Feral Cat FAQ
Q: I discovered some cats outside. Who can I call to come and get them?
A: The first step is to find out if the cats are tame or wild (refer to question #3). If tame, then be sure to visit the Pets 911 Found Pet section on this web site and enter the cat's information there. Also, alert your local animal shelter(s) about your having found this cat, and post signs in your and surrounding neighborhoods. Tame cats can and should be adopted into loving homes. If you take them to a shelter, be sure the shelter is a "no-kill" shelter. If wild, then the cats you found are probably the offspring of stray or abandoned domestic cats, otherwise known as feral cats. There is no agency or organization that will come and retrieve the cats. Animal control may come and trap them. However, they will likely kill the cats. Shelters, even "no-kill" shelters, find feral cats impossible to adopt out because they are feral.
Wild or feral cats live in family groups called colonies and congregate near food sources. The traditional approach in dealing with feral cats has been to trap and kill them and most shelters and animal control facilities still kill feral cats relinquished to them.
However, there is a humane solution! Feral cats CAN be managed with a nonlethal method called trap-neuter-return (TNR). Cats are humanely trapped, neutered or spayed, and returned to their colony site where a caretaker provides them with food and water.
Nonlethal management is more effective than trapping and killing. When cats are removed, new cats move in to fill the vacuum and soon another colony forms. Conversely, sterilizing feral cats stabilizes the population and improves the cats' health and eliminates annoying behaviors associated with mating, such as spraying and fighting.
Q: I can't touch the cats, so how can I get them to the vet for spaying/neutering?
A: Feral cats and some stray cats will not allow you to touch them. Alley Cat Allies (ACA) strongly recommends that you do not attempt to do so, for your own safety as well as for the cats'. (Many feral cats needlessly lose their lives when public health officials insist that unvaccinated cats be killed and tested for rabies after an "unprovoked" bite.) Alley Cat Allies recommends that you trap the cats and have them spayed/neutered as quickly as possible. Some people wait six months, or longer, thinking that the cat will become tame enough to catch. In the meantime, one or two litters of kittens will be born.
Even if you think you can "catch" a cat, you should still trap the cat with a humane box trap, which allows the cat to enter but not to exit. Box traps are completely safe. Do not be surprised if the cat, once inside the trap, is initially frightened and thrashes around. ACA recommends covering the top and sides of the trap with a towel or blanket prior to setting the trap to help the cat remain calm. For information on purchasing traps, see ACA's How to Choose a Trap.
Traps are the safest way to transport cats to a veterinarian. In addition, many veterinarians require feral cats to arrive in traps, which enables the veterinarian to anesthetize them through the bars of the trap directly so as not to handle the cats until they are unconscious. Please see Alley Cat Allies' comprehensive Humane Trapping Instructions for Feral Cats, for detailed guidelines on trapping and supplies needed.
Do not attempt to catch the cat by throwing a towel or blanket over the cat. You could be severely scratched or bitten. Also, never use tranquilizers on outdoor cats. This could be extremely dangerous for the cat because the drug takes a while to take effect and the cat may be injured.
Q: How can I tell if the cats are stray or feral?
A: Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell the difference initially between a frightened stray and a feral cat.
A feral cat is one that has "gone wild" at some point in her life, or was born in the wild. Fearful of humans, adult feral cats are very difficult to tame and are most content outside. Because a cat will react with the cats teeth and claws, you should never attempt to corner or grab an unknown cat. Feral kittens, under the age of eight weeks, on the other hand, stand a good chance of being tamed but must be trapped with a box trap and never caught by hand. See Alley Cat Allies' factsheet Taming Feral Kittens. Most outdoor cats, whether stray or feral, adult or kitten, will inflict injury if they are cornered and feel threatened. This can cost the cat her life.
A stray cat is a domestic cat that has been abandoned or strayed from home and become lost. Once a companion animal, a stray cat can usually be successfully placed into a home. A stray cat may be skittish in your presence making it hard for you to decide if the cat is stray or feral. Because stray cats were once companion animals, and thus know human companionship, they can usually be re-socialized and re-homed. You should attempt to find the cat's original human companion or adopt the cat out to a good home.
The safest and most effective way to capture a cat that is elusive (tame or feral) is to use a humane box trap. Once trapped, you can evaluate the cat's disposition without being bitten or scratched. Do not remove the cat from the trap. Frightened strays often calm down once they realize you will not cause harm, but a feral cat will remain wild and will react by hiding in the back of the trap. Do not attempt to pet the cat through the trap. Also, talking to the cat will not calm her down. The cat will most likely feel threatened and will growl, hiss, or even lunge at you through the bars of the trap.
