Monday, September 10, 2012

The Socialization Toolbox: How to rehabilitate stray and semi-feral cats.

Socializing feral and semi-feral cats is not as difficult as many are led to believe. So many assume that it is an arduous, time consuming process, there are very few who are willing to try. In fact, it is neither. It can be a lengthy process, but lengthy does not equal time consuming. My semi-feral fosters take up no more of my time than my domesticated cats do.

This guide is mainly geared towards fosters and potential fosters. It's focus is on rehabilitating strays and semi-ferals that have already been trapped. I chose this as the specific focus for a very simple reason. There is a wealth of information available on the net on how to successfully trap a stray or semi-feral, but there is very little in-depth information available on rehabilitating with the intent of getting the cat ready for adoption. 

"We don't domesticate cats. They choose to domesticate themselves because they feel it's in their best interest". - Mike Phillips, Urban Cat League

So how do we go about convincing them that we have their best interests at heart? By appealing to their need for survival. First and foremost, this means food and shelter.

There's no place like home.

Setting up the sanctuary is extremely important. Even if there are no other animals in your home, you should still use a sanctuary space until they have had time to adjust to being indoors. Many strays and semi ferals are quite nervous about being indoors for the first time. Noises that you and I take for granted, for example, the toilet flushing... or the sound of doors opening and closing, are cause for great alarm until the cat has had time to learn that these noises are inconsequential and will not harm them.
So with that in mind, the ideal sanctuary space has the following:

  • a quiet room with a door that closes. Preferably not a room you need to access frequently, but work with what you've got.
  • a litter box, easily accessible
  • a scratch post
  • food and water dishes, placed as far away from the litter box as possible. Cats strongly dislike eating where they do their business.
  • a few hiding places such as an overturned cardboard box with an access hole cut into it, or a carrier with the door left open.
  • a few solo play toys (the little toy mice from the dollar store work wonders) scattered about. You want the environment to be welcoming and stimulating.

The quickest way to their hearts is through their tummies.

Most cats are food oriented. This is doubly true for strays, and semi-ferals since their food sources are often inconsistent and unreliable. Therefore, in order to start earning their trust, we want to show them that we are a reliable source of sustenance.
Cats are surprisingly routine driven. And as anyone lucky enough to share their home with a kitty alarm can tell you, their internal clocks are annoyingly amazingly accurate. ;) No matter how well or how poorly socialized the cat is, consistent feeding times are going to be the first, and most important tool used in your socialization toolbox.

Pick two times a day that you know you can realistically feed the cat, preferably no more than 12 hours apart. Realistically is the key word in that sentence. If you miss the usual morning feeding time because it's Saturday and you're not usually up that early on weekends, you're no longer proving to the cat that you are a reliable source of food.

Once you've chosen your mealtimes, it will take the cat very little time to learn when they are. As an example, one of the neighbourhood cats started coming to my back door asking to be fed, simply because she could see me preparing breakfast or dinner for the brood through the glass doors. It took her all of 2 days to figure out the schedule and now she shows up every day, like clockwork. (I have long since confirmed that she belongs to one of my neighbours and is well loved and cared . I feed her regardless since I'm a sap and can't resist the way she places her little paws on the glass when she's begging.)

But it's not enough just to feed the cat. They need to see and understand that you are the source of the food. This is truly where the beginnings of trust are formed. Whenever possible, let them see you prepare the food. If that's not possible, then at least let them see you set it out for them. Call out encouragingly to them as you bring them their food. Gently tap the bowl with your fingernails when you put it down to focus their attention. Or if you're feeding kibble, try swirling the bowl to make the kibble rattle.

It may take quite some time before they're willing to eat when you're near, and they will likely hide from you at first. But with time, they will start to feel comfortable enough to eat in your presence.
Soft kitty, warm kitty

Set aside at least an hour a day to spend some quiet time with the cat. Speak softly to them, in the same tones that you would speak in when rocking a baby to sleep. It doesn't matter what you say, it's how you say it that they respond to. Sometimes, I read out loud to them (children's stories are best I've found, since we naturally adopt the exact tone I just described when reading children's stories out loud). Other times, I simply tell them how beautiful they are, how loved they are and reassure them that they are safe with me.

Movement is also key. Keep your movements slow and soft. If the cat is particularly skittish, a great way to work towards being able to pet them is to use treats. Let them see you place treats near them. They may not eat them in your presence at first, but with time, you will be able to place the treats closer and closer to them. When you do finally get close enough to touch - wait. Extend a single finger to them and let them sniff it. Stay at this stage for a while.... giving them treats and extending a finger to them. They will let you know when they're ready to be touched. :)

Last, but certainly not least is eye contact. There are two schools of thought on this: One says that you should make regular eye contact with them to show them that you mean them no harm. The other says to make eye contact, but not to stare, and to intentionally break eye contact frequently with slow deliberate blinks. I, myself, follow the latter rule of thumb. The slow blink is cat shorthand for "I'm content, are you content?" and in situations where there is potential for conflict (from the cat's perspective) it also means "I'm not a threat".

This is the perfect example of the slow blink. You could blink even slower than this (I frequently do) but  anything faster than this, and the cat will not understand what you are trying to tell them.


