Request from a Reader for Cat Taming Suggestions

Reader Casey Post writes:

Every morning when I feed my outdoor ferals, I check their shelter just in case someone has vomited on the blanket during the night (hey, mouse parts happen). One morning, I see two eyes looking back at me…a small brown tabby with an ear tip! Long story short, he’s not feral, he’s super sweet and in need of a dental. The vet says that he’s already missing teeth, but she needs to extract one more and clean up the rest. She estimates him to be around eight years old. I named him Virgil.

Virgil  (Photo by Casey Post)
Virgil (Photo by Casey Post)

Not long after Virgil’s appearance, another strange cat is spotted from afar – a black and white. But this cat melts away as soon as he sees me. I start leaving food out by the front door for him, hoping to get a better look to see if he’s a neighbor’s cat. Eventually, I get a glimpse – and see that he too is ear tipped! Now I live on a dead end street, so I figured that Virgil had been dumped (I did post him as found everywhere, called around, no one recognized him or claimed him) and the chances of TWO strange ear tipped cats appearing in the neighborhood at the same time reinforces the idea. So I set my trap out next to the now-familiar food dish for a couple of days, then one day put the food dish IN the trap – success! I caught my black and white.

But this cat is not outgoing and friendly like Virgil. I set him up in a cage until I can get him to the vet (it’s the weekend, of course) and one day he meows at me! Okay, not feral. But definitely doesn’t feel comfortable with me touching him. Our vet appointment comes around and I plan to just scruff him (now named Gary, just to have something to call him) and pop him in the carrier (top loading – oh yeah, you want that if you’re alone with a difficult cat). The plan was sound – the room was closed and closet shut, pillows stuffed around the bed so that an escape would not result in a cat hiding under there, everything going great. Until I actually put a hand on Gary – he explodes in terror, clawing my arm. It’s okay, I’m not going to let go, Focused. Determined. Bleeding. No yelling, no panic, just blood, it’s okay, it’s only two feet to the carrier…but no, it was not to be. He’s in a panic and I’m clearly going to kill him, so uses those claws to dig into my arm and swing around enough to BITE. Hard. That’s it, I dropped him. Couldn’t help it. Calmly exit room, wash out injuries thoroughly, bandage up, call vet to say that we’re going to be just a little bit late…

Now Gary is loose in the room, but with nowhere to go. So I give him somewhere to go – the carrier. I make it the only safe spot and continuously and slowly herd him towards it. Eventually, he goes in and I get the door closed and latched. Hooray!

Off to the vet. Vet gets a warning about the whole “will bite if you try to scruff him” thing, so vet is aware. He does try it, gives up, goes for sedation. Then more sedation. This poor cat really is convinced that death is coming for him from people handling him. Her. Vet discovers that Gary is a female! Also that she has less than wonderful lung sounds (I thought she might be asthmatic, but vet thinks URI – especially since she’s got a squinty eye, too). We get blood drawn, test for FIV/Feleuk (neg/neg), and get her microchipped while she’s out. Vet would like chest x-rays, but that’s a different building and they would have to sedate her again and that’s too much for one day, so at a later time. We get a Convenia shot (not something I’d normally go for, but with a cat whom you absolutely cannot handle, this is your best antibiotic choice), treated for parasites, and a nail trim (just in case). The vet sends me home with “let’s hope this is all she needs”.

This is where Gary is now –

Gary's taming cage.  (Photo by Casey post)
Gary’s taming cage. (Photo by Casey Post)

This is our “taming cage”. Her carrier/safe place, her litter box (right by the door so I can clean it, a Kuranda so she can get up a level and see out the window, a toy, her water. The carrier door is tied open so she doesn’t jostle it and accidentally close it to shut herself out. A fearful cat with no place to hide is not good. The whole set up is on top of a desk – setting it up ON TOP OF SOMETHING is very important – a cat on the floor feels much more vulnerable than a cat up on a desk. And I can shut Gary in the carrier to clean the cage safely for both of us (or transport her to the vet again, if needed, without bloodshed this time). I have a cardboard scratcher for it, but haven’t worked out where I can hang the thing, yet. The best place is between the Kuranda and the water bucket, but that would result in cardboard bits in her water. Still working on that.

Gary  (Photo by Casey Post)
Gary (Photo by Casey Post)

This photo was taken through the bars – and no, she’s not drugged up with sedatives here, her tongue just does that. Virgil’s does too (which I had attributed to his poor dental state), but now I wonder if they’re related? Gary’s teeth are decent, according to the vet, so the tongue thing may be a family trait.

