Three times in my life, I’ve befriended feral cats friendly enough to let me come near them, pet them, and ultimately bring them into my and my brother’s homes.
The first time this happened is actually with my very first cat, Avery. We were cat sitting for a friend when Avery started coming by our house, begging for food. It took us a while to gain his trust, but once we broke through, he wouldn’t leave even though he wasn’t hungry, and we just couldn’t say no to that stunning face. You can read the full story of how Avery adopted us here.
Picture from post Smitten With a Kitten – When a Stray Cat Adopts You
The second time we befriended a stray – with Beau – we were getting ready to leave to the UK with Avery. He began showing up at the window irregularly, sniffing at Avery, and so we’d head outside and feed him a little until he left. Unlike Avery, he didn’t stick around for more than an hour or so after leaving. After months of building his trust, eventually we invited him into the little mudroom extension at the front of my grandmother’s house, and closed the door to see how he’d react. Rather than being afraid and begging to leave, he melted: playing, cuddling, eating, and immediately we knew he would absolutely make a great house cat. We were heartbroken that we couldn’t take him in ourselves, uncomfortable taking more than one cat with us from Toronto to Bournemouth, but were desperate to find him a good home. Luckily, my brother fell in love with Beau straight away and took him in immediately. You can follow Beau’s life on my brother’s pet blog here.
The last time I befriended a feral cat was recently, when Bjorn, our second addition to the family not only kept coming back to our home, but physically wouldn’t leave our property besides to eat a couple times a day. We weren’t feeding him at all for months, as he visibly looks like a Persian, so we initially assumed he had a family. As time went on, we clued into the fact that the three other Persians in the area who swung by our house never stayed for long, always bouncing in and out rather than taking up board in our home like Bjorn. We also realized he actually looked different from the others – that unlike them he was not a purebred. In my mind, he had to be one of these owned cats’ offspring with a stray/feral cat. After taking way too long to figure all this out, we didn’t hesitate to spend a moment longer before taking him in. We got him checked out and shaved down (he had hair mats to the point where he had dread locks!), took him in, giving Avery his first sibling.
Now, everybody’s case is different, and you may have cases like these on your hands, where you end up with a feral/stray who is both warmed up to you and house-trainable enough to let you take him or her in. You may end up with cases like others I’ve seen, where the strays and ferals don’t regular your area, either because someone else is feeding them, they are not fans of human interaction at all, or they roam quite a bit, too much for you to build up a good enough rapport with them. Or you might end up with a regular on your hands, a cat who comes and eats, shows you affection, but then wants to leave to roam at the end of the day, and thus happens to be a cat who you end up treating more like an outdoor cat, who you take care of, but isn’t likely to become a house cat. There are lots of in betweens, and it really depends on the cat in question.
Picture from post Our New Cat Knew: Stick Around Long Enough, They’ll Let You In
Of course, my tips are absolutely not the end-all-be-all. They’re 100% here in case you want some ideas. In general, do go with your gut. Never do anything that could cause you or the cat in question harm, and take things slow if you’re at all worried or concerned about pushing the stray/feral cat away with your attempts to get closer. That being said, don’t be afraid to test boundaries every once in a while. You should read a cat’s body language and back off if they appear even the slightest stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable, but don’t assume it’s too early to let a cat sniff your hand, give a cat a little pet, heck even pick up a cat – what you can do really depends on what the particular cat does or does not like. You’ll want to gradually escalate and not just jump to the last step, but if you’ve managed to find a stray cat who used to be a house cat, you may discover trust in you was fairly quick to come by.
Have any advice of your own? Leave your tips & tricks in the comments down below along with any stories you might have. Love reading about your experiences!
Getting Stray Cats to Come to You, Like You, & Befriend You
Gaining Initial Trust
If when you first met the cat in question, without any provocation, food, or playtime, the cat came up to you confidently, smelled your hand, and went in to scent you or rub against you – chances are high the cat is not feral, and may be stray or may even belong to somebody else in the neighbourhood.
For the majority of cats, especially feral cats, trust with you will need to be built up before they let you befriend them enough to get physically close. In terms of gaining the initial trust you’ll need, there are three basics: food, fun, and familiarity. I’ll go through one by one, and if you can think of or have any vetted tips that you’ve tried out yourself, do share with the rest of us in the comments down below!
1. The Food
In terms of food and water, your goal is to find a place to leave these where the stray/feral cat will eat and drink without stress or anxiety. At the same time, you want a spot that’s the closest it can be to your home. If that’s right out back at the rear of your garden, so be it. If it’s physically next to your house from day 1, great. Start as far as the cat needs to feel safe, make sure the kitty’s comfortable eating by checking in on the bowl regularly, then start moving the bowl closer and closer to your home.
If you find the cat is eating happily while he or she is outside and you are inside looking at him or her through the window, do your best to go outside to see if the cat continues to eat. If the cat is startled or scared, take a step back – maintain your distance for some time, then over time gradually get a step or two closer. Go as near to the cat as possible without having him or her stopping eating for more than a moment, as you want to encourage familiarity with you, but not at the cost of scaring the cat away from the food bowl.
