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Care of Feral Cats

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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Feral Cat Awareness

A feral cat is one that has had little or no human contact and is usually unapproachable by people. These felines differ from housecats who are allowed to visit the outdoor environment, as well as from those stray cats that once had owners and were abandoned or became lost. Ferals take a significant amount of time to be loving companions, if ever, but they still deserve the care and respect of humans. They have been born into or adapted to outdoor life without human contact, living together in loose families organized as colonies, and can do well in urban as well as rural areas.

If you notice feral or stray cats in your area and have decided to open your heart to help, there are several things you can do. First, contact your local and state animal control officials to learn what local laws/ordinances may apply. For example, in some states if you feed a feral cat, you own it. In addition, many municipalities have outright banned the feeding of stray cats, punishable by fines or more. If your local shelters cannot or will not respond to your situation, there are groups (i.e., RI's PawsWatch) which are set up to particularly handle feral cat trap-rerelease and to educate those folks with colonies, in order to reduce and eventually eliminate those colonies over time. If none of these resources are available to you, managing your own feral colony may be an option.

You should be aware that adult ferals will likely never have the same personality as your housecat, and may end up spending the remainder of their lives in their colony. Although signs of affection from such cats may be slim, they can show their gratitude and appreciation by slowly accepting your presence in their environment. It is also important to note that caring for feral cats is quite controversial, even in areas which allow such care. Some people feel that all strays should be euthanized, to curb overpopulation, spread of disease, and impacts to native wildlife such as mice and birds. Still others feel they should be left to their own devices and not helped by humans at all. When budgets are tight, feral cat care programs get hit hard. And then there are folks who choose to help these cats and who understand that these cats have a right to life just like any other cat, although they may need some human intervention. Lastly, a feral cat provider should also realize that these animals have become a part of the local ecology, and may impact native wildlife feeding patterns and habitat. In addition, the colony itself may suffer from wildlife transmitted disease, predation, and/or food competition.

Setting up a Colony

The first part of caring for a colony of cats is to provide food, water, and shelter. Site selection should be determined first by where the cats already are, and second by any identifiable hazards (nearby roadways, industrial sites, neighborhood children and/or schoolyards, etc.). Start by feeding the cats once a day, dry food tends to work best. These cats are skittish and nervous so place bowls and dishes under bushes, shrubs or near walls to allow them to eat in privacy. Several dishes will help to alleviate competition and stress. Make sure to provide fresh water daily. If you begin feeding every day at the same time, the cats will gradually become used to the routine and start to anticipate your arrival. In time, the cats may feel comfortable enough to feed in your presence. During severe winter or summer weather or storm events, the placement of several large cat or dog crates will provide temporary shelter for the colony, as well as habituate the animals to such objects. All will aid in the ultimate goal: trapping them to spay/neuter, then returning them to their colony.

Many veterinary clinics offer reduced fees for people assisting feral colonies. In addition, many local humane organizations and shelters sponsor low cost spay/neuter clinics several times a year. Make sure you have an appointment set up before trapping a cat. Many of these groups also provide live traps for capturing animals. Following the trap's instructions, set the trap up with some food. If you are setting traps, you must make sure you have the time to check them several times a day. If wildlife or someone's pet is accidentally trapped, you will need a plan to let the unintentional trapee loose. Remember that wildlife and scared felines can bite and scratch and can spread rabies and other disease to humans. In many states, the transport of wildlife is prohibited.

You'll need to ensure that any sutures placed during the surgery do not require removal, as re-trapping of feral cats has a limited success rate. After the surgery, the cat should be returned to the colony and monitored for general health. Optimally, cats should be feline leukemia and feline aids tested, as well as distemper and rabies vaccinated prior to their re-release. Those cats that test positive are potentially infective to other cats, and will likely have shortened, and possibly traumatic life spans. Therefore, euthanasia of such cats (if there is no available indoor-only guaranteed home) is typically prescribed, to prevent the spread of disease to the rest of the colony or other cats that may be in the area. Tatooing and ear notching are some methods which veterinarians employ to "mark" an already-neutered animal for identification if accidentally re-trapped.

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