Caring for a feral cat colony has tremendous benefits to caregivers, neighbors, and the cats. Feeding and providing shelter for feral cats allows them to peacefully co-habitate in an area. While some people welcome them for rodent control, providing nutritious food keeps them both from roaming in search of another food source which also makes them less susceptible to disease and parasites. Though cats have been living outdoors for over 10,000 years on their own, there are steps that you as a caregiver can take to promote their well-being, make them good neighbors, and assist the people who live nearby in understanding and co-existing with the cats.
- Neuter, vaccinate, eartip (LEFT), and return all feral cats in the colony. Neutering and vaccinating are the best things that can be done for stray and feral cats. They will be healthier and live longer if they are neutered. The females will not be continuously pregnant and nursing and, male cats will not fight for mates or roam in search of females with whom to mate.
- Provide adequate food and water for the cats on a regular basis, year-round. The amount of food a cat needs depends on size, activity level, the weather, and what other food sources are available. Expect an adult feral cat to eat roughly 5.5 ounces of canned cat food and 2 ounces of dry food daily (increase to a half cup if only feeding dry). If the cats eat all of the food in 15 minutes or less, consider putting out a bit more. Remove uneaten food within 30 minutes. Never allow food to sit out, as it may attract insects or wildlife. Outdoor cats need clean water daily and during all weather conditions. Many cats will drink more water if their water source is moved away from their food. Throughout the winter months, you can add a pinch of sugar to prevent the water from freezing as quickly.
- Providing Shelter. Some colonies find shelter for themselves in a shed or under a building. If this is not available, you should consider building a shelter for the cats. It can keep them safe from the elements and help you control their location and deter them from neighbors’ properties. A good size for a shelter is at least 2×3′ and at least 18″ high. Larger shelters are not necessarily better, since heat disperses quickly, leaving the inside as cold as the outside. A space just big enough for three to five cats to huddle is best. Camouflage the shelter as much as possible using dark green or brown paint.
- Keeping track of members of your colony. It is a good idea to keep an eye on the cats for general good health. Common indicators of health problems or injury include: changes in behavior, changes in eating habits, dull eyes or coat, discharge from the nose or eyes, weight loss, fur loss, changes in their gait, and listlessness. Have a plan with your veterinarian for how to handle any health problems and for ongoing colony care. When a health problem occurs, speak with your veterinarian first and describe the symptoms so that you can decide together if a sick cat needs to be trapped and examined. You should hold on to all medical records for each cat in every colony for which you care. A medical record should contain a listing of each vaccination (especially rabies) and any other medical procedures. The record should also include documentation of the cat’s sex, coloring and size/weight.
- Helping Cats & People Co-Exist. As the colony caregiver, you become the cats’ PR firm. If neighbors do not know who “speaks for the cats,” they have no one but animal control to contact with complaints or problems. Being open about caregiving can protect the cats. One way to maintain good relations is to establish and maintain a friendly dialogue with residents living in the cats’ neighborhood and readily address all neighbor concerns. Explain to residents living in the cats’ neighborhood what Trap-Neuter-Return and colony care entails-explain that the cats are cared for and pose no health risk. Explain that the cats have lived at the site for a long time, that they have been (or will be) neutered, which will virtually eliminate behaviors such as roaming, fighting, yowling, and spraying, and that a managed colony will be stable and healthy. Also explain that if the present colony is removed, new, unsterilized cats are certain to move in. To keep cats from using neighborhood gardens as litter boxes, build one or more litter boxes or place sand or peat moss in strategic areas for the cats to use as litter (do not use conventional litter, as it will be ruined by weather). Be sure that the litter area is in a quiet, sheltered space. Scoop regularly to alleviate odors and keep flies away. Be prepared to scoop more often in hot weather.