How to Acclimate an Adopted Outdoor Cat

Last time, you met our cute and relentless mouse terminators – Gray & Abel – and I shared a little about why I fired our exterminator service.  Here you’ll read about the best way to acclimate an adopted stray or feral cat so they can be happy, healthy, and not run away as soon as they get home.

AbelAbel at his Royal Rescue foster home

I’ve never had pet cats before, but my wife grew up with several that lived strictly indoors.  As I researched more and more over several months about their characteristics, nature, and the huge benefit cats can provide in helping to reduce a rodent population around barns or outbuildings, I decided it was time to move out of research mode and into action mode.

GrayGray at her Royal Rescue foster home

After a ton of reading, there were a few things I knew for certain:

  • I wanted to maximize the chance of getting mousers.  Since stray or feral cats at one time sort of fended for themselves, they seemed a natural fit.
  • I wanted cats that would at least tolerate me, if not grow into loving pets, so they’d come around and I could easily administer flea/tick/worm medication and round them up for any trips to the vet.  Plus, I want the family to play with and enjoy our new companions.
  • I wanted to give a second chance to felines that 99% of households choose not to adopt because they’re less socialized than cuddly lap kittens.
  • Multiple cats supposedly hunt better than a single solo cat.  It’s also less likely for multiple cats to run off since they have a buddy at home.
  • It’s almost mandatory for outside cats to have all their claws intact.  It’s mandatory that they be spayed or neutered so I don’t end up with hundreds of cats around in a few years.

I began by contacting our local Humane Society as they have a Barn Cat Program which spays/neuters animals and attempts to find homes for them in various structures.  My primary concern given my specific situation is that those animals are so unsocialized  I’d never be able to medicate them when the time came.  However, they’d still be a wonderful option.

Then I discovered Royal Rescue, which is an excellent organization run by a couple very dedicated and helpful ladies who spend considerable amounts of their time and energy doing exactly what I was seeking:

Royal Rescue for Stray Cats is a non-profit, volunteer based, welfare organization dedicated to the rescue, spaying, and neutering of stray and feral cats. Royal Rescue attempts to capture, rehabilitate, tame, domesticate, and place for adoption, stray and feral cats. A college outreach program recruits campus groups to become on-campus partners to assist in this mission. Royal Rescue works in cooperation with the local humane society.

I spoke with Tamy and Anne and made an appointment to meet some kitties.  They introduced me to two that show strong hunting tendencies and at least seem to want to spend time outside, since many indoor cats are scared, or at least hesitant, to head out the door.

After careful consideration, we made a donation for their good works, and brought the cats home.


How to Acclimate an Adopted Outdoor Cat

If your new feline friend spent time as a stray or feral cat, she is likely pretty skittish and needs time to adjust to new people and a new location.  Here are some steps you should follow to maximize the chance their transition will go smoothly.

Day 1-3

  • Confine the cat(s) to a large kennel or carrier that contains bedding, food, clean water, and a litter box.
  • Preferably provide the same type of food ate at the shelter.  Over time, you can slowly introduce a new brand or type of food.
  • Place the food/water as far from the litter box as possible.
  • Clean litter box at least twice a day.
  • Cover the kennel with a sheet or blanket to give the cats the feeling of being in a safe, enclosed space.
  • Leave a light on 24/7 so they can always view their new surroundings.
  • Every time you approach the cats, offer them a treat like a small bite of canned chicken or tuna.
  • Speak softly and move slowly.
  • Pet them as often as possible.
  • Slowly introduce other family members one at a time as described above.
  • After a couple days, slowly introduce any dogs one at a time.  Keep dogs on a leash and provide all animals a treat during their experience.
  • Consider using a Cat Pheromone Diffuser that will help calm them in a new environment.

PettingAbel enjoying a little petting session

Day 4-14(ish)

    • Around Day 4, open the kennel, but keep the cats confined to a smaller space you want them to call home (e.g. barn, tack room, shed, garage, etc.)
    • Provide a couple places where they can feel safe.  For example, I cut a hole in a cardboard box and ours tend to run into there when they hear me coming.
    • Continue to offer treats, pet them, and spend time in their space.
    • Interact through toys and consider providing catnip.