Q: I am moving, and I can't take the feral cats that I am managing with me. How do I find someone to take over their care?
A: (Please note that this question deals only with feral cats and not domesticated cats.) This is a good time to introduce yourself to your neighbors, if you have not done so already. Begin by asking them if they have noticed the cat colony that you feed and what they think of it. If you sense that your neighbors think positively about the cats, then broach the subject of your own relocation and the need to find someone who can continue caring for the cat colony. By speaking with your neighbors you may be surprised to learn that others are also providing for the same feline friends.
If you are fortunate enough to have a feral cat organization in your town, you can network with it in case they have a volunteer near your colony. In addition, Alley Cat Allies recommends placing flyers around your neighborhood as well as in pet stores and veterinary offices. On the flyer write your name and telephone number, explain your situation, and the need for someone to replace you. Please see our sample Flyer as an example.
Alley Cat Allies encourages you to begin making inquiries as soon as possible so that arrangements for the cats' care can be put in place before you move. It is important to remember that it may be difficult to convince someone to assume the care of a feral cat colony if the cats have not been spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped. Asking people to feed a limited number of cats who do not reproduce and will decrease in number over time due to natural attrition will be one of your selling points. If the cats you feed have not been sterilized, vaccinated, and eartipped, you will need to trap the cats, and take them to the veterinarian right away. For more information see the resources section and read Alley Cat Allies' Humane Trapping Instructions for Feral Cats.
If all else fails you may want to consider relocation. But this takes time and you have to put a great deal of energy and effort into finding a caring person and a hospitable home. Strict guidelines must be followed. For more information, see ACA's Relocation: Guidelines for Safe Relocation of Feral Cats.
Q: My neighbors are complaining about the cats. What can I do?
A: Ask your neighbors the specific reason(s) behind their complaints. Often, complaints are easily refuted with the proper information. For example, if a cat is soiling the neighbors' gardens, place sand in an out-of-the-way area or keep litter boxes at the colony site, keep the litter area clean, and offer repellents. If neighbors voice health concerns, make sure that the cats are up to date with their vaccinations. Keep the cats' medical records in order and offer to share this information with your neighbors.
Before speaking with your neighbors, familiarize yourself with the following information prepared by Alley Cat Allies:
Once you have read and feel comfortable talking about the above information, provide copies of this information to your neighbors.
Your neighbors may not be able to give you a specific reason for their complaints. Regardless, use the above information to show the benefits of a managed cat colony. When speaking with your neighbors, emphasize that the existing feral cat colony is sterilized, vaccinated, and eartipped. These cats will not reproduce, will help to keep out new, unsterilized and unvaccinated cats, and will form an effective barrier between humans and wildlife, the primary carriers of rabies. Trap-neuter-return is the only proven method effective in reducing numbers of unwanted cats in residential or commercial areas.
IMPORTANT: Always remain polite and diplomatic when dealing with neighbors and their complaints. The cats' lives may depend on how calmly and effectively you handle the situation.
If all else fails and your neighbors insist on the cats being removed, assure your neighbors that you will begin searching for relocation sites. Ask your neighbors to be patient. Let them know that finding relocation sites can take some time. While you are advertising for horse stables and barn homes, you should also trap and sterilize and return any unsterilized cats to prevent litters of kittens from being born in the meantime. You may find that once your neighbors have been informed of TNR, have been given some of the products mentioned above, and have had time to cool down, they may not be as adamant about having the cats removed as they initially were. In the end, you may not have to relocate the cats after all. For details on relocating feral cats, refer to Alley Cat Allies factsheet, Relocation: Guidelines for Safe Relocation of Feral Cats.
Q: I have been feeding cats for a while and they are reproducing. I can't feed them all. What should I do?
A: The first and most important step is to have the cats spayed or neutered as soon as possible. Sterilization will not only stop the breeding cycle and thus the large number of cats and kittens, but it will also improve the quality of the cats' lives. In order to sterilize the cat you must first trap her with a humane box trap. Do not try to handle the cats yourself. For detailed information on trapping, and which traps to use, please see Alley Cat Allies' factsheet, Humane Trapping Instruction for Feral Cats. To help save money, find out if there is a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in your area. Contact groups in your area involved with feral cat issues. See also, Guidelines for Veterinarians. After sterilizing and vaccinating the feral cats, return them to their home. You will need to continue to manage the colony by providing food and shelter so that the feral cats remain healthy and content. Please see Build an Inexpensive Feral Cat Shelter. For information on starting a trap-neuter-return program, see Alley Cat Allies' Action Article, The ABCs of TNR.