So right now, I’ve got one very friendly and one not-so-friendly cat that I suspect came from the same household. I’m going to have to assume (for now) that Gary is a friendly cat who is just terrified out of her environment and having lost all that was familiar. My goal is to help her realize that this is a safe place, that she doesn’t have to be pointy bits of death at me. I want to get her URI cleared up and get her healthy. If she cannot be “tamed down”, then she can go back outside and join my little feral colony (there is a means to acclimate her out there for a few weeks before releasing her, so she knows that this place is now “home” and the ferals can get used her presence and she to theirs).

But *someone* transported her here to dump her. Which makes me think that she’s not normally a violently fearful cat. So I’ve got two Feliway diffusers going in the room, I’m spraying Spirit Essences “Scaredy Cat” over her carrier’s top grate four times a day, and I make sure that she sees me petting and brushing Virgil (and him loving it). I talk to her gently and I can even reach in with a soft brush to brush a little of her (but she’s not thrilled with that, yet, but she just flinches away, no lashing out or growling). I’ve also started adding L-lysine to her food twice a day, in case the URI is herpes-related.

If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions for us, it would be appreciated!

31 thoughts on “Request from a Reader for Cat Taming Suggestions

  1. My suggestion would be to sit in the room and ignore her. Perhaps bring in your computer and work in there. Or if you have a hobby like needlework or crochet or something that she would not find additionally stressful. Or sit in a chair near her and read aloud. You might have some really delectable food thing only available to her if she approaches you, but at first I would not make it so that she had to take it from you. It could take a long time. I’ve had cats who knew and loved me hide under furniture for as long as 3 months when we changed apartments. Even if she’s not a feral she is obviously very traumatized.

    1. Thank you – yes, reading aloud is a good idea. I normally have a radio going on very low volume for ferals tuned to the local talk station (which helps acclimate to a male voice, something I can’t manage on my own), but I don’t want to overwhelm her with stimulus just yet. And I don’t think that she’s unused to voices and such the way a feral would be, she’s just adrift in a sea of fear.

      I should mention that the room she’s in is my bedroom, so she’s definitely getting exposed to my (non-threatening) presence on a regular basis! I say good night to her last thing and good morning first thing, every day.

  2. You have done an amazing job! My guess is some other caring person had trapped them and had them spayed/neutered to help the cause. It is very likely that your feral stations drew the cats to your area–may not have been dumped in your area. Since Gary is in such a hight state of stress, I suggest you cover his crate, at least on three sides and keep him in isolation while you evaluate. You might want to consider investing in a *cat* crate or two for the future. You can roll them from room to room and they are easier to clean when the cat is in a high state of stress. GREAT WORK!

  3. I’m uber impressed with all that Casey has done so far. And I agree with the suggestions made by bealsie2.

    When I got a cat from the kill list here in NYC he was scared out of his mind. The man who brought him to me from the ACC had him in a big metal cage (not the ususal cardboard carrier), took him into the bathroom and turned the cage upside down to “empty” Tigger into the tub and then he made a quick exit. I thought “oh shit, what have I gotten myself into!” I guess that was the reason he was on the kill list. But I gave him all the time and space he needed and pretty much ignored him for a week or so. I would talk softly to him when I went into the bathroom (his haven) but just let him be. After a week or so he started to come out and explore. Again, talked softly to him but ignored him otherwise. He acclimated to his new home about a day or two after the exploration started and has been the biggest mush ball of a cat ever since.

    I’m a firm believer in letting a cat know he’s safe and then leave him alone to understand that on his own terms without any prodding. It’s always worked for me.

    Isn’t Casey the woman who fought City Hall to get rid of the gas chamber in her local shelter?

    1. Heh, yeah, that’s me. Weird that I’ve always thought of myself as a “dog person”, but hey, you do what you have to do.

  4. First of all, bless you for taking such good care of these precious cats. You are doing everything you can and it will now just take time. I agree that radio on (they seem to relax a bit to a classical music station, too) and just sitting in the room and not trying to interact is fine. Not only is she not feeling well, she also is scared because of a drastic change in her life. It will take time. I also agree that it’s a good idea to let her determine the rate and extent of interactions. She may always be a shy girl, but if you are patient, I believe you are going to be rewarded with a loving (at least to you) cat. Keep us posted.

    One thing I learned the hard way with one of my “ferals” (who was just very scared) was not putting windows up, even a crack. After being trapped and spayed, and spending 10 days in my den, she managed to push out the screen and escape. She still comes each night for dinner, but was too fearful of her new life inside.