Hopefully after a couple of weeks, they have come to accept their space as “home” and you can begin to give them access to the outdoors without any problems.  You should first let them out on a dry morning, as rain can eliminate their scent and hinder their backtracking home.  Likewise, you don’t want their first jaunt outside to be near dusk.

At the time this post was published, we’re working on Day 9 of the above routine and they’re still pretty skittish around me.  That’s OK and I figure we have about 20 years to get to know each other and hopefully they’ll eventually realize I’m a nice guy.


Question of the Day: Do you have indoor/outdoor cats?  What is your interaction like with them?

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24 comments on “How to Acclimate an Adopted Outdoor Cat
  1. Ann says:

    We live in the city and I have a 17-year-old cat who was an indoor cat for years until I finally lived in a place with a yard, when he began to venture outside (now he goes out but rarely leaves the yard). Years ago he got lost, and the humane society suggested we sprinkle his used litter around the yard to help him smell his way back. Not sure if this info might serve useful to you cat-friendly folks some day so thought I’d mention it. The drawback to this technique is that it might also attract other animals. But after 2 days that time, good ol’ Rudy found his way back!
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    • Ann says:

      PS I’m pretty sure he was just living out his teenage dreams for those two days and was at a rave or something
      Ann recently posted…A knack for sumacMy Profile

      • Mike says:

        … Rudy trudges home all exhausted and red-eyed, dragging along some burnt out glow sticks and reeking of catnip…

    • Mike says:

      Good tip! I’m very happy that these guys are champs at using the litter box. I didn’t know if they’d need a little re-training with the move. I’ll be curious to see how much it gets used once they’ll be venturing into the great outdoors regularly.

    • Steffy says:

      I can so relate. Losing a pet is like literally losing a member of the family. I’m happy it ended well. BTW, that’s a great trick.
      Steffy recently posted…Wellness Pet Food Coupon $5 Off On Any One Wellness Dry Dog Or Cat BagMy Profile

  2. Kathleen says:

    Your plan mostly sounds good, but don’t be surprised if it takes longer than you think.

    As I said in a comment to another post, mine are all indoor cats, but were found outdoors. Several were very young kittens (Felix was about two weeks when he was blown around Brooklyn by 60 mile an hour winds for several days, and I’ve had others even younger). Bella and Lugosi were several months old when they were rescued in upstate NY during Hurricane Irene. My parent’s cat Blackie was a year or more and took several years to really tame, but he became a lap cat over time and never tried to go out.

    Lugosi, Felix and Ladybug are all my cats (their choice,not mine). Bella, Julia, and Dumpling prefer my son. They all know their names and come when we call. My three and Julia greet me at the door, follow me into the bathroom, ask to be picked up several times a day and sit or sleep near me whenever I am home. Bella sits in the window, cries and runs to the door when my son comes home. When we get a new cat, my son and I handle them as much as possible and talk to them constantly. We learned years ago that if you do not interact with them a lot, they will bond to the other cats and not to you. Then you won’t be able to catch them for medication or vet visits.

    Lugosi is the mouser. Not in my house, so far, but when he lived with my son in upstate NY he would catch, kill and eat any mouse that dared enter the house. Then he would leave part of the mouse as a present for my son. The other two cats in the house never went after the mice.

    You can get cats to obey commands (some/most of the time, if they feel like) but it takes time and consistency in using the same terms over and over. I’ve never had a problem with names, though. They know their names and respond when called. Some quicker than others of course. They are cats, not dogs. They do not live to please you.

    • David says:

      Thanks (Kathleen and OP) for this. I adopted a feral cat who’s about 2 years old. He is super skittish, shakes when held. After a week of letting him settle in a small room, I’m letting him out into the apartment. I lie down with him and give treats each time I approach and feel like he’s very very slowly getting used to me.

  3. Mike says:

    Yeah, I’m starting to see this will definitely be a long process. I’m OK with that. We don’t need these guys to morph into lap kitties that sprawl all over us for some loving 24/7. I just want to make sure they’re happy, healthy, and don’t run off never to be seen again once allowed to leave my workshop where they’re currently confined. Hopefully they stick around and will come up to say hi and be petted every now and then.