Earning an animal's trust is in many ways like earning a person's trust. It's all about respect. And for a cat, this means listening to what they're telling you. Cats have an amazingly large 'vocabulary' that consists of mostly body language. Everyone knows that when a cat hisses, it's angry, and when it purrs, it's happy, right? Would it surprise you to know that cats also purr when they're afraid or in pain?
Cat communication is an enormous topic. The best resource I've found to try and make sense of it all is here. It's a lot to read through, but the diagrams towards the end very clearly give examples of what they are describing. It's definitely worth taking the time to read. :)

Putting it all together
  • a welcoming, stimulating environment
  • consistent feeding times
  • soft voice, soft movements
  • treats treats treats
  • Frequent eye contact with frequent slow blinks
  • Respect
Hopefully now you can see that socializing isn't nearly as much work as it would initially seem. A bit of love, a bit of time each day, a bit of respect and a bit of patience is all it takes. Questions? Feel free to ask! I'm always happy to share what I've learned!


  1. Thank you for this! I agree that many people could socialize feral cats if they simply had the devotion and desire to. The few times I've done it I have found it to be immensely fulfilling! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    1. Thank you for the information. Last night we rescued a semi-feral unneutered male who has been showing up at our back doors for the past several months. We trapped him and immediately took him to the vet because he looked pretty beat up. He was sedated, shaved, neutered, and had his wounds treated. He had ticks in his badly matted fur. Fortunately he tested negative for any contagious diseases. He received his shots and big dose of antibiotics as well as flea/tick/worm preventative medication. We have 5 other recused indoor cats whom we were able to socialize well --they all live in harmony. Your advice was extremely helpful for this situation. This boy is probably 8 years old. We have no idea how long he's been outside and how he came to be there, but we are going to give him our best shot at a new life with us. His urine is extremely potent -- we've been told the odor will diminish in time since he's been neutered. He did not use the litter box last night -- any advice on how to best entice him to use it? He's confined in a tile bathroom now -- so clean-up is easy. Thanks!

    2. If he was just recently neutered, then it's likely what you're seeing is marking behavior vs litter box aversion. Cats instinctively bury their business - even those who grew up outdoors. But virile males and females in heat will routinely mark territory to claim space / announce their presence to other cats.

      It can take a few days post neutering before their hormone levels level out, and during that time their urine is often... fragrant and they will continue their old marking behaviors.

      See it from his perspective: he's in a weird, frightening place. Nothing smells right. He can smell and likely hear other cats around but can't see them. He has no idea if they're a threat. He's confused and frightened and lacks control over his surroundings. Marking, in this case, gives him a feeling of control over his space. Now it smells like him, which is comforting.

      But as I said, once his hormones start to level out (and coincidentally, as he gets used to his new environment) the behavior will cease. If it continues for more than a week or two, do consider getting him checked for a UTI.

      Pro tip: fabreeze room sprays are amazing at cutting through that odor. It doesn't just block the smell, it actually cuts right through it. Conversely, avoid cleaning that room with ammonia or bleach based products while he is using it for sanctuary space. Theyou *do* destroy the source of the smell, but will only encourage him to repeat the behavior again.

      Best of luck!

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  2. Thank you for this guidance. My husband and I are considering adopting and trying to socialize a couple of extremely traumatized cats from our local shelter. There were 18 cats living with an elderly woman and they all ended up in a shelter when her house burned down six months ago. They're essentially a pack and accept other cats as well, but are extremely weary of humans. The first 10 were more social and adopted out, but the last 7-8 are really tough customers and are unlikely to be adopted. My guess is they will not improve much more in the chaotic environment of the shelter.

    We already have three cats at home who are all very lovable. One is high energy and likes to chase/wrestle, but the other two are very low key.

    We're wondering if it would make sense to start off with bringing only one of the shelter cats into our home and socializing him slowly to us and to our current cats. The shelter staff want them to be adopted in pairs, but I wonder if trying to socialize 2 traumatized cats at the same time will be slower going than one at a time. They are very comfortable with each other, but I also wonder if they might feed off of each other's anxiety (humans do!). There's one cat that already allows me to touch him in the shelter, I think we might have a strong chance at integrating him into our family. The others might be tougher, but still possible.

    What would you recommend - starting with 1 or with a bonded pair?

    I also have concerns about proper veterinary care and hygiene (long-haired cats) for cats that refuse to be handled (or might be further traumatized if that process is rushed). Is there anything we can do at home in the shorter term to have a chance at cleaning, brushing, nail clipping etc.?

    Thank you in advance!

  3. I just received a 10 year old female cat. She lived with a elderly lady that had to go to a home and was unable to take her cat. I sed I would try. she has not been around other people. I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. You are so kind and open hearted. The more people like you out there the better the world is for both four and two legged beings.

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  5. I am fostering a semi-ferrel mamma cat, her kittens have now been socialized and adopted out. I have been working with her for about 8 weeks now, and she still hisses when the door to her room is opened, but warms up pretty quickly and comes to me with a meow for a head scratch and a belly rum. We are working on her letting me pick her up and sitting in my lap. Wow! What great progress. We are crating her and putting her out in our living room to watch TV with us and just starting to let her roam the house. (This is going slowly as she is just beginning to venture out of her kitty room) I am hoping to be able to get her adopted out in the next month for her forever home. Thank you for all your suggestions.

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  8. We recently adopted a cat that was just under a year old, I later discovered she was a rescued stray. She only hid from us for the first day or two and is very affectionate. She doesn't want to be picked up though. I've been working on her a little bit every day, piking her up a bit and setting her down. She would never let me touch her belly but now loves to get it scratched. Still though she just doesn't want to be picked up, when I pick her up and put her in my lap she just jumps away.
    I'd really like to just have a domestic cat that likes to be held and will let me trim her claws without a big commotion. Hopefully with more time she will come around, if she wasn't so damn cute I would have just opened the door and let her run away. Actually she did get out once, I left food around for her and she only stayed out one night, the next night I heard a loud yowel when she encountered one of the neighborhood bullies, I opened the door and called and she came right back inside.