This is probably the most common question you will be asked and it is important to differentiate feral cats from tame cats that have strayed. There are significant behavioural differences. ‘Feral’ is a very fluid definition. Most commonly, it is used to describe a cat that has returned to a wild existence. By wild we mean that the cat has reverted to an undomesticated state. It is as wary of humans as any wild animal and survives as best it can without human help. It is thought that any cat that has been abandoned or strayed can eventually become feral in its behaviour. It is easy to understand how a cat forced to live on its wits can become increasingly leery of human contact the longer it has to fight for survival without the comfort and security of a home.
As with puppies, kittens have a sensitive period of socialisation up to eight weeks of age. If the kittens don’t experience human contact by this time they become progressively more difficult to socialise. The older the kitten before its first interactions with people, the more frightened it will be by the experience. Kittens can be tamed most quickly if taken from the feral mother cat at weaning, between five and six weeks of age. It also prevents them from acquiring learned fearful behaviour from their mother. Kittens that are twelve weeks or older when the taming process begins will take much longer to accept human handling and may remain nervous and skittish throughout their life.
Adult feral cats are not impossible to tame, but it is generally not recommended to attempt it if the cat comes from a feral colony of several generations. At best they simply become habituated to the person or persons who care for them but maintain a distrust of everyone else they encounter. The process of taming an adult feral cat requires a long period of confinement within a home, usually within a single room. This may raise welfare issues as the experience can be hugely stressful to the cat.
Biologists and cat behaviourists report that the fear-aggressive behaviour of feral cats becomes more entrenched with each generation of feral cats that are born within a colony. So while it may be possible to gradually domesticate an adult feral in the first generation that was born to a tame cat, it may prove well-nigh impossible with a third-generation, by now genetically feral cat. Such ‘true’ feral cats are rarely seen, but they are by far the most challenging to safely handle during trapping, neuter and return.