    So far they tolerate me petting them (when not hiding somewhere I can’t reach), but certainly aren’t interested in playing with me. I haven’t even tried to pick either up as I thought that might be too much for them, too fast.

  4. Congratulations on your new farm companions!

    I’ve tried a similar procedure just to introduce a new cat into our home to our existing cat (indoor/outdoor). We tried the “correct procedure” twice with 2 different cats and we failed both times!

    The first time, my longtime buddy cat ran away and we never saw him again. The second time we got rid of the older cat because she kept trying to make a home in our neighbor’s garage whenever she saw the door up. Their dogs didn’t like that.

    So we’re a one-cat household now.

    Good luck with the acclimation process. My uncle has a few stray cats in his horse born that he adores. They’ve been together for many years. They get food, and he has company while he’s working there, but I don’t think there’s any petting going on. I hope yours get to that point!
    Amy@TenthAcreFarm recently posted…When Weeds are GoodMy Profile

    • Mike says:

      Ah man, sorry about your bad luck! I certainly hope we can have a little more success than that. Things are still status quo at the moment. They tolerate being petted, but bolt for cover every chance they get.

      By the way, yesterday I listened to your podcast with Root Simple from earlier this year. I really enjoyed it and love seeing all you’re doing right down the road from us.

  5. Thanks, Mike! Ditto – really enjoying following your progress. It’s comforting to see permaculture homestead examples right in our little corner of the universe.
    Amy@TenthAcreFarm recently posted…When Weeds are GoodMy Profile

  6. Cathy says:

    A feral/stray wondered into my barn in April. 8 months later he loves to be picked up, petted, brushed and loves having his face scratched. He comes into the office in the barn where he sleeps every night on a dog bed, in a chair or on the windowsill and does his own thing during the day. I am the only one that can touch him, he is totally skiddish around others and I can’t shut the door, so it has to be left open just a crack. It is all about the routine for him. Next steps is to introduce him to my dogs, but not sure they will all get along and that is the only thing preventing me from letting him in my home. My first experience shows a feral/stray can be tamed it just takes time and patience.

  7. Maria C says:

    We adopted 4 feral cats. Had them in a nice area in the loft of our barn for 7 weeks. They had food, shelter and an awesome enclosed area with straw for them to be warm and protected from elements and predators. We finally let them out about 3 days ago and haven’t seen them since 🙁 Is it typical for them to leave a few days and then come back or am I never going to see them again. I feel so bad.

    • Mike says:

      Hi Maria. It’s quite common to not see indoor/outdoor cats for a few days. Especially when they started out as feral. Hopefully they’ll continue to warm up to you and not hide when you’re out and about. Is the food being eaten? We still regularly don’t see our cats for a couple days at a time and I just figure we missed each other. So long as food is being eaten I know all is OK.

      With that being said…… as an update, the two feral cats in this post decided to run away. 🙁 Despite trying everything to acclimate them. We soon thereafter adopted two more from the same feral rescue and they have been around for over a year and are happy little things that now love to be petted and to be around us (but will run and hide from anyone else).

      • Maria says:

        Thank you for the response. Two of them have returned, but of course they run when they see us. I am just happy that two of them have starting to return. I will watch for the other two and hopefully will have all my babies back. We will start moving their food to the outside of their enclosure and slowly take down the wire screen but leave their nice bed for them to sleep in. I really appreciate your response. I was feeling so bad thinking I lost them. I am too much of an animal lover. I want to bring them all home but I know that is not realistic. 🙁 Again thanks and I will continue reading your website. Maria

        • Mike says:

          You might consider buying some fancy treats or keeping good canned wet cat food (or canned tuna) around and when you see them, open that but stay sort of nearby so they come to know you as the “really good food lady”.

