How To Tame A Semi-Feral Cat

Guest blog by Shadow the PR Cat

My favorite day in the whole world is December 13, 2016. Why? Because it was the day I was adopted. What makes this an even more special day is that I was adopted despite being a semi-feral cat. The volunteers were very worried I would not adjust and could not be socialized, but the PR team that took me in was able to tame me in just 3 short weeks.

This is not the typical story of semi-feral and feral cats who are adopted, but it could be your story too, if you follow my advice on how to tame your semi-feral housemate.

What is a Semi-Feral Cat?

Commonly referred to as a social cat by some animal rescue experts, a semi-feral is a cat or kitten who has had some experience with humans in the past. Unlike feral cats, semi-feral cats are vocal and may make eye-contact with you, even if they don’t allow you to touch them.

Social cats are not to be confused with socialized cats who are fully domesticated, and accustomed to being around, and being touched by humans. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to tame semi-feral and feral cats after 4 – 6 months of age, but it is not impossible.

Ignore the Cat

When trying to socialize a semi-feral cat who quite obviously enjoys hiding from you, this might seem counterintuitive. How will a cat or kitten ever become comfortable around humans, if you don’t interact with them?

Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, shares a little secret about felines. “Cats are animals that seek pleasure and attention,” she says. “If they are used to people, then they want that attention.”

Read:  Stray the Video Game As Seen Through A Cat Behaviorist

By ignoring a cat, you are forcing them to make the first move. This can be tricky, but if they are the ones who reach out to you, and the interaction is positive, then they will keep coming back for more.

As licensed veterinary technician and volunteer, Mike Phillips, says in his video Tough Love: Socializing Feral Kittens, “Cats domesticate themselves. We don’t domesticate them. They choose out of self-interest”.

Provide Enrichment

As I mentioned before, if a cat interacts with you and judges the experience to be positive, they will keep coming back. But how do you ensure the cat views time with you as good, and not threatening or boring?

Tammy Browne, Director at Montego Bay Animal Haven, a no-kill shelter animal shelter in Jamaica, says,

“You can try to play with toys and use treats to encourage the cat to be friendlier.”

Mike Philips agrees, and adds that the best time to work with kittens is at mealtime.

Robinson, however, reminds new cat owners that what enriches our lives, may not do the same for your semi-feral friend. “A lot of cats and kittens are very scared of music. I would say 99% of music is not a good thing. It’s the vibrations,” she warns. “If you put a boombox on top of something, it vibrates the floor or desk.”

Use Slow Desensitization

Not all sounds are a bad idea, though. For instance, when I arrived at Alexis Chateau PR, one of the first things they noticed was that I was terrified of human voices. Alex, the managing director and my primary caretaker, rectified this by reading aloud in the office, so I would get used to her voice.

Read:  Stray the Video Game As Seen Through A Cat Behaviorist

When she left the office, she would turn a small radio on, and put it on the AM channels, so I could listen to talk shows. Becky Robinson agrees that this is a great way to handle cats who are easily spooked by human voices.

“You have to desensitize them, and do it slowly,” she recommends. “Watch them and be in-tune with them.”

Respect their Space

Kittens are cute and cuddly, but they can get into a lot of trouble. For this reason, you will need to resist the urge to give kitty free run of the house, no matter how cute they are. “Carefully confine them to a small room, like a bathroom, and clear the room of anything harmful,” Becky Robinson advises.

It’s also important to ensure your cat has room to hide, and flee, if it comes down to it. I cannot stress this enough: never ever corner a semi-feral. Becky Robinson explains why. “What kicks in is the natural fight or flight response,” she says. “If they are not given an option to flee, then they have to fight. They are very scared and they have to defend themselves.”

This is how volunteers and children alike end up with scratches and bites. If you absolutely must get a hold of the cat, you will need to coax him out.

Reach for the Good Stuff!

There are about 100 different types of catnip, and not all cats are susceptible. But if your little guy likes it, you’re in luck. Catnip can help to calm and embolden a shy, fearful, or anxious cat.

Read:  Stray the Video Game As Seen Through A Cat Behaviorist

If catnip does nothing for your cat, then fret not, there are other substances you can try. Alley Cat Allies, an advocacy group for the protection of felines, advises,  “Consider using non-pharmaceutical behavior modifiers like Feliway, Rescue Remedy, or Composure Soft Chews. These products can help calm and comfort cats using essential oils or extracts or by mimicking natural feline pheromones.”

