How To Acclimate Your New Outdoor Cat
When you adopt barn cats, you want them to stay on your property and view the structure as their new home. To accomplish this, the cats must be confined for an initial 4-5 weeks. The cats should be in a completely enclosed location, preferably a large cage or dog crate inside their home structure. This familiarizes the cats with their new environment and teaches them that it is a safe location with reliable resources that they should feel comfortable calling home.
Why do they have to be confined for the first 4-5 weeks?
Cats are very sensitive to changes in their environment. It takes between 4-5 weeks for a cat to associate a new place as their own territory. You can help create positive associations between you and your new cat(s) with the following steps:
- Spend time with the cat while it is confined. Talk gently to it, read the newspaper out loud, or otherwise hang out. Bring other members of the house with you and have conversations. This way the cat will get used to the sound of your voices. Although the cat may hide at first, it will be watching, listening, and getting familiar with its new caretaker(s).
- Never “free feed” full meals. It is important to build a bond with you as their caretaker and bringer of Good Yummy Things. Most cats are not above bribery. Only put down food while you are in the room and take it away when you leave, all while keeping it on a reliable schedule.
- Mealtime means you-time. Cats must eat, and this forces them to associate you with a Good Thing. Even though you are leading them to the behavior, the cat has the choice to come out on their own to eat. Make sure that fresh water is always available.
- Do not “hover” too closely. You need to give your cats some privacy during mealtimes, so this might mean turning your back and hanging around for 10-15 minutes while the cat makes an extensive Pro/Con list in their head. This helps them make the choice to come out.
- Routine, positive association, and choice are vital to training a cat to do anything.
- Never force physical attention on your barn cats. Not only can this be dangerous for you, but it will also make your new working cat feel threatened and dismantle any progress you may have made in earning their trust. These are FERAL CATS. If you have earned their trust, they will let you know.
Cats that are relocated without proper acclimation time and effort generally run off, never to be seen again. It is deeply important that the time be invested to make the cats feel safe, familiar, and comfortable so that they have a better chance at survival, and you have a long-term mouser.
Be aware that during the first day or two, the cats may struggle to try to find a way out of the crate. Keep the crate covered with a sheet until they settle down and realize no harm will come to them.
How are the cats confined?
If the door to the cat(s)’ home base leads directly outside (e.g. a garage), it is important to have a second barrier. This may mean a closed off room inside of a barn, but generally it means a crate inside of the main structure. If the cat darts out while you are cleaning the litterbox or setting down food, it isn’t immediately outside.
You should be equipped with an XL dog crate with proper space for their necessities. This includes food and water bowls, disposable litter boxes (which need to be replaced daily), and a place to hide. It is recommended that a portion of the cage/crate be covered with a sheet to help cats feel better protected and hidden.
We send cats home in covered cat carriers. When you arrive home:
- Place the carrier, facing away from you, inside of the crate. The carrier door should be able to open and touch the side of the crate in that direction.
- While keeping the crate door as closed as possible, carefully undo the latch on the carrier door. Slowly open it so that the carrier door is touching the side of the crate.
- Close the crate door.
- At this point, you can reach through from the outside and tie the carrier door open against the side of the crate, giving them a safe hiding spot that they can’t accidentally lock themselves out of.
Other suggestions for acclimation/confinement:
- An unused chicken coop (or other large bird aviary)
- A dog run (as long as it is completely enclosed and escape-proof from below, the sides, or above)
- A “catio” (a screened in structure built especially for cats)
Please note that any structure must be checked for gaps, holes, and integrity; when a cat wants out, they will do everything to find a way to do it. We suggest zip-tying the sides of the cage if it seems they are at all moveable. If there are any pane windows, on the item for confinement OR the structure it is in (e.g. a barn), they must be covered with a screen or other item to allow cats to see outside but not run head-first into it.
Be mindful of your vehicle. Cats will often take the opportunity to tuck themselves up near a warm engine, especially when first allowed out. If it is cold and you use your garage for your vehicle, do not attempt to use the garage as an acclimation space. Not only will the frequent opening and closing of the garage door be frightening, but your enticingly warm car may pose a hazard.
What happens after the initial confinement period?
It’s best to close all doors and windows in the barn, open the crate door in the evening, then leave. The cats will explore their new surroundings at night. By morning they will have found good hiding places, although they may still prefer the security of their crate. Leave the crates up for an additional five days so the cats can get back in if they want. After the release, they will usually think of that structure as home and decide to stay.
You can ease the transition by continuing to place their food and water in the crate with the door open, and then in that same location after the crate is removed. After a few weeks, feel free to gradually move the food and water location to the place of your choosing.
You will need to continue providing daily food and water after the crate is removed. Cats are territorial creatures; they will usually maintain a home base once their scent has been established, a continuous food/water source is provided, and they feel safe.
DO NOT RELEASE IF IT IS RAINING or there is the potential of rain. Cats find their home by scent and rain will wash it away. Waiting one or a few more days will not hurt.
- During acclimation, it is important to get your cats used to the movements and noises of all members of the household. If you have any other outdoor pets such as dogs, introduce them by allowing them to go near the cages for brief periods only. Make sure the cats know of their presence.
- Sprinkling used litter (after removing the feces) on the ground will help the cat to recognize its territory and will let it know which areas to use as its toilet. This mimics its natural marking behavior. You can also fill the openings of rodent tunnels with used cat litter to frighten them away!
- Although a semi-feral cat cannot be stroked or petted, it will come to recognize the adopter as a food provider. It may greet them or follow them (at a distance) when they put food down. This is a great compliment and demonstrates familiarity and a level of trust.
- If treated kindly, nervous and semi-feral cats may turn into friendly, even affectionate cats. This may take years, if ever. It is important to not force attention onto an unwilling/nervous cat.
- Barn cats may disappear for a day or two on exploration trips but will return for food. Continue to put food out as normal.