          • Maria says:

            Great idea. I do have some canned food that I was giving them on sunday treat day but I will try that next time I see them. 🙂

  8. Courtney says:

    Hi, just wondering what your opinion and others opinion about my current situation…
    We live in the country with 18 acres of bush, so lots of mice running around. My daughters and I went to a local shelter and found a cat. He was previously at a home that had 50 other cats and was a bit feral when the shelter got him, but over a couple of months he calmed down and was very friendly. We took him home and the plan was to bring him to our shop and keep him in there for a few days… I didn’t even have the cage out of the car yet when my one daughter opened the cage to pet him and he bolted and into the bush. I was able to find him and I followed him around in the bush for 10 mins, but couldn’t get him to come to me. I think he was pretty afraid from the car ride and the new setting. I had food with me, so I started throwing a bit of food at him, but he just kept going. I lost him at one point, so I went inside the shop and put his cage in there and some food and water. I noticed that he was at the edge of the bush watching me, but went back into the bush. I went in to make dinner, and went back outside after. I did find him again and he wasn’t far from where I was first following him… again I followed him around for half an hour, and he was sticking to the same area as before. but it got too dark for me to see anymore so I had to give up. I left the food and water in the shop and left the shop door open. The next morning it rained all day, there was no sign of him being at the shop at all. I looked around for him again a few times throughout the day with no luck. This will be day #2 of him being lost. Still no sign of him at the shop, and I have been looking in the bush. Just wondering if I should consider him gone? We literally just got home when he got out, so I don’t know if he will come back since he really isn’t familiar with the area, but he does know that I have food… thoughts??

    • Shelbey says:

      My mother spent the last week trying to coax a cat out of an enormous pine tree. The cat stayed up there even through a snowfall. Finally, upon my advice she warmed up some Fancy Feast, and placed it at the bottom of the tree. The cat descended shortly after to eat. There is a chance your cat is watching you and waiting for mealtime. Just keep feeding (especially warm cans of food). Bonne Chance!

  9. Cheryl says:

    Hi Mike and others,
    I rescued a feral cat last week. Its ear is already tipped. I took her to the vet and got all the shots. She is a love bug with me – can’t get enough of petting. However, she stays hidden in the cat tree all day and meows loudly at night on the window sill desperately wanting to go out. I have two resident cats. They are separated by a baby gate. The feral cat has the room all to herself but she does not venture from the cat tree by the window. I am feeling a bit lost. I will try for one month. And if she still longs to be outside, should I free her? I really wanted her to have a safe, happy life indoor. I wonder if she’ll ever be happy inside. She has lived two years of her life outdoor. She grooms and purrs and loves to fall asleep cuddling with my arm. She doesn’t want to meet the resident cats or come near the baby gate. Does she just need more time? My heart breaks for her when she meows begging me to let her out.

  10. There are such a lot of animals that are in desperate need of a loving home. By adopting from a shelter rather than purchasing from a pet shop, you help folks animals that are most in need to get a home and help fund the rescue work so that other moggies can be saved. Lots of these felines had tough lives so far – they might have been deserted, abused or neglected by their owners.
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  11. Anna Katarina Bolinder says:

    I am rehoming a cat that was mine to begin with that I let other people adopt-they abandoned him and I have tamed him again by going to feed him 2 times per day-the people had made an outdoor cat out of him without me knowing.Now he is in a room in our house,he eats and cuddles and we have taken turns to sleep there.The problem is he does not stop meowing very loud and tries to scratch open a window.It has only passed 3 days and there are other cats here plus a dog he does not know so we do not dare to let him out into the rest of the house yet.When I say sleep in room it has been more just trying to comfort him and it has helped but he is getting worse and won’t come to the bed.What can we do?

  12. Karen tolan says:

    How do I get my older female barn cat to accept a rescue cat with two kittens (5months old). That someone dropped off on our property? The older cat won’t eat or sleep in the barn. Winter is coming and my husband is furios that I am allowing the older cat to be chased out of her home as she was here first…..what can I do?? I want to keep them all,

  13. Karen tolan says:

    I have a 10 yr old female barn cat. She was spayed when she was young. She is still quite feral. Doesn’t like to be ver illusive. Is an awesome hunter. In June some dropped off a pregnant calico cat that had four babies in our barn unexpectedly. The older female cat got ticked off and left the barn. She comes to eat am and pm . Her and the cat that had the kittens now face off every day. I found homes for two of the kittens, got the mom cat fixed but can’t get my old cat to come back to the barn. The mom cat and old cat keep fighting. It’s going to be snowing soon and I need these guys getting along. Otherwise I will have to give up the calico mom cat. I am willing to work with them and keep them all …I just don’t know how to fix it,,,HELP,

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