Once the cat becomes used to you, chances are they may not need these substances anymore. However, my primary caretaker still leaves behind a lot of catnip in my favorite spaces for the opposite reason now. I resent her prolonged absence, and catnip is always a great distraction!

Most times, semi-feral cats can be domesticated and live happy and healthy lives with their humans. This may take a few weeks, but more often it will take months, and even up to a year. Becky Robinson also estimates that an unfortunate 14% of cats simply cannot be tamed.

Because of this, when you embark on your adventure with your semi-feral cat, remember to be patient and to respect their space. Understand that socializing a semi-feral is a process, and it won’t happen overnight. But with patience, respect, and lots of treats, your semi-feral can grow to love you, too!

shadow the PR black cat looking out window


Shadow the PR Cat is the Goodwill Ambassador at Alexis Chateau PR. His job includes tweeting, purring, taking selfies, rolling in catnip, and advocating for animal rights. Follow his kitty adventures on Twitter as @ShadowThePRCat.

Sound off! Tell us what you think!


  1. Karen

    “Most times, semi-feral cats can be domesticated and live happy and healthy lives with their humans. This may take a few weeks, but more often it will take months, and even up to a year.”

    Try 5 years. My situation is unique. I’ve never read anything similar, but I keep trying., and hoping My Lucas was 6 months when I got him. He’s a rescue, but I don’t know what he was rescued from. The woman I got him from didn’t know if he had been abused, but she didn’t think so. His sisters weren’t like him. Maybe he’s the runt?

    I got Lucas as a mate for my cat Max. Lucas LOVES Max, and Max loves Lucas, but not as much. Max LOVES me. Like Max, Lucas plays with me, asks me for tuna and other treats, scratches my office door if I’m in there and it’s shut, will be in the same room with me, but he will not let me touch him. I moved twice since I’ve had him, and it was hell. He was so scared. Now I fear he may only equate my touch to capturing him and putting him in a carrier, and driving him in the car, all of which he hates.

    After I had him a year, while laying in bed, I used to casually put out my hand, palm up, and he would touch my finger, then pull away. It was like a game. I was so happy. Breakthrough(!), I thought. But Max did not like that, so Lucas. Ow if I try, he runs away. When we all play with the wormy or birdie on a wire toy, Max gets annoyed because Lucas throws himself into it, while Max likes to wait/strategize. So Max gets mad and leaves the room. Now Lucas will suddenly stop playing and run and hide under the bed.

    I don’t know if this is a territory thing with Max, it’s subtle if it is. There is no fighting, no hissing or scratching, none of that. These boys never do anything wrong, seriously. They are much loved and they know it. I just wish Lucas would let me pet him, or brush him (Max LOVES being brushed, and poor Lucas just watches from afar). If it weren’t for Max though, Lucas would never get any affection. As it is now, Lucas always goes to Max looking for affection, it’s adorable. Lucas meows and talks to him all the time (so much for the claim that cats only meow to humans), he calls him when I’m dishing out the snack he just asked me for. But Max will often just walk away from him. It breaks my heart. Lucas is a very thoughtful little boy. I love him so much, and I just want to be able to pet him. 😿

    • The Catnip Times

      I think may people can identify with your situation. It sounds like Max might be a little jealous of Lucas but it’s good that they don’t fight. I have a couple of semi-feral cats that I rescued in 2011 that were born in my neighborhood and came to live in my yard when they were about 6 weeks old. I eventually caught them and began socializing them (and their mom) – and to this day (6 years later), I can’t hold them. I can definitely pet them, but they freak out if you try to pick them up. When my 17 year old cat died in May, it was interesting to see some of the dynamics change in the house. One of semi-feral cats began to snuggle up to me in bed. She had never done that before… I think Lucas knows you love him – if nothing else, you feed him and make sure he never goes hungry and you keep him safe and warm. He may come around – but it always has to be on their time…

  2. Rosetta Yorke

    Excellent post, Shadow!
    Lots of useful insight & advice here. 🙂

  3. rebecca cumer

    I inherited a feral colony June 2015. I have socialized and homed 38 cats and kittens and was able to place 7 more is rescue groups for adoption. I have another 16 in a variety of stages of socialization. Until I found this group I really didn’t have any experience with feral cats. And I was glad to read that I have been doing things right for the most part. Some of them do like music, in fact, I have one that loves Cher. And I love the time when they start sitting and staring at me, it means that fence they are sitting on is leaning my way.

