If you’ve been glimpsing the yellow-green glint of cat eyes when you step outside at night, or a flash of tabby bolting out of your yard when you go out in the morning, you may have become the accidental host to a feral cat colony. Feral cats are common, and colonies can range in size from a couple of cats to hundreds. So, what to do if you suspect feral cats are nearby?
Check for Help Nearby
Start by checking out Alley Cat Allies’ FAQ page and submitting an email request for a list of feral cat organizations in your state. If you’re outside the United States, Alley Cat Allies also has a list of organizations in other countries.
If Alley Cat Allies can’t connect you with a feral cat advocacy group in your area, your next-best bet is to call local shelters and rescues to see if they know of anyone locally who is an expert in feral cat care and management. Some cat lovers privately offer assistance and advice to people hosting feral cat colonies, but don’t register as an official organization or appear on lists like the one kept by Alley Cat Allies. Even some private veterinarians are willing to see ferals at low cost. That brings us to your next step:
TNR: Trap Neuter Release
The best strategy for feral cat colony management is to trap, neuter, and release all cats, with some exceptions: Tame or semi-tame cats can be adopted into patient homes willing to help a cat adjust to life indoors after surviving by his wits alone for months or years. Wondering how to tell the difference between a feral and a previously tame cat? Any cat that meows was probably someone’s pet once. Cats born and raised feral don’t meow.
Most shelters can rent a humane trap to you inexpensively. Bait it with some tasty canned cat food, and hope not to catch a raccoon, fox, or skunk instead of a cat!
A trapped feral cat should not be handled except by a professional. Cover the carrier and transport it to a feral cat advocacy group or a feral-friendly vet immediately. Don’t play your car radio or talk too much in the car. Stress can be a major factor in illness in cats.
Feral cats should be tested for Feline Leukemia and FIV, as well as anything else recommended by your vet. They should also receive all applicable vaccinations provided they are in good enough health to tolerate vaccination. In most cases, sadly, very unhealthy feral cats should be euthanized, as the stress of intensive treatment would be likely to eliminate its benefits; however, there are, as always, exceptions.
Finally, a trapped feral cat should be marked, usually done by ear tipping or notching, to show that it is altered and vaccinated. Then, it can be returned to its colony.
Caring for a Colony
Now’s the moment of truth: You’ve trapped the nearby feral cats and responsibly brought them to a TNR program for altering, testing, vaccination, and marking. Will you accept responsibility for the colony?
This means providing food and water, and doing so out of the way of nosy neighbors. Arguments with neighbors who disagree with giving any humane care to stray and feral cats, even if the colony has been TNR’ed, don’t do the cats any good. The best outcome for a feral colony after TNR is that adults live out their natural lives with ample food and water, no intact cats join the colony, and no intact cats appear to take over the colony’s living space after the existing colony members have left it vacant through natural attrition.
If you choose to care for the colony, seek the advice of experienced caregivers. Keep in touch with others caring for ferals, in order to have a ready support network if you come up against an issue with which you’re not familiar, whether it’s a cat problem or fellow humans who disagree with giving care to ferals.
If you can’t care for the colony or don’t want to do so, most feral cat programs also offer cat lovers the opportunity to volunteer to take on a colony. Owners of barns or farms may take advantage of this, happy to provide food for a group of cats that will keep out of the way and keep the property mouse-free. Don’t just release the cats any old place. Take the time to find a program that will help you place them with a willing caregiver.
Before feeding any stray or feral animal, or at least before making a long term committment to do so, research the applicable laws in your community. Make sure that caregiving for a feral colony isn’t against local or state ordinances. In some areas, feral cats fed by a caregiver count toward a “pet limit,” and a colony will almost always put you over the limit. In other areas, any feeding of feral and wild animals is prohibited, usually by laws intended to prevent wildlife from becoming accustomed to receiving food from humans.
While feeding truly wild animals is usually harmful to them, these laws should contain exceptions for feral colonies that have been neutered and vaccinated. If you find that feeding your colony is illegal in your area, you must make an informed choice about whether or not to support the cats anyway. Whichever choice you make, do so after gathering all available information and advice from veteran caregivers.
I also encourage people who live in areas that prohibit feral feeding to join or start a feral cat advocacy group and present evidence to the appropriate authorities supporting an exception for neutered and vaccinated feral cat colonies. Often, the decision makers, especially at a City Council or Country Commissioner level, have simply not considered that neutered and vaccinated feral cat colonies exist in their jurisdiction and that their needs differ from those of wild animals, or that they present negligible danger to other animals or to humans.
Alley Cat Allies can suggest methods of moving forward with advocacy, should you go this route.