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Care of Feral Cats

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.

Placement of Colony Cats

While you’ve been trapping and neutering, some of your feral felines have given birth to new litters. You may be able to find homes for some of these cats. You will have the best chance of doing this with feral kittens than with adults, ideally, those caught before 12 weeks of age. Feral kittens have a pretty good chance of being socialized and becoming house pets, but they may take up to a couple of months to socialize. Those kittens caught before 8 weeks of age have the highest success rate; Some of those over 12 weeks of age may never be completely socialized.

Kittens cannot be socialized if left in the colony. The first thing to do is to bring the kitten indoors and confine him to a small cage, carrier or room to allow frequent access and human interaction. A cage set up with food, water, and litter box in the busiest room of the house is ideal. If you have more than one kitten, it is best to isolate them from each other in neighboring cages. If they stay together, they will bond more closely and find the nerve to “gang up” on whatever frightens them. If split, they will bond more closely with you, their caregiver and “protector”.

The key to taming a feral cat lies in food! Baby food, canned kitten food, and cooked meat work well to coax the kitten and get him slowly used to your presence. Feed this special food periodically, but leave the dry kitten food and fresh water out at all times. Slowly begin touching, petting, and holding the kitten (close, wrapped in a towel or sweatshirt works well) for a few minutes each day, gradually increasing the amount of time spent handling the kitten. Exposure to dogs (while confined), children (supervised), other animals and daily household activities such as vacuums, televisions, etc will all help to assist in the kitten’s socialization. Within a few days or up to a few months, depending on the kitten’s age, it may become more comfortable around you and relaxed and tamed enough to become a pet. Placement of a kitten will require careful screening of potential adopters to ensure they realize what type of personality they are getting and what special care is required (continued confinement during adjustment and socialization stages). Working with your local shelters to find homes for such kittens may be an option. Ideally, the kitten will have been de-wormed, tested, and received first vaccinations prior to joining its new home.

Maintenance of the Colony

If you are up to it, once all the adults are neutered in your colony, you may wish to slowly start taming a few of the adult ferals, acknowledging that it may take years, if ever, for success. Keeping track of who has been neutered and trapping new arrivals is a must for management of the colony. One of the potential downsides to a colony is that the public becomes aware of your efforts and finds the colony an ideal location to deposit their own unwanted felines or newborn litters.

Wildlife is a real concern. Try to limit the number of feeding areas and feed only during the daytime. This makes monitoring of the colony much easier. You can look at each cat and observe whether he is healthy. By not feeding at night, competition with other wild animals can be limited. Be aware that wildlife, especially when raising young, may feed and be active during daylight hours. Make sure the feeding area is clean. Remove any cans or old uneaten food.

Positive public perception is critical. Talking with your nearby landowners may help educate them to the feral cat’s plight and allow you easier access to your colony. And, remember, the single most important thing you can do is to make sure those cats are neutered.

Article includes contributions from T. Silvia, Animal Care Technician, SK Pound, RI