By definition, feral organisms are those which are descended from domestic stock but born and living in the wild. Contrary to stray organisms which in their lifetimes have been domestic pets and have become abandoned or escaped. Fully wild organisms are those which exist in the wild and have not lived with or under the control of humans in their lineage. Hence feral cats are common domestic cats that have been born in the wild; likely the offspring descended from stray cats. This makes them harder to tame and more resistant to gaining your trust since they have not necessarily had human contact. They are however more likely and willing to tame than an animal of purely wild descent as they may find an innate comfort in fitting in with a lifestyle or purpose to which they were initially bred to fulfill. In the case of the domestic cat, this means relaxing around your house and being fed on a regular schedule; what’s not to like?
To tame something can have variable meanings, but generally it means to make another creature comfortable around you. Domesticating it and harnessing some form of control over it, when it would otherwise avoid or attack you. It doesn’t necessarily have to come live with you in your home or pull farm equipment in a field, but it should at least let you be around it, maybe touch it, and not attack you if you back it into a corner.
Domestic cats (in addition to formally domesticated cats as well as their offspring) are pretty smart and capable of seeing things for what they are, so try to see things from the perspective of the cat. It’s a fast carnivorous animal with claws, teeth and night vision, but we are way bigger and stronger. As an independent-minded animal, the cat will naturally choose to avoid confrontation with a potential threat of an overbearing person; it’s not out to make friends, it’s out to hunt or explore, maybe even score.
Understanding that taming is as much a psychological process as it is a physical one is key, and the personality of any cat can differ as much as it would from human to human. Understanding what the domestic cat as an organism is also proves helpful. Humans and cats have been friends for nearly as long as we have been keeping records and digging graves. It is believed that this was the result of a natural evolution of felines hunting small rodents (like mice and rats), which in turn came to be attracted to scavenging from the food stored by civilized humans. So as soon as we started making food pits and cultivating grain, we started having cats show up and help us with our pest problems. For this reason (and possibly others), cats are revered in many ancient cultures and religions. For psychology’s sake, let us assume this also means that deep down in their subconscious, cats are already comfortable with hanging around us and being rewarded for hunting down small pests. Sound familiar?
This understanding is crucial to taming feral cats, should you choose to do so for whatever reason you may have. Cats will be chilled out and murderous companions for the price of food, security and shelter. They hunt alone, but they like to hang out with relaxing groups, so if you are providing a circumstance to simulate any ideal scenario for the cat it will make taming more attractive to the creature.
Any cat will be different to tame, but in general you only need to follow a few ground rules to find success where permitted. Cats will let their fear get the best of them when you start getting close, so make sure to play down your imposing qualities.
- The younger the cat, the easier the tame. Older cats (just like people) get stuck in their ways. If they aren’t used to humans already, they may not be interested in getting to know them now. Kittens can be tamed relatively quickly as they learn that a symbiotic relationship with humans is possible and easy. Older cats may take as long as months or years, depending on how grumpy they are.
- Get low. Making yourself shorter and coming down to the cat’s level helps disarm the animal’s preconceptions that you may be interested in overwhelming or crushing it.
- Don’t approach head on. Just like getting yourself low to show the cat that you are not a huge monster, don’t walk straight toward the cat or stare it down. Instead show the cat that you are just in the area, and that if you happen to come across each other, no big deal. Don’t force an intersection of paths in this subtle dance, but if you do, try to make sure that you end up facing the cat diagonally rather than head on, if you are moving at all. You may notice they do the same.
- Read the cat. These animals make noise like we do, with sounds to convey calm welcomes or loud shrieks to convey distress. Listen to the cat, try giving it a meow and see if it meows back. Look at it’s body language and if it’s ears are back or showing teeth (this would be bad). The tail is a good indication of whether or not the cat is distressed; while straightened out and standing straight up, the tail indicates that the cat is ready for action. A relaxed tail generally indicates a relaxed cat.
- Associate yourself with food. If the cat can come to associate your presence with easy meals, it will look to spend more time around you. For cautious cats, place food nearby in a visually unimposing location and step away. Don’t sit and stare at the cat or the food, it will feel like a trap for everyone involved. Rather, let the cat come to get used to you being around where it finds food, even if it just associates your smell being nearby.
- Set realistic expectations and goals. The cat may never let you pick it up. It may also never let you put it down. Don’t force any expectations or demands on another creature. Instead, try to nurture it into a lifestyle that is compatible for both of you and let nature take it’s course. You can experiment with providing it a place to be comfortable sleeping, or setting up a litter box for where you want it to “do it’s business”. If it wants to do these things elsewhere but you still insist on it using your contraptions, move your pillows and litter boxes to where it wants to go or try finding some middle ground.
Feral cats can be tamed back into domestic ones with patience and time. Food makes things much easier. Your reasons for wanting to keep domestic cats may vary. As outlined in this article they have historically fulfilled a role in our presence by helping control pest populations in our villages and towns. Apart from that cats can be welcome companions if you ever just need a nice soft animal to hang out with. An easy way to avoid having to domesticate new cats from feral, stray or wild state, is to breed them.
Semantically, do not confuse previously captive cats or their offspring for previously domesticated or feral cats. If a large tiger was previously captive it will likely not cooperate.