Caring And Feeding Of Feral Cats

Feral cats are not socialized to people. Some have never had human contact; others are semi-tame cats who were once pets. Often, they live in loose associations known as "colonies," are well adapted to their environment, and can live safely and contentedly in alleys, parking lots, vacant lots, backyards, and a host of other locations—urban, suburban, and rural.

Some people believe that feral cats lead short, miserable lives and that, for this reason, Trap/Neuter/Return programs should not be implemented. We disagree. Most any caregiver can attest that feral cats can lead long, healthy, happy lives.

And while feral and abandoned cats may face hardships, we don't think death is better than a less-than-perfect life. Many animals, such as raccoons, foxes, and field mice face hardship and do not live extraordinarily long lives, yet we would never consider euthanizing them "for their own good."

We believe that all animals deserve compassion and protection for their entire lives -- no matter how long or short that might be.

If you're aware of a feral cat colony, here are some guidelines for determining what their needs might be and for helping them.

Determining if a colony is being cared for. Veterinarians who spay or neuter cats from a feral colony usually snip off the tip of one ear (this is called "notching" or "tipping"). Unless you see clipped ears, you should assume the cats are not altered; and, certainly, if you see kittens in the colony, there are sure to be cats who need to be altered.

Spay/neuter is the single most important thing we can do to help feral cats and is the most humane and effective way to control their populations. Not only does spay/neuter prevent more kittens from being born, it also decreases behavior like spraying, fighting, howling, and roaming. In addition, it greatly improves the cats' health.

Spay/neuter should take precedence over socializing and adopting. Even if you do not wish to feed and care for them, you should still have the cats altered and returned to their habitat.

For trapping instructions, see our "Humane Trapping" fact sheet.

Feeding the cats. Look for evidence that a colony is being cared for: food dishes, water bowls, or shelters. If no one seems to be feeding the cats, put food out once a day, preferably dry food. Leave it in as inconspicuous a place as possible: under shrubs, behind dumpsters, or near walls, where the cats can feed safely. Don't forget fresh water!

Stick to a regular schedule if you can. Consistent feeding will make trapping easier.

Minimize the number of feeding stations. Fewer feeding stations means less work and less chance that the cats will be noticed. It also makes keeping an eye on the cats and monitor the colony for newcomers easier. Feed the cats in areas as secluded as possible, away from human activity.

Do not feed at night. Conflicts with nocturnal wildlife are one of the primary reasons neighbors complain about feral cat colonies, and daytime feeding reduces the chance of wild animals helping themselves to the cats' food.

Keep feeding areas clean. Change the dishes when they get dirty, and pick up trash even if it isn't yours. Don't leave empty cans or large piles of food. Dry food is less messy than canned, and if you feed only dry food, canned food will be a more enticing treat, making trapping much easier.

Managing a Colony. Watch for new cats, and have them spayed or neutered right away.

Keep a low profile. "Out of sight, out of mind" is the motto of many feral cat caregivers. Be inconspicuous in your feeding and trapping activities. If someone notices what you're doing and asks about it, explain that altering and feeding feral cats decreases their numbers quickly and humanely. Most people will be supportive.

Share responsibilities. Have friends, co-workers, family members, or other caregivers who will feed the cats one day a week or colony sit while you're on vacation. Perhaps they can socialize a kitten or keep a cat for post-surgery recovery while you continue trapping. The more people who participate in caring for a colony, the better off the cats--and you--will be.

Resources

Local veterinarians: Ask if they can put you in touch with anyone else who is caring for ferals for advice and support. Do they have a humane trap you can borrow?

Humane societies: Do they offer free or low-cost spay/neuter? Or medical care if you find a sick or injured cat? They may have humane traps to borrow or a volunteer who can teach you how to trap.

Pet supply stores: Find out if they have humane traps to borrow, rent, or buy, or referrals to volunteers or local feral cat groups. Tell them what you are doing, and ask for cat food donations, or request permission to set up a donation bin where customers can deposit cat food they purchase at the store.