Keep leaving out food and water for the stray/feral cat, and refilling whenever it’s low or empty, whether or not you see the cat with your own two eyes. It’s okay if the cat snags meals or manages to eat more often when you’re not around; you’re still familiarizing yourself to the cat. Even the act of regularly providing food without being physically present will increase trust.
If you’ve developed some trust based on providing regular food, you can try leaving the food bowl empty one day, at a time of day you’ll be home and you think the cat will be around. Then when the cat shows up, you can try to encourage him or her to come near you by gently tossing food in his or her direction, not too close but not too far from him or her. At first, the cat will likely be startled, so wait some time until the cat realizes it’s food you’re tossing, and absolutely always maintain your distance. Continue to toss a piece or two at a time, to test how close the cat will get to you for food. Then once it seems the cat’s had enough getting close, toss food at the closest distance he or she is happy and not anxious to eat.
You can continue this process until the cat is happy to eat reasonably near to you. You can try to touch a cat who eats very close, but you also risk the cat becoming startled and running, especially this early in the game, so it’s likely better to wait until you have some trust developed by using fun and familiarity techniques, and assuring the cat eats close to you every time for a solid number of times before trying to reach out and touch him or her.
I am absolutely talking about single touches here, light, quick, just to get a cat used to you even remotely near grazing them with your hand. Definitely don’t escalate to petting, as that will almost certainly get you hurt if the cat is in any way spooked (which is likely).
2. The Fun
If you get to the point where you can get physically fairly close to the cat – maybe not close enough so you can touch him or her, but a few meters away, try playing with the cat in a way that’s non-threatening.
My favourite technique? Grab a long, thin branch off a hedge, take off all the leaves, and run the skinny end along the floor as though it’s a cat wand toy. If the cat looks intrigued and interested – perfect! Keep at it, running it along the floor in figure eights, running the branch along the side of the house. If you get a playful, happy kitty rushing over to play, you’re absolutely making enormous progress. Cat a bit startled? Try again the next time kitty’s over, maybe he or she will get used to the sound and sight of the branch and become curious enough to play.
Encourage the cat to continue playing for as long as possible once you finally do get engagement. Talk to the cat, reassure the cat, be as happy with your tone as you can. By playing with a cat you’re definitely bonding with him or her and creating a positive association with you, one that goes past simply feeding.
3. The Familiarity
In terms of creating familiarity with you, cats are scent-based creatures, so you’ll want to use this to your advantage. Have an outdoor cat house for the stray/feral cats? Line it with blankets that smell like you. You can easily get blankets to smell of you by sleeping with them for a night or two. Don’t have an outdoor cat house? Try leaving out cardboard boxes in dry spaces, ideally ones the cat is likely to frequent, and again, line those with blankets that smell of you. You can also use this trick in the feeding station, placing a towel you’ve slept with for a night under the food and water bowl, so the cat begins to associate your scent more strongly with positive experiences, like eating and drinking in a safe space.
Get your scent onto as many happy places and things as you can. Have any more ideas with regards to increasing familiarity, whether through smell or some other way? Do share them in the comments below!
In terms of touching (let alone petting), don’t immediately try doing this. Instead, introduce yourself to the cat by offering a finger for him or her to smell. If the cat trusts you and doesn’t fall back, recoil, or look stressed or anxious in any way when smelling your hand, feel free to try to touch the cat, for a very short period of time, though smoothly (don’t surprise the cat), and fairly gently. If the ccat does not recoil to your touch, you can try to go in for a little more of a pet, but only if this touch went well.
Absolutely always make sure there’s no recoiling or hesitation on the cat’s part when you’re getting close with your hand for a stroke. If you notice any anxiety (tail straight up, hair standing up, stance that’s tense, tall, leaned back as if getting ready to run, or aggressive), back off straight away and try again another time.
If the cat looks uncomfortable to be touched, you may want to wait until the cat approaches you, giving it a little sniff of your hand each time he or she gets near until the familiarity is built up enough.
If you’re struggling to get a cat used to your touch while everything else is working out, what I’ve done in the past is to try giving a little touch while a cat is eating food right next to me. Only a single one every once in a blue moon, along with reassuring talk. I found this helpful in getting a cat to realize that touching doesn’t mean being picked up or pet, and once a cat trusts a touch enough, then it’s possible to start with the next step.
If you feel the cat is ready for you to try to go in for a pet, in my experience, a really light single stroke is the best way to test if this is really okay. I find the back of the neck, the back, or the side of a cat to be a good spot, but if you know of better ones, do let me know in the comments.
If the single stroke was okay, you can try again with another, or wait until the cat reciprocates in some way by scenting or rubbing him or herself on you. Play it by ear, but if you’ve broken through the barrier and the cat is fine with you touching, that’s a huge step forward, and petting shouldn’t be too hard to break into.
In terms of petting cats, short, gentle pets are best. Don’t be rough at all, and avoid areas cats often find touchy, like the belly, until you know for certain the stray/feral cat is alright with you petting him or her.
Your Turn: Thoughts & Tips on Befriending Stray Cats
I’d love to hear any stories you have about befriending stray and feral cats, and I’m sure absolutely everyone reading this would love it if you left a comment with any tips and advice you have for them on the topic.
Let me know if there are any similar topics/advice you’d like to see related to this as well!
Looking forward to reading about your experiences with getting strays to come close and getting close to them in general, always love reading through your stories!