Q: I don't want anything to happen to the feral cat colony, but the colony can't stay here. Where can they go?
A: Unless the feral cats' lives are in danger, their present location is the optimal place. If the reason for the cats removal is because they are fighting, spraying, or if there is a growing number of kittens, then the solution is simple - sterilize the cats. With very few exceptions, feral cats should remain at their original colony site. Cats create very strong bonds with one another and if you relocate them they may be separated. Relocating feral cats, while not impossible, is difficult and only works if strict guidelines are followed. Moreover, placing a highly stressed and fearful cat in unfamiliar surroundings can result in a miserable fate for a previously very content animal. If relocation is the only option see Alley Cat Allies' factsheet, Relocation: Guidelines for Safe Relocation of Feral Cats. Sterilization eliminates the noisy and objectionable breeding behavior neighbors dislike, such as yowling, spraying, fighting, excessive roaming, and the sight of sick and dying kittens. With sterilization the population will stabilize and the neighbors will have less to complain about. In addition, providing the feral cats with shelter keeps cats from searching for cover in places where they may not be welcome. For information on building a shelter, please see Build an Inexpensive Feral Cat Shelter.
Q: The cats have been spayed/neutered and now the landlord says they have to go. What can I do?
After you have put money, emotions, and time into spaying and neutering, vaccinating, and eartipping feral cats in your area, it is very frustrating and frightening to be told that the cats are not welcome. You may need to educate and enlighten the concerned parties. Remember that you will be far more persuasive with your landlord or property manager if you remain calm and prepare yourself before presenting your position. Refer to Alley Cat Allies' newsletter feature, How to Talk to Anyone About TNR. Find out the specific reason(s) that your landlord feels the cats should be removed from the area. Are the cats using the flowerbeds as litter boxes? Is the landlord concerned about health risks posed to tenants by the cats? Knowing this information will allow you to resolve each concern/complaint with information provided by Alley Cat Allies. For example, ACA's Community Benefits of Feral Cats, offers easy, inexpensive methods to repel cats from areas where they are unwanted. ACA's Health Care for Feral Cats - Zoonoses: Potential Health Hazards for Humans, offers explanations of often feared diseases including Toxoplasmosis, which is caused by ingesting fecal matter - not a likely scenario for most people - and is more commonly contracted through eating undercooked meat. Free-roaming cats are often blamed for environmental and social ills that are not of their making. Overreacting to these low-risk health concerns is counterproductive to solving the problem in a truly effective way. However, you may find that your landlord cannot give you a specific reason why the cats should be removed. Reiterate the fact that the existing cats at the complex are sterilized, vaccinated, and eartipped. These cats will not reproduce, will defend their territory from new, unsterilized and unvaccinated cats, and will form an effective barrier between humans and wildlife, the primary carriers of rabies. Many people are surprised to learn that eradicating cats by removal and relocation or by killing does not solve the problem. Over 30 years of study by noted British biologist and naturalist Roger Tabor has shown that when cats are removed from an area, a 'vacuum effect' is created, allowing new cats to move into the area and continue the cycle of breeding. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) is the only method that has proven effective in reducing feral cat populations. Be sure to provide the landlord with information from Alley Cat Allies that supports your position.
Q: There are several cats to be trapped, but I only have one trap. Will that do?
A: Ideally, you should have as many traps as there are cats. Aim for trapping all of the cats within as few trapping sessions as possible. To bring a colony under control before the next kitten season, it is critical to work quickly and efficiently. If you repeatedly introduce a trap to a colony, the cats will eventually figure out your intention, becoming wary and more difficult to trap. Of course, the number of cats you can trap during each session will also depend on how many cats your veterinarian is willing to sterilize at one time. To maximize each trapping session, find out if in your area, there are individuals or groups willing to loan out traps. The number of people helping the feral cats in your area may surprise you. Email Alley Cat Allies by filling out our Email Form to find out if there is a Feral Friend in your area. For more help with trapping feral cats see Alley Cat Allies' Factsheet Humane Trapping Instructions for Feral Cats.
Q: Where can I find a veterinarian who will treat feral cats, preferably at a reduced rate?
