eye contact.
- May or may not be vocal. My Moon wasn’t vocal until he came inside. Rupert is only vocal in response to Moon. Rupert is not vocal with me at all yet.
- May or may not be out during the day. Timid cats come out during the daytime too, but they are usually hiding/sleeping. Look for sun spots. All cats that have been outdoors for some time know that hunting is better at dusk and dawn and that sleeping is better during the day. Cats return to their internal species clock pretty quickly, even house cats.
- A cat that has recently been dumped might appear disheveled, dirty, etc. Cats that have been free-roaming for a while are usually pretty well-groomed, but other factors play into things here, so you can’t judge by appearances all the time.
- As for ear tipping: No TNR group, no ear tipping. And just because a cat is ear-tipped does not mean it was too aggressive to adopt. It simply means it was trapped and neutered/spayed. Shelters are overrun. They have too many cats to adopt out. Free-roaming cats are often just tipped/released because there is no other option, regardless of the cat’s personality. Kittens are generally the only ones who are saved for adoption.
If you are considering trapping your resident free-roaming cat, you want a friendly or timid cat. Timid cats are often malleable with proper love and support. My Moon went from timid to friendly but it took five years in situ work. If I didn’t have a day job and had been able to work with him all day every day, that time frame might have been shortened considerably.
BUT BE WARNED
After trapping, the entire situation changes. This is your fear-based personality test, and here you will decide whether or not to proceed. I didn’t have to trap my Moon kitteh. After five years, he trusted us enough to walk into the house on his own, though the transition was stressful, and it took another year for him to settle in. He got very sick during the process too. 4k dollars sick so you know what kind of costs you could be looking at.
Ideally you should trap the day before your scheduled vet visit and trap early in the morning. This will give you and the cat a day in the crate so you can assess the situation. You will need a crate, ideally a large dog crate for maneuverability and comfort. You will also need protective clothing, safety glasses, and heavy leather gloves. Welding gloves work well as you are going to be in the crate adding/changing a litter box, food, water, and blankets.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT – WHAT DO YOU HAVE IN THE TRAP/CRATE?
- You will not be able to touch an aggressive cat.
- An aggressive cat will attempt to escape, through you if it has to.
- They will growl, hiss, and lash out at you. Attempt to claw and bite you.
- Ears will be back and eyes will be dilated.
- Basically you will be dealing with a cornered mountain lion, and this brings us to the last question…
Will it work?
IF YOU HAVE TRAPPED AN AGGRESSIVE CAT, LET IT GO.
While it is possible to rehabilitate an aggressive cat, the odds are unlikely, and the vet visit will be a complete disaster. If it has not been spayed/neutered, get that done and then release it. It’s the best thing for everyone.
Rupert is a timid and friendly-with-me cat. We’ve been taking care of him for eight years, so while the trapping process traumatized him, he calmed down quickly and I was able to handle/pet him in the crate (with gloves on since he’d never been handled before.) We have a lot of work ahead of us, so I will be journaling the experience weekly so that I can contemplate what’s working and what isn’t. So stay tuned.