    1. Sorry to hear about your escapee, db. Glad she still comes around!

      Virgil seems very not inclined to get out a window. I think he’s feeling pretty lucky right now to have food coming on a regular basis and not have to be out in the rain. I just wish the other cats would be nicer to him, but he is rather funny looking, so they’ll need more time to get used to him. Right now, he’s roaming the house at will and pretty darn content (he loves cardboard scratchers!).

      I feel badly for Gary stuck in a cage like she is, but I have to keep reminding myself than it’s better than being out in the rain with a URI. I gave her some cat grass, which she is studiously ignoring, but last night she licked up the catnip I left for her (this is the first time she’s reacted at all to the catnip), so baby steps.

  5. Hey Casey, Thank you for taking care of kitty. This is my life’s work and I predominatly work with ferals and fraidys. There is a lot of good information already posted. I would caution on the Spirit Essence as it really has long lasting effects that it should only really be used once every three days. as it takes the cats about 48 hours to work it back out of their system. The ignore trick is the best one, Still being in there to spend time doing the cleaning and what not, and of course talk to her gently when you are doing that but when you close the door, she is on her terms. I suspect in a short period of time she will come around. Having other things wrong with them also makes them super careful around people at first. Some of mine come around fairly quickly and others take more time. I have one that has been living with me for four years. She would be around when I fed her but I wasn’t allowed to touch. Not to very long ago she climbed up on my lap out of the blue, the first thing I did was cut her nails LOL and she allowed me to do this with no fuss at all. Surprised even me. Keep up the great work, she will come around.

  6. Great set-up with the cage/carrier/shelf/litterbox. Could cover/wrap with a sheet or towel if the cat needs even more of a “cave” feeling at first.
    If you google “Socializing feral cats” there’s quite a bit of good info. I’ve saved articles from UrbanCatLeague
    Bottom line in all of the advice is to use food as bribe/reward. No free feeding, they only eat when you are there too. YOU = food
    Best Friends Animal Society/Utah has info about a huge hoarding case (Parumph, Nevada) a few years ago – many unsocialized, feral cats. They used feathers, sticks, brushes, etc. to touch and stroke the cats who wouldn’t allow hands touching; gradually shortening the distance between the hand and the cat until the cat allowed the hand and the feather/brush/stick to touch them, and gradually eliminate the tool and touch directly with the hand.
    Surprisingly, they also found that the really ill cats who required vet care/medication and had to be frequently caught, wrapped in a towel and restrained in order to take care of them – became social more quickly than those that didn’t require it.

    (I’ve found that I can take the door off the carrier while it’s in the cage, and still trap the cat in it when necessary by setting the door into 3 of its 4 fasteners. Loosen the fastener on the side where you put it back together. When cat is inside, pull up on the plastic a little bit to set the door back in place.)

    Best of success with Gary; hopefully she was actually someone’s pet and is just traumatized and scared to death and will come around soon.

    1. Thanks, Evelyn. I’ve thought about the feather thing.

      She’s currently eating canned, so arrival of food = person in the room, but I don’t make her come out while I’m there. I think at this point in our relationship, that may be too stressful for her.

  7. I don’t have anything to add on the taming side, but one tip for transferring cats from a Hav-a-Heart trap, or getting a loose cat into a carrier is to use a pillowcase. Get a king-size one if possible, but regular will do in a pinch or with a cat that doesn’t want to rip you to shreds but also doesn’t want to get in a carrier. Try to get a shirt that matches the color of the pillowcase – they may not see every color, but the can see contrasts and after the first or second time you do this, it’s easier to fool them if they can’t see the pillowcase as easily. If the cat is nice but just doesn’t want to get in a carrier: hold the pillowcase, open side down, with the closed end tucked under your chin, or one corner tucked into the neckline of your shirt. Approach cat as if you’re just going to pet it – OH, DO NOT LET THE CAT SEE THE CARRIER IS OUT< LEAVE IT OUT OF SIGHT FOR NOW – keep one hand in opening, try to make the approach to the cat be from the side or best of all, from behind, smoothly grasp opening with both hands and 'pop' case over cat, shmooshing opening shut over cat feet and gently scooping sideways, bundling cat further into case and bunching the open end shut, then trying closed with twine, string, or something you can open easily from the outside. Carry pillowcase to the carrier and put the cat, still in the case, inside the carrier and transport to the vet if the cat will be unfriendly when the carrier is opened on the exam table. The pillowcase allows for air just fine, and the inability to see sometimes keeps cats calmer on the trip and in the waiting room.

    If transferring from a trap, slide the king-sized case over the soon-to-open side of the trap – hold in place with clips or safety pins if you're working alone – slowly and gently upend cat into pillowcase, and continue as above. Cat is safe, you are safe (don't put the cased cat in your lap), and pillowcase can be washed or tossed if cat gets sick or pees inside it.

