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Ask A Vet: How Can I Tame a Feral Cat?

Cat hissing

Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on 7x7.com. Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!

Q: In December, I trapped a feral cat who was about four months old. He's kept in a bedroom with toys, food, water and window perch, which he loves. I'm the only person in house, no other pets. Despite it having been about a month and a half, he hisses at me every time I look in his direction. He tolerates my petting him, but remains rigid, and sometimes will go into hiding. Any suggestions?

A: Thank you for your question. A cat who was trapped and is truly from a feral cat colony is a different story than a young, fearful cat. Some feral cats never adapt to humans and stay fearful for life. It is partially genetics, and interestingly, it depends on the personality of the male cat (father) which way they will turn out. A friendly male fathers friendly kittens.

It sounds like you are making some progress with your kitten, but here are a few more tips. The best approach is to confine him to a certain area, but make him aware of the routine in your home so that he starts to integrate into the household. We would like this cat to habituate, ie., get used to the objects, noises, smells and people of your house. You don't want to give him the opportunity to flee completely, but you do want to give him some hiding places and many resting places in that area. It is important for the hiding spaces to offer some protection but does not allow him to completely disappear. To this end, make sure there is a vantage point so he can see you. Perches are perfect. I also recommend to do all feeding from the hand, if he allows it. If not, sit as close to the kitten as possible while he eats. And, use a high value food–food he can not resist, tuna or wet food is usually better than just kibble. Place the kibble in food dispensing toys and enrich his environment. You can also use a Feliway plug-in or spray to make him more comfortable in the environment.

Most of these cats will never be the life of the party, but can get very accustomed to their familiar humans. But it does take time.

If you know what feral colony your kitten came from, please give us a call. Our Community Cats program will come out and spay/neuter the colony and make sure the individuals are healthy.

The easiest and most effective way to control the cat population is to spay and neuter, and monitor populations. What the Community Cats program accomplishes:
   Population stabilization; no more kittens.
   The behaviors associated with mating, such and yowling and fighting, cease.
   Community Cats are vaccinated before being returned to their outdoor homes.

The SF SPCA spays and neuters San Francisco's community cats for free. Whether you are an experienced feral cat advocate, or need assistance getting started, we can help. We offer advice and assistance in managing a community cat colony–just give us a call or email us. Good luck.