Q&A with Feral Cat Expert Liz Palika
As we’re all aware, there are many cats living on the streets, in shelters and in rescues who need good homes.
And there’s a good chance some of these kittens and cats are on the feral side.
Adopting a feral feline is much different than owning a domesticated cat. Because they are inherently wild, the process of domestication may take some patience.
Certified Pet Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant Liz Palika has done her share of work with ferals. As a veterinary technician many years ago, she worked with these types of felines brought in for spaying and neutering, and even took home feral kittens who needed extra nurturing. She currently volunteers by raising litters of rescued kittens with SPOT: Saving Pets One at a Time in Oceanside, California, and adopted two rescued feral kittens, Spock and Scottie, from SPOT. She offers us some advice on integrating a feral kitten or cat into your home:
The Honest Kitchen: How are feral kittens and cats different from strays and more domesticated felines?
Liz Palika: Feral kittens can be the offspring of other ferals, of strays, or of domesticated cats who chose not to have their kittens at home or who have been abandoned by their owners. Feral cats can come from a number of different situations. There are no hard and fast rules of what a feral cat is according to where the cat came from. In most cases a cat is called feral if the cat is afraid of people or otherwise acts wild.
Ferals can be of any breed, any color, or coat length, and any age—although their lifespans are usually significantly shorter than indoor cats. Feral cats die by being hit by cars, being hunted by wild predators and dogs, by parasites internal and external, diseases, poisoning, and being killed by humans.
THK: What problems have you seen when adopting or fostering feral cats?
Liz Palika: Cats who are stray or abandoned usually calm down quite quickly—settling into domestic life as if they had never been gone. However, if the cat has been treated badly by people, that could change. Those cats may be fearful for quite a while.
When adopting or fostering a feral cat, a true feral and not a stray or abandoned cat, the new owner needs to understand that this cat has no idea what the rules are for living in a human home. Plus, the cat is scared to death. A house with no escape is a trap to many ferals. The cat doesn’t know what a litter box is. Males who were adults when caught and neutered at that time may spray.
Most feral cats of any kind usually have some health problems, whether it’s insect infestations, parasites, injuries (new or old), or diseases. These should be addressed immediately, right after the cat has been caught, while he’s still somewhat in shock at his capture. Waiting until he’s in a foster or permanent home to do any treatment could delay his bonding to his new owner as he’ll consider any treatment an attack at this point of the relationship.
THK: What are tips for overcoming these challenges and integrating a feral kitten or cat into your home?
Liz Palika: First of all, do not turn a new cat loose in your house. He will hide, you won’t see him for days, and don’t forget he doesn’t know what a litter box is.
Instead, I turned an unused back bedroom into a cat room. I set up cat trees and litter boxes, food and water bowls, cat beds and toys, and removed all valuables. The cats were limited to this room for a month with the door closed. I went in to clean the cat boxes, change food and water. After a bit I went in to sit quietly and read a book as well. I didn’t try to pet the cats or play with them; I just sat quietly.
Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they came to explore me. After a time, if I let my hand hang by the side of the chair, a head would rub up against me. Then one jumped up on the chair with me. I was patient and gave them as much time as they needed.
Then I got a screen door and put that on the entryway to that room so the two cats could watch my household from the safety of their room. This also allowed them to see my other pets and for those pets to see them, too, although everyone had smelled the scent of each other and heard each other for quite a while.
After about two months, I opened the screen door for a few hours a day, gradually increasing the time they were free.
THK: Can having other pets like cats and dogs present challenges in these situations and how can these be overcome?
Liz Palika: Know your pets at home and that they will not cause a problem. Your cat at home should be social and not aggressive toward other cats. Your dog needs to be well-trained. I asked mine to lie down and stay when I first let the feral cats out of their room. If the dogs had gone up to them, even to say hi, at that point the cats would have been frightened.
THK: Can they ever be fully domesticated, or will they always remain a little wild?
Liz Palika: A stray or abandoned cat who turns feral may well become the best, calmest, most domesticated cat ever. After all, she now knows how good she’s got it. A true feral, however, or a cat who has been mistreated, may always have a strong flight response. Both of my two, even after two years, quickly dash to their room—their safe place—if startled or if a stranger is in my home. Some of my friends don’t believe I have two white cats as they have never seen them. My two cuddle, ask for loves, come when I call them, and act as if they were born in my home—but only with me, and until something startles them.
THK: Anything else we should know about ferals?
Liz Palika: Take in a feral only if you are willing to give them the distance, time, and patience to let them come around. Be aware that if the cat has been chased, scared, and hurt—people are scary creatures. If you want to hug this cat right away, don’t get a feral. However, if you’re willing to be patient and your pets at home are social and well-behaved, then awesome. Watching a feral —or two —learn to love and trust is wonderful.