How To Train A Feral Cat To Come Inside Your Home (Now That Winter Is On The Way)

Early in the year, when we were taking the first round of photographs for The Sunflower Project, we had been Visited by a Feral Cat who has been coming back on and off over the rest of the year.

As the temperature declined over autumn we have tried a couple of times to encourage him inside with food (tuna, ham or leverpostej/liver pate works wonders by the way). Two nights we shut him inside so he would be warm on partially cold nights. He spent the whole time underneath the couch or the bed; somewhere hidden and out of sight. We would check on him and feed him every now and then, but he was obviously scared and not used to it.

In the last week the weather has taken a turn for the worse and winter is settling in. We can tell the cold is now getting to him because he came to our house 5 days in a row. Sometimes he would hover outside, not sure whether to come in or not. He would sit up on a fallen bird-box to keep his paws off the cold stone patio. He even figured out the cat flap twice when we found him inside the house when it was closed up. On the last of these nights this week we shut him in for a couple of hours but he really didn’t take to it, so we let him out again.

He then didn’t come back for a few days, which was typical of the other times we attempted to keep him in overnight. Then today when we went out to get wood we found him on top of the pallet of wood, huddled under the plastic wrap trying to keep warm. The wind chill was so bad we just couldn’t leave him out there, so we herded him inside in the usual manner.

He did hide again in the same place but after leaving him be he came out and found a place to sit out in a more exposed space in the kitchen. So it seems he is finally settling in. We had to eventually let him out again, but our hope is over time he will be willing to stay for longer periods and eventually he will adjust to it as he did eating in front of us.

If you are thinking about giving shelter to a feral cat this winter we recommend the following tips:

1) Be patient:This is a wild cat not a domesticated one. Chances are they are not used to being fed regularly (and they might have to learn that dried kibble is good!). It is also possible they have had bad experiences with humans before, or are used to being shooed away when found squatting in someone’s backyard. Give them lots of space. We also found that speaking in soft calming tones and lowing your height can help.

2) Lots of Treats: You have to train the cat to associate you with a good food supply. This will give them reason to come back round to your house (as especially with males as they likely to ‘tomcat’ around and probably have several places they go for food). It may take time before they dare to venture out to the food and tolerate you being close to them. You may need to put the food down, leave and check it from time to time. If you’re patient they will start coming out to eat in your presence. At this point you can slowly edge your way closer to them each time they come around. Eventually they may tolerate you petting them slightly as they eat if you get that close. Just give it lots of food, lots of time and they will catch on eventually. The colder it gets the more likely you will see them around.

3) Doorway to Heaven: Once the cat has come back to your house a few times and is used to your presence, then you can start moving the food to the doorways. If you want to teach them about the cat flap you may want to prop it open for them with food on the inside until they figure it out. If they are anything like our feral cat they will soon associate the gateway to your home not only food food but warmer air coming from inside. If you have a fireplace you might want to keep a fire going to encourage this. Be willing to walk away to give them space to explore without feeling trapped.

4) Sleepover: When they have been inside your house a few times, either by encouragement or because they figured out the door/cat-flap, trying shutting them in for a little while. If you keep them in overnight let them out the next day so they can go to the toilet and feel safe. Wherever they decide to settle down in your home, make sure to put a food and water supply near them as they may not want to adventure out into your home. They will find a good hiding spot, with something covering them from above and behind. They may not thank you much for being shut in at first, but given time your home will seem more and more appealing as winter sets in.

We still have a long way to go with our feral cat. Each step has to be taken in small measures, so this isn’t a complete list, but rather a summary of what we have learned so far. As time goes on if we find more tips to share we will write up another post, but for now this is it. Here are a couple of pictures from the past week: