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My family recently (~3 months ago) took in a feral cat. They are fine with having an aloof cat that doesn't play or let you pet them, but they would like to do everything they can to make the cat comfortable and it would probably nice to be able to do those things if possible.

The cat is ~7 years old, was living in a hut outside, and was being fed by a neighbor until this winter. We are pretty sure he is completely or nearly completely deaf. When we met the cat outside by his hut he seemed perfectly tolerant of humans. He didn't run back in his hut or seem anxious with four people standing right by him, but he didn't react positively either. He is very cute, so my family figured it would be ok to take him, and he'd probably warm up over time. (When I was growing up my parents had a very aggressive feral cat around the same age, who softened up after about 5-6 years.)

So my family agreed to take him. The local cat rescue group trapped him. They took him to the vet who said he was aggressive and obese. The rescue group then held him for about a week, despite my family's requests to get him sooner. Once he arrived they kept him in a cage for a week. The rescue group suggested a week to a month, and my family took the minimum route as he had already been held in a cage for a week prior to arriving and it was starting to feel cruel. Once he was released from the cage he found a spot behind a bed to hide, which has historically been a favourite spot of cats. Once out of the cage he seemed to improve. He began pooping regularly, which he had not been doing in the cage, and he stopped having violent fits.

He stayed behind the bed for about a month. He would come out at night or when he believed no-one was in the room; the moment he realized someone was there he would jog back to his spot. Eventually my family had to move the bed out of that room. (It had to be moved and my family wanted to clean his spot, since it was becoming a source of smell (not urine) and they were concerned the amount of kibble he had brought back would attract insects.) We set up a new spot we thought would be nice by placing the hut he had been living in outside under a table and covering it with a table cloth. We provided one edge so he could see out the window (he had liked this when he was in the cage), and we placed it next to a radiator, since cats seem to like those. We moved his food there and gave him a couple days to move, which he did not. When it came time to move I pulled the bed out opening his spot up, and he jogged over to the new spot without much fuss.

He has been at the new spot for a little over a week, and he seems to have regressed a bit. He doesn't come out as much as he used to. He only seems to come out is to sit in a cardboard box we placed beside his spot, to eat, and to use the litter box on the other side of the room. Whenever he sees a person he runs right back to hide in his hut.

My family has been considering letting him out of the room to explore the full house, but is worried about his progress so far. They would like to do what's best for the cat and hopefully get him to be less afraid of people.

What steps can we take here? I've probably included a lot of unnecessary details here, and I certainly could include more, but I don't really know what is relevant.

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    Not a full answer, but nonverbal communication with this cat is very important. Don't look him directly in the eyes or stare to long at him. Insteaed, do the "lazy cat blink" every time you see him. In cat language this means "I don't want to harm you, I'm your friend". I found it very efficient in the past with my skittish cat, but it still took me several months until I could touch her.
    – Elmy
    Feb 12, 2023 at 12:53

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I want to start by saying that not all cats are suited for indoor/house life. For some cats who are raised outside/feral, they will never adjust to living in a confined space with humans, and the kindest thing is to neuter and vaccinate them and then to release them back into the area they are familiar with and continue to provide shelter and food outside. The best animal shelters partner with Trap-Neuter-Release programs or will adopt out cats specifically as Barn Cats (i.e., not pets).

However, you're right that some cats can adjust, and if they are able to do so, their health and quality of life will be much higher than if they stayed outside. Here are some strategies you can use to find out if adjustment is possible for this particular cat:

  • Be present Make sure there is someone in his room as much as possible. Ideally just one person at a time. Sit on the other side of the room quietly (on the floor if possible) and read a book or do another quiet activity. Try to move slowly when coming or going.
  • Let him come to you Don't reach hands into his space if you can avoid it. Don't try to touch him or pet him. If he ventures out of his hiding spot, or comes to sniff you, it's best to ignore him, although you can talk in a soft voice to him while in the room.
  • Bring food If you're currently providing exclusively dry cat food, introduce him to wet food as well. Ideally, you'd feed him lots of small amounts throughout the day, which would be brought when a human is coming to sit in his room. Put the food close to the entrance to his hiding spot and then retreat to the other side of the room and sit quietly for a while. If he doesn't eat while you're there, no problem, leave the food for him and come back later. If he does come out to eat, ignore him.

After about 2 weeks of bringing food and quietly sitting in the room, a cat who is going to adjust to humans will have started to become less fearful, at least around one or two different people. You'd see him start to come out to eat while you're present, and would be able to start placing the bowl further and further away from his hiding spot (just a few inches at a time, and putting it back if he stops eating).

If you don't see him warming up after a few weeks, I doubt he will be able to adjust at all, and it might be time to start talking about a safe place to release him again (assuming he has been neutered?)

I don't recommend opening the door and letting him into the rest of the house until he's quite comfortable in one room. Cats need to feel secure in their "territory" and if you suddenly expand his territory without that sense of security, it could be much harder for him.

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I highly recommend utilizing the resource and method called Socialization Saves Lives. This method was designed for socializing feral/under-socialized adult cats who are unaccustomed to living with humans.

The core of this method is grounded in creating positive interactions with the cat, at their own pace. It can be used with both kittens and adults. But with an adult cat like this, you should expect the method to take many weeks. I used this to socialize a feral cat who was sick and it took 4 months, but by the end he was a happy, purring lap cat. (Please note that for some cats it can take even more time and they might only learn to outgrow their fear but not completely become a 'lap cat'.)

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