Spirit, The Feral Housecat





Today marked a day that I knew would come, but, every pet owner dreads. I euthanized Spirit, my feral house cat. Yes, for over 6 years, I have had a feral cat living in my house. It became a joke with my friends that if I died, she’d have to go with the house sale. I saw her regularly, scampering to stay away from me. Her comfort zone was 10-12 feet from me.  Catching her was impossible without a live trap and, even then, I figured I would just catch one of the other cats. The handful of times I did catch her early on was by trapping her in a small room, but she learned NEVER to go in a small room without an escape route.

One of the only times I caught her was to spay and vaccinate her. I did keep her kenneled for several weeks and tried to make friends with her. I realized after some time, I was terrorizing her and let her free to run the house. She had friends in the cat population. For whatever reason, she adored Jigsaw, a sweet tortoise shell cat that was 4 years younger than Spirit. She would devotedly follow Jigsaw around the house with an expression of sheer joy. But, when Jigsaw would start to come to me for a pet or scratch, sheer horror would take the place of the joy, her expression changing as if her BFF was going to the hangman’s noose.

I just don’t know why she never relaxed, even a bit. I do know kittens’ socialization period is very young and that time is critical in the making of a good pet. She was only about 6-7 months when she came to live with me (I didn’t know she was feral when I adopted her ….long story). That age is well past the socialization period, but still young enough, I thought, to become somewhat friendly. WRONG.  Shortly after I took her in, it was Christmas day and I woke up with her laying on the foot of my bed. I had high hopes she would accept me, but that was as close as she ever came.

I enjoyed watching her from a comfortable distance. She loved to lay in the sun. She would sit in the middle of the sunroom floor for her bathing ritual, which I found humorous and fascinating.  Her  body position would be Buddha style, where she would meticulously run her tongue down her belly  through her long hair and roll over backwards in a somersault and then struggle up to start again. I really wanted to videotape this unusual grooming ritual, but, of course, could not get close enough.

For the last two to three weeks, I knew she was not doing well, seeming weaker and not scurrying around as much. I finally caught her last night ( a true sign that she was ill) and found a thin, sick cat that was terrified. Knowing I could not treat her illness without causing her severe  mental stress, I made the decision to put her to sleep. I am sad. I am sad for the relationship we never had, and for the relationship we did have that is now over. Rest in peace, Spirit. Please know that I did love you.


  1. Debbie Kocher says

    God bless you, Dr. Thornton. Despite not having the relationship that you wanted, you did give her a relationship that was what she needed. She knew you loved her, and putting her to sleep was a true act of love and kindness. Animals know. And we know, too.

  2. I fed a feral cat for over 3 years, and I recognize in your story the relationship I had with mine. How gallant and fabulous that you gave her this life. Nothing but good that you did this … all the best to you.

  3. So sorry Sara. Remember when I rescued a puppy mill shepherd. Had her a few months, then she was diagnosed with lymphoma. She had made such good progress but was so traumatized by touch. She went down hill so fast, was less than two weeks. Had to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanize. Was three years ago and still hurts my heart so much. Know this must be a terrible tough day.

  4. I’m so sorry to hear this. Every animal we get to know puts a spot on our heart. Some bigger than others. But no matter how small that spot is it still hurts when we have to let them go.

  5. I am in the same situation that you were in. Violet is our feral housecat. She’s around 5.5 to 6 years old. We adopted her from the local shelter when she was 4 to 5 months old. She’d been picked up as a stray and had bitten her rescuer. She was in quarantine and likely to be put down. We adopter her out of pity and in the hopes she’d, too, “come around”. She never did. While humans are her mortal enemies, she made friends with our other cats, although she was at the bottom of the pecking order. I call her my “shadow cat” because sightings of her are so rare! She’d stay in the same room as me, but would not let you get closer than a few feet. She is constantly scurrying around the house, hugging walls and staying low to the ground. Picking her up, petting her, were never an option. I made it a point to be very affectionate with the other cats in front of her, hoping she’d come to realize I was an ally, but it never worked.

    Today, I’m faced with the possibility of euthanizing her. She has a URI that has gotten worse, is losing weight, and does not appear to be grooming. We were able to catch her last night to clean her nose and eyes with a warm washcloth, but it terrified her and she bit my husband. I realize that treating her at home would be impossible (there’s no way I can give her medication on a daily basis) and leaving her at the animal hospital will further traumatize her. I feel so guilty, but watching her suffer at home or putting her through a medical ordeal that will keep her in a constant state of panic is not an option. I also do not want to jeopardize the health of my other cats in the process.

    Your article helped me put my feelings and guilt into perspective. For that, I thank you.

    • I feel your pain. I truly believed that Spirit would eventually grow to accept me, but it never happened. I know I made the right decision to spare her the stress of hospital care and treatment. But, I can’t help but wish it could have been different. Honestly, it is nice to know that I am not alone!