A: A good place to start is to ask your own veterinarian (if you have one) if he or she is willing to work with feral cats. Explain what you want to accomplish and ask about the possibility of a fee reduction for "rescuers." Remind the veterinarian that you are volunteering your time to serve your community at the same time as enhancing the lives of the feral cats. If your veterinarian is unfamiliar with the concept of trap-neuter-return (TNR), supply copies of ACA factsheets, Feral Cat Population Control: Implementing a Humane Sterilization Plan and Guidelines for Veterinarians Treating Feral Cats. If you cannot work out an arrangement with your own veterinarian, do not be discouraged. Try contacting other veterinarians in your area until you find someone willing to work with you at a reasonable rate. Ask local rescue groups or humane societies to refer a veterinarian who provides low-cost spaying and neutering, and who will support your plan. Fortunately, full-fledged spay/neuter programs exist in some parts of the country (see our Links page for a program in your area), such as Operation Catnip in Florida and North Carolina, Spay-Neuter Assistance Program, Feral Cat Spay-Neuter Project of Puget Sound in the state of Washington, Feral Cat Coalition in San Diego, California Veterinary Medical Association covering the entire state of California, San Francisco SPCA, Animal Birth Control Clinics in California, and Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon. In addition, both Spay/USA and Friends of Animals have national veterinary network systems. Once you have found a veterinarian, discuss in advance what has to be done and establish a protocol so that the veterinarian provides the services you need: spay (with dissolvable sutures) or neuter with an injectable anesthesia, eartip, full exam, ear cleaning, three-year rabies vaccination, and deworming.
Q: I took my feral cats to the veterinarian for sterilization. How do I know they are recovering properly?
Q: Where do I get traps and, which are the best to use?
A: Humane box traps are available from the following companies:
Live Trap Co.
(Animal Care Equipment & Services, Inc.)
of the Earth Marketing
Q: I've been told that cats should be indoors only, so isn't it cruel to leave them outside?
A: You may decide that the safest place for your tame companion cat is inside, but the best and usually only place available for feral cats is outside. Feral cats are essentially wild animals who have adapted to their outdoor environments and who, like other wild animals, would not live a satisfying indoor life. The cat is one of the last animals humans domesticated and their offspring can revert to a wild state in one generation. Caretakers can ensure the health and longevity of a colony by implementing trap-neuter-return (TNR). Feral cats who live in managed colonies live healthy, contented, and long lives - as long as indoor cats. For more information, please see the Alley Cat Action article, The ABC's of TNR. Finding homes for feral cats is not a realistic option. Humane societies, animal shelters, and other animal organizations rarely accept feral cats for adoption because their feral behavior (cannot be touched or held by people) makes them "unadoptable." Shelters typically euthanize feral cats (usually without a holding period). Animal sanctuaries are nearly always full, and many do not accept feral cats. Cats in a supervised outdoor colony - sterilized, vaccinated, and cared for - have numerous health benefits in addition to the obvious advantage of population control. Sterilized cats are far less likely to develop certain kinds of cancer, and tomcats are less likely to fight, reducing the incidence of injury and disease transmission. The incidence of FIV and FeLV in feral cats is consistent with the low rate of infected house cats (4% for FeLV and 2% for FIV). Additionally, the cats are better able to care for themselves since they no longer have to put all of their energy into producing and caring for offspring. Feral cats are also vaccinated for rabies and eartipped for identification purposes at the time they are sterilized.
Q: Do the feral cats need shelter?
A: Providing shelter is an important element of feral cat colony management. Even though feral cats develop a winter coat each fall, they need warm, dry shelter to protect them from extreme temperatures and wet weather. You can build a shelter following the instructions in Alley Cat Allies' factsheet, Build an Inexpensive Feral Cat Shelter, or create your own with a strong box or crate insulated with thick plastic or other material capable of keeping out wind and cold weather. A shelter can provide comfort to more than one cat depending upon the size of the shelter and the sociability of the cats. When building a shelter consider the climate. A feral cat shelter in a tropical climate will not need as much insulation as one in a colder climate, such as winter in New York City. Therefore, each shelter should be adapted to its local environment. Because blankets and towels retain moisture, bedding should be made from hardwood, hay, or synthetic material such as that used to make saddle blankets. Place the shelter on a wooden pallet or bricks to raise it off the ground and prevent rotting. During very cold weather cats need fresh, unfrozen water and extra food to provide energy for warmth. Please see factsheet, Tricks of the Trade: Essential Feral Cat Care for Long-Term Management, for more detailed information on managing feral cat colonies.
