For many animal lovers and cat parents, it is heartbreaking to see a stray struggling to survive outdoors and you may feel compelled to take her in. But first, you need to earn the cat’s trust. You must first learn to engage with her in a non-threatening way. Below you’ll find the tips and strategies to help you earn the trust of a stray cat.
1) Understand the difference between a feral cat and a stray cat
It’s important to understand the difference between feral and stray cats before you start trying to win over the cat you keep seeing. Dealing with feral cats is very different from dealing with strays. It’s almost impossible to win the trust of a feral cat. So, before you proceed with approaching the cat, figure out if it's stray or feral.
Strays are animals who have experienced human companionship but have either been abandoned or lost and cannot find the way home. Typically, they do not fear humans, and some may even seek out human companionship. Stray cats can develop feral tendencies if they've been living in the wild for long periods and a timid stray may take time to warm up to you. Even so, stray cats are usually willing to engage with humans, and given enough time, it’s possible to earn the trust of a stray, even a timid stray.
Feral cats are born in the wild or outdoors in cat colonies. They have never been pets or lived in anyone’s home before and have never learned to be comfortable around people. Most will be terrified of humans and will never come close to you, no matter what you do. While you may be able to win the heart of a stray cat, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to turn a feral feline into a pet.
Pay close attention to the cat's behaviour and appearance. Recently abandoned strays often looked disheveled as they struggle to adapt to outdoor living. Their fur will likely be dirtier, and they may be malnourished. A stray cat is more likely to come forward to ask for food or help. Feral cats rarely approach humans.
2) Earn their trust with food
Food is your friend. Recently abandoned strays often struggled to feed themselves. They are often hungry, so your best move to earn their trust is to provide food and water. Once the cat learns that you’re the source of food, she will visit every day. Eventually, she’ll learn to trust and approach you.
Any strong-smelling food will work to entice a hungry cat to come out of hiding including table scraps. If using table scraps, do be careful not to give human foods that are hazardous to cats like cooked bones, garlic, or onion. Some shy strays may require regular feeding over several days or weeks before they are willing to open up to you. In this case, it’s best to give proper cat food. A wet canned cat food like this Sparkles White Meat Tuna + Carrot Wet Cat Food works best as it often has a stronger smell and taste than dry food.
In the early days, you’ll want to leave the dish of food on the ground and walk away from it. If you are too close, the cat won’t go near the food because they’re afraid of you. Start by watching the cat eat while you stand away at a distance and move closer and closer until the cat will eat the food out of your hand. It will take days or even weeks before the stray is comfortable enough to eat off your hand. To hasten the process, you can try to talk to the cat while dropping off their food or picking up the leftovers to get them accustomed to your presence. The murmur of softly spoken words often soothes and calms skittish cats.
Once you can feed the cat this way, you can start trying to pet the cat. Eventually, you’ll be able to touch the cat easily. When this happens, you can now transfer them to a carrier and get them off to a new start. Always let the cat set the pace. Do not push them to interact with you. Allow them the time and space to observe and learn to trust you. Hanging back and allowing the cat to determine when the time is right will significantly reduce the time and effort required to get a stray cat comfortable enough around you to nibble out of your hand.
3) Take the cat to the vet
It is best to take the cat to the vet immediately for a full check-up. The cat has been outdoors, it may have been exposed to a host of diseases such as FLVS and FIV. She may also need to get vaccinated, fleas/ticks’ treatment, be spayed or neutered, and be microchipped. If going to the vet immediately is not possible, keep the cat quarantined from your other pets. Keep her in a closed-off room until the vet has given her a clean bill of health.
4) Continue to earn trust at home
Create a safe room for your new cat. This room should be in a quiet portion of the house. Unlike adopting a kitten from the shelter, a stray will likely be more timid and more insecure in her new environment. Create a kitty safe room to help your new stray acclimatise to her new surroundings – new sounds, sights, and smells. Gradually introduce her to the rest of your home as she gets comfortable in her safe room.
Ideally, the room should be prepared before bringing the cat home. Have supplies like cat food, water, bedding, toys, and a litter box in place. You may want to leave some empty boxes in the room so your cat has a place to hide when she feels threatened and set up a scratching post with this PETKIT Pyramid House Cat Scratcher. Spend time in the room every day so your cat gets used to your presence.
Figure out what kinds of toys your new stray cat loves and play with them as much as you can. Regular interaction helps to build trust. Shy cats may prefer toys focused on a distant object, such as a feather wand, fishing pole, or laser pointer; toys that they do not have to get too close to you. Others may respond well to catnip-filled toys. Once you find the ones they like, find a few moments each day for activities and play.
The next time you see a stray and wish to adopt her, remember that you’ll first need to earn the cat’s trust. While it may take a bit of time, it’s usually possible to earn the trust of a stray cat. Keep in mind that not all outdoor cats you see are stray. Some may be feral cats. Feral cats often don’t make great pets and most prefer to stay outdoors among their colony members. So, if you’ve spent months trying to get on the cat’s good side but to no avail, the kitty may be feral. Finally, patience and perseverance are key to building trust with a stray cat. Be patient, earn her trust gradually, and soon enough, you’ll be heading home together.
Katherine is a Pet Nutrition Specialist and GDP’s Pet Wellness Advisor. She is committed to helping pet owners make informed dietary and lifestyle choices in nurturing healthy pets. Katherine is also a practicing Nutritional Therapist (human nutrition) and has been helping hundreds of clients to heal naturally with nutrients.