  4. Candyce & Gregg Weir

    I have a fully domesticated cat that was feral. It took over a year to get him to trust me enough to touch him. Plenty of scratches and bites, but I was persistent. He was living in my marsh for about 10 years, he’d come up on our deck and sun himself when no one was around. I started leaving food for him, then made a shelter, then a heated cat house. I started sitting outside quietly, until he got used to me being there. Then I started whispering to him, and moving my hand slowly in a petting motion. Next thing you know, after a year, he let me touch his head. He would drool like crazy, I thought he was sick, but, he was never touched before, so apparently he was relaxed. He has been living indoors for 2 years now, not a single whimper to go outside. He knows he’s got it good! He cuddles with me like he is my protector, we call him Fuzzy.

  5. Daniel Duller

    Over my years, I’ve had at least 20 feral/semi feral cats to care for me. Granted, they didn’t like other bipeds, but they liked, or at least tolerated me. I wouldn’t have missed a minute of their care. I only have one left now – he takes me for walks around the neighborhood. I love it. He’ll sleep on my pillow next to me. Any other human is off limits.

    • The Catnip Times

      It’s so rewarding! Thanks for all you’ve done!!

  6. Suzanne Wills

    I have socialized several semi-feral cats. It sounds as if Max wants to be the boss and is jealous of Lucas when you play with them. It also sounds like Lucas is pretty submissive. You want to start by building a separate bond with Lucas, one that doesn’t involve Max. I would suggest you start having training sessions with Lucas when Max is sleeping, or put Max in a separate room. You and Lucas can enjoy games together with toys, and he doesn’t have to cow-tow to Max. As far as you touching Lucas, I would recommend a protocol where you start with touching him on the head with the wand toy and gradually work up to stroking his back with the wand toy handle and/or an ostrich feather. If you sit on the floor near him, and reward him with a treat when he permits touch, you can work up to touching his head with your finger. Once he permits touch with your finger, you can scratch his head. Again reward him, and by tiny steps you can get him used to being touched all over by your hand. Be careful not to reward him for spooking–the treat happens when he’s permitting touch. I would also suggest you do this exercise several times a day, at least twice anyway. The goal is getting him used to your hand and comfortable with being touched. Lucas will also start to enjoy being petted. The next step will be getting him used to the rest of you. Just imagine a large bear captured you and put you in her den. She has good intentions, but you think she’s saving you for dinner. So a lot of socializing is learning how not to act like a predator. So you never look at the cat when you’re training, nor do you stoop over him–get down to his level. Work in a very quiet environment, and avoid talking. You’re teaching that you’re mamma cat, so Lucas can now depend on you for food and affection and safety. Good luck and thank you for saving this sweet little guy.

    • Karen S

      Thank you Suzanne and Catniptimes. When I moved this past April, and when I finally got Lucas in the carrier, I brought Max and him to a vet for boarding near our new place. While Lucas was on the table getting his exam, and shots. I was petting him, kissing his head, basically everything I always want to do! He was fine. I thought, “Maybe it’s a breakthrough.” Meanwhile, Max saw the whole thing from his carrier. When we got to our new home the next day, Max was mean to Lucas for about week, kept ignoring him or pushing Lucas away in an annoyed fashion, so I thought, “Not good timing.” I’ll figure something out one day. Thanks again.

      • The Catnip Times

        Good luck Karen! Something I always tell people is that with cats – it’s the trend that matters. My husband was never a cat person until he met me… but I still need to explain to him that you have good times and setbacks and what’s important is the trend. Best of luck, Karen – sounds like you’re doing everything right and it’s up to your kitties and time.

  7. Betty Silvaney

    OMGoodness. You need so much patience with these babies. I’ve had close to 21 ferals come and go in my colony. I now have 12 that have become a family. Some of them have bonded with each other, others are loners. But when the weather turns cold I will find them cuddling with each other. A little female showed up a few weeks ago. Don’t know whether she followed one of my cats or was lost or dropped off. She is so sweet and tries hard to fit in with the colony. She has a preference for my tough looking guy ,Buster. He is very tolerant of her but sometimes will ignore her for his BFF , Duke. i feel sorry for her but I’m sure she’ll work it out. When this happens she just goes off by herself and takes a nap. The cats tolerate me but I can only touch one of them. The rest will observe me and watch my every move. I have to be slow and quiet other wise they run for the hills. Sometimes one will roll around and show their belly but not for long. I love watching them and figuring out their behaviours. They’ve taught me a lot about how to be around them. Be patient and when things don’t go the way you want take a nap. LOL BTW, I named the little one LIly .

    • The Catnip Times

      Great advice. Thanks for taking care of them ❤️


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