    1. Pillow case is a good idea! Maybe if I’d tried that the first time, there would have been less blood. But honestly, I didn’t think she’d freak out like that because of my experience with Virgil. Note to self – cats are individuals.

    1. I’ve read the taming section of the feral cats group, will have to look at that Ebook – thanks!

    2. I had forgotten about Tellington Touch, it’s been so long since I’ve looked into it. Will have to look at it again, I think.

  8. Bless you for helping these cats, and your ongoing, tireless work for all cats and animals. If you can, try to contact Becky Tegze, cat woman extraordinaire from Pets Alive Middletown, NY. All I have is her Facebook profile, but maybe, being Casey Post, you could call Pets Alive and they could put you in touch with her.

  9. I am uber impressed with reader Casey’s will to save Gary despite the death scratching and sedation. Thank you so much for saving her and Virgil. Yes, a radio would be good. Reading a loud. I like the idea of working in the same room. Hopefully Gary will come around.

  10. My feral cat was supposed to be feral, but he failed rather miserably! I cut back on his feed in the wild and he became my shadow. I ended up having to feed him BEFORE I fed my sled dogs because he would follow me into the dog yard complaining about starvation. I was pretty sure he would end up dinner himself, but he never did. Come winter I moved him into the basement. Gradually he has moved upstairs and now sleeps in my bed, on my pillow if I don’t claim my own personal space.
    I think the set up you have now is lovely, although I also think that taller would be better. Can you get a book case and cover it with hardware cloth? If you cut holes in each shelf, the cat can migrate up and down. (Litter box on the bottom shelf, food and water on a middle shelf, and soft bedding up high.)
    I think if you give Gary more space, she’ll settle in faster. And kiss Virgil from me, he sounds like my kinda guy.
    Thanks for surviving her angst. And keep your bite and scratch wounds clean. Cat bites are really icky.

    1. Thanks, Lynn – yeah, that hand did blow up like a balloon, for sure. Yay for antibiotics.

      I can’t have her in a non-secured space, just yet. If I had a closed room for her, without cats/dogs coming in then maybe, but I don’t.

  11. I have nothing to add, but thank you for taking care of these guys!

    Thought: isn’t ear-snipping like that something some colony managers do to mark the cats that have been neutered/vax’ed?

    1. Yes, ear tipping is normally done for ferals, but there are low-cost s/n clinics around here who charge less for ferals (with ear tip) than they do for non-ferals (no ear tip). So someone trying to save a few bucks will register their cats as feral for the lower price and you walk out with ear tipped cats.

      We have a few very friendly cats at the shelter right now who are ear tipped, probably for that very reason. And the vet thinks that Virgil was neutered quite young, so he may have been part of a feral litter or just someone with a bunch of kittens and not a lot of money to spend on them.

  12. Casey- you are really an angel for this baby. It is possible whoever dumped them found your neighborhood safe- maybe they lost their apt- whatever.
    Anyway we too have one just like Gary- maybe worse. She came to us as an owner surrender and after many many months by two of us with a lot of experience in Ferals we have come to the conclusion there is something neurological with her as one of her pupils enlarges periodically.
    We have had her in a bathroom- then a double kennel- with a carrier for her to go in so we could clean without being skinned. She is a least not freaking if she sees another cat. She will only eat dry so medicating in food is out. Now after a year an a half she has let my husband touch her first thru the cage- and now we have her in an indoor/outdoor enclosure so she can get mental stimulation- her carrier is still in the cage and allows her another elevation. The first 4 days her growling had all the free rangers sitting as far away from her enclosure as possible – all bunched up trying to figure what in the H was in that cage.The carrier is the place she goes so I can clean. She has started coming out of her cage and sitting by the door in the morning and sitting next to my husband on the floor. This morning one of our free rangers got within 6 inches of her and no guttural growling. I will just be happy if I can someday let her go into general population. I don’t have any high expectations of being able to rehome her. And I have to wonder if she was exposed to drugs or has a brain issue going on. Time is your friend.

  13. Oh and get some feeding dishes that attach to the side of the cage so they are away from the scratcher debris- and you might want to consider pine or paper pellet litter- less dust for the URI in close spaces and not toxic if they injest some.

    1. Thanks, Kittypurr – her litter is paper pellet. Took a little work to switch both she and Virgil to it, but they’re both using it just fine, now.

      And you’re right…time is what we need, I think.

      1. *her and Virgil* Geez, no sleep and my grammar goes right out the window.

Leave a Reply