Q: I just found a newborn kitten and the kitten's mother is nowhere to be seen. What should I do?
A: Determine the age of the kitten to see if he or she needs to be bottle-fed or can start immediately on soft food:
1 - 4 weeks old - will need to be bottle-fed. 4 weeks and older - can be offered soft food, but may need to be bottle-fed.
If the kitten is cold, warm her slowly by holding her against your bare skin, which will allow her to absorb your body's heat (if you are outside, your armpit makes a great incubator). Cold is the greatest danger to kittens. DO NOT submerge the kitten in water or use any method that will warm her temperature too quickly. Because she is not able to generate her own heat, wrapping the kitten in a blanket or towel is not sufficient. The kitten must get her heat from you.
DO NOT feed a cold kitten. Wait until her body heat is approximately 90+ degrees Fahrenheit. See section below regarding feeding instructions.
Make a kitten box. Put a heating pad in a box big enough to accommodate the heating pad and an area that is not covered by the heating pad. Kittens will crawl toward the heat when they are cold and away from the heat when they are warm. If they do not have an area where they can get away from the heat, they can become dehydrated and die. Turn the heating pad on LOW and cover it with a towel. Never let the kitten lie directly on the pad. Place the box in a warm and draft-free area.
Do not bathe the kitten unless absolutely necessary. If the kitten appears to need a bath, her body temperature must be normal, 90+ degrees Fahrenheit. Flea combing is best if the kitten has fleas. (If the kitten must be bathed, use small amount of Lemon Joy. The citrus kills fleas and is safe for kittens. Flea shampoos are too harsh for kittens.) After towel drying the kitten as much as possible return the kitten to the heating pad. NEVER use a hair dryer.
you will need for neonatal kittens:
KMR (Kitten Milk Replacer) or Just Born are the best formulas to feed a neonatal kitten. DO NOT give a kitten cow's milk, except in an emergency. If you cannot obtain KMR immediately, use the following emergency recipe for up to 24 hours only. In an emergency, call Alley Cat Allies at 202.667.3630, a veterinarian, or check a local pet store for kitten formulas. Visit http://www.1888pets911.org/ for humane societies in your area.
Warm the formula in a nursing bottle or medicine dropper by placing the bottle or dropper into a cup or bowl of hot water. Test the formula on the underside of your wrist to check the temperature. If it feels too warm or too cold on your wrist, it will feel the same for the kitten. If the formula is too hot, wait until the formula cools down. If the formula is too cold, continue soaking the bottle or dropper in hot water. Always be sure to test the formula again before giving it to the kitten.
Place the kitten on her stomach at a 45-degree angle (just as a kitten would nurse from the mother) and let her nurse until she turns her head. Do not hold the kitten's head back, and do not hold her on her back as you would a human baby, because the kitten could aspirate formula into her lungs. Avoid getting air into the kitten's tummy by holding the bottle at an angle to keep liquid toward the nipple. Pulling back slightly on the bottle will help trigger the kitten's sucking reflex. Never squeeze the bottle to force milk to come out. Do not panic if the kitten does not eat the first day. She may be more accustomed to her mothers' milk, which is quite rich, and can sustain her for a longer time than replacement formulas. (If she is still not eating after 24 hours, seek veterinary assistance immediately. She may need to be force fed through a tube. Never attempt tube feeding yourself if you are unfamiliar with this procedure. If done improperly, esophageal or stomach damage, and even death can result.)
IMPORTANT: After the kitten's stomach is full, it is necessary to stimulate her to help her eliminate. A kitten does not have the ability to do this until they are three weeks old. Stimulate by taking a wet, lukewarm, but not hot, washcloth or paper towel and gently massaging the anal region in a small circular or back-and-forth motion. You may want to hold kitten over a towel or sink while stimulating her.
in Weeks/Feedings per day
When the kitten is five weeks old, you can begin weaning the kitten with baby food or canned kitten food mixed with KMR.
WARNING: Never use baby food that contains onion - this is found to cause heinz body anemia.We strongly recommend that you purchase The Guide to Handraising Kittens by Susan Easterly, T.F.H. Publications, Inc. for $8.00 for a complete guide to caring for neonatal kittens. It can be purchased from Alley Cat Allies for $8.00 through our Books/Videos section. www.alleycat.org
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