An easy way to explain feral cats is that they’re just domesticated cats who haven’t been socialized. Domestication occurs through years of breeding to create an animal (i.e. dog or cat) with a reliable temperament. The term “feral” is used to distinguish between a wild animal and a domesticated one who hasn’t had the socialization of your typical companion animal.
Unlike wild animals, ferals often rely on humans for food and to some degree, care. This can be scrounging through our garbage for that questionable meal or it can be food we leave out for them.
One common myth pertaining to feral (or stray) cats is that if we quit feeding them they’ll go away. This is largely untrue. Yes, by not feeding them they may branch off a little to someone who will or they may die due to malnutrition. But cats, unlike dogs, are not roamers. They’re most comfortable with having a specific territory and can be pretty clever about finding (or catching) their meals.
Think of it this way: That “crazy cat lady” on your street is not putting food out to make the cats come to her, she’s putting it out to manage a colony that already existed. And when you break it down to the finer points, she’s doing a community service by keeping the cats fed in one place.
Forgotten Felines encourages people to care for cat colonies in their neighborhood. The only occasion we say not to is if your own animals consider the outdoor cats to be a threat. Otherwise, care for them, feed them, have them fixed, and let them live out their lives peacefully.
How to care for a feral cat or an entire colony: If you haven’t already, please see Alley Cat Allies for ample information regarding feral care. They will also provide you with educational literature to help convince your nay-saying neighbors that what you’re doing is a good deed.
Make sure their territory is clear from any debris that could harm them. Glass, rusted metal, poisons, wires or string – if it looks dangerous and isn’t needed, toss it. The colony will be your responsibility and that includes any injuries.
Supply food and fresh water daily. Create a feeding post away from the elements. You can use wood, tarp, 5-gallon buckets – anything to keep them and their food dry should it rain or snow. Try to feed them on a schedule so they know when to show up for feedings. If possible, feed and water the cats using stainless steel bowls to decrease bacteria, and remember to wash them on occasion. Always provide the cats with fresh water in a clean dish. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for the parasite Giardia that can be transmitted to both dogs and humans.
Provide enough shelter for every cat. One of the biggest threats feral and stray cats face is the elements. If you don’t have a barn or shed they can stay in, you’ll have to consider constructing a shelter (or several). There are many designs available on the internet that range from a simple box or drum filled with straw all the way to very elaborate housing. We actually went on craigslist requesting a free dog house for our strays and had a very nice and insulated one donated by a kind couple also in rescue. After filling it thick with straw and a fleece blanket (that we wash weekly, as fleece is very absorbent) it’s been home to many cats, including our own Yuffie and Captain Rahmah. If you want a good shelter design, email us. We’ve seen them all by this point.
Trap-Neuter-Return each and every cat. This is absolutely necessary for a number of reasons. Alley Cat Allies will thoroughly explain how this is done, but you can also email us for details. Why this is so extremely important is you don’t want your colony breeding. Kittens are very cute, but you’ll never get to play with these ones anyway so focus solely on the cats you already have. Intact females are obnoxiously loud when in heat, to the point of being a nuisance to you and your neighbors. And intact males fight over territory and females. This also leads to a lot of marking – throughout your yard, on your home, and on your neighbors home.
We love Humane Ohio. Almost all of our cats have been spay/neutered at Humane Ohio and we couldn’t be happier with them. Their costs are low and their staff is nothing short of amazing. Compassionate, competent, and I’ve never seen a cleaner spay surgery done anywhere else. For your feral or stray cats, this is the place to go. It’s only $25 per surgery and that includes an eartip so you can keep track of who was already fixed (discounts available to those who qualify). Though I know $25 may seem like a lot when you’re looking at a dozen cats, start with those who are causing the most trouble and keep an eye out for any who are pregnant. Pregnant cats are always your top priority, so make an appointment the second you think one even may be. Humane Ohio also offers low-cost vaccines, flea medication, and dewormer. If you’d be interested in these services, tell them prior to the surgery. This way they can administer anything you’ve requested while the cat is still under anesthesia.
Flea treatment is generally a must. Speak to your vet about using Capstar for your colony. This is a flea medication available only in pill form, so you can toss it in their food rather than attempting to apply it to their neck. You may also consider using Brewers yeast with garlic tablets as a preventative. If you absolutely can not afford flea treatment, what’s most important is having them fixed and keeping them fed, watered, and sheltered.
Vet care for ferals. This is a tricky subject. If one of your cats is sick or injured, they should see a vet. Because most cats will not fall for the same method of trapping twice, you will either want to use a vet who understands the cat can not come to the office or carefully gauge the urgency of the illness or injury. If you do get the cat to a vet, be sure to tell them ahead of time if that cat is feral. A cat with a minor case of the sniffles you can supplement each meal with a pinch of pure sodium ascorbate for 7-10 days. If their eyes are only slightly watery, substitute a pinch of L-lysine. Please email us if you have any questions or concerns.
If possible, have each cat tested for FIV and feline leukemia as well as fully vaccinated. If one does test positive for either, search for a cat sanctuary that has appropriate housing for that disease while that cat is quarantined. If you have no other option, have that cat put down. It will be sad, but losing your entire colony to something preventable will be much worse.
Why you want to maintain the colony in your neighborhood: Not only are cats an excellent pest control (though I personally like mice and rats, just perhaps not running rampant in my home), keeping them fed will keep them out of your garbage. More importantly, out of your neighbors garbage. When you have a designated feeding area and stick to a schedule, the colony will quickly learn when to expect meals and where.
Feeding stations and shelters guide the colony to a specified area. Keeping them fed and safe also keeps them healthy, and the longer those specific cats are around, the more they learn to stay away from certain people or homes. Cats don’t enter a neighborhood knowing where to go, they learn it through repetition. Those who have been around longest will be the best behaved.
When you remove a cat from a colony, you present an opening for another who hasn’t gone through this learning process. This is what’s known as the vacuum effect. Removing any cats – Animal Control, driving them out to “the country”, poisoning/killing, allowing them to starve or die off from illness or injury – only brings more cats in. With approximately 87 million stray cats in this nation alone, you don’t have much of an option if you’re already in a high-stray area.
The only proven method to decreasing cat overpopulation is TNR (trap-neuter-return). Learning to coexist and keeping your colony cared for is your best option. And if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a healthy, happy colony interact, you’re missing out. Because ferals haven’t learned to trust humans, colonized cats will rely on each other for affection. Cuddling, cleaning each other, occasionally playing – it’ll make you fall in love every time. In fact, the most affectionate cat I’ve ever had (to my other cats as well as people) began as a feral.
But what if I want to bring one inside as a pet? First determine if it’s the right thing to do for that cat as well as the colony. Cats grieve just as humans do and losing an established member may be hard on the others, not to mention it’ll open a spot for a newcomer who will have to be fixed. Ferals are not exactly looking for that special person to want them and love them. But if you believe this transition is best for the cat, be forewarned that it takes a lot of time, dedication, and patience to socialize an adult feral. Kittens under 5 months old also take a lot of work and effort, but overall adjust faster. If you’re dedicated to making this cat your pet, and have already considered adopting one in need of a good home from a shelter or rescue, email us for information. We will provide you with an articulate guideline to socializing a feral cat and stay in contact through the whole process, but you must first accept that it will be a lot of work. Though it is completely worth it in the end.