Humane Management of Feral Cats
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Population control of feral cats is complicated and controversial. It is our hope that this article will help make the public aware of feral cats and prompt concerned citizens to assume responsibility for those cats that others have so thoughtlessly discarded.
What is a Feral Cat?
Technically, feral cats are born and raised without human contact. Their instincts are highly developed for survival, so they are extremely fearful of people. Some cats that were previously owned revert to feral behavior, but may be re-socialized with loving confinement. Such cats may meow at you if they are hungry or frightened.
Feral cats breed frequently, adding to an already overwhelming pet overpopulation problem. Without intervention, their lives are filled with danger, disease, hunger, fear, temperature extremes, and usually end in a slow, painful death. Humane population control of feral cats is a crucial step in preventing suffering and proliferation.
Where do Feral Cats come from?
Many people erroneously believe that cats can fend for themselves. Cat owners often abandon their cats when they move or simply no longer want the responsibility of pet ownership. Such cats survive only if they find food, shelter, and avoid dangers such as injury from cars, dogs, other cats, or abusive humans. They are rarely spayed or neutered, and their offspring are raised without human contact. Within a few years, one or two cats can produce a colony of fifty or more.
What can I do?
The fate of the cats must be determined before a trapping program begins. Cat Care Society believes that the cat's safety and welfare must be the first consideration in this process.
Kittens less than six weeks old can be trapped and tamed (see below). Some kittens between six weeks and four months can also be tamed, but the process takes longer and such kittens may only become tame with the person working with them.
Adult ferals or free roaming cats can be trapped, neutered by a veterinarian experienced in working with ferals, and released back into the same area, but only under very strict guidelines. Essentials are a familiar, safe environment where other animals, traffic, diseases, and humans will not be a threat; fresh food and water are provided daily; an available warm shelter; and the cats will not become a nuisance. Cats that are neutered and returned to a familiar area are healthier and will not be adding to the pet overpopulation problem by having unwanted litters.
Cat Care Society strongly discourages relocating feral cats except in rare situations. When feral or tame cats are moved and released without an initial period of confinement, they may try to find their way home through unfamiliar territory, risking danger and starvation. They may displace or be displaced by other resident cats, or may become a nuisance to people living in the release area.
When all other options have been exhausted, humane euthanasia is the kindest last step available. Sometimes relieving the hunger and suffering is more humane than saving the life. Euthanasia should be performed by a licensed veterinarian who has a working knowledge of feral cats. It is an act of mercy made from a decision of love for the individual animal.
Feral cats will not come close enough to humans to be touched, much less picked up and handled for placement in a standard cat carrier. A humane trap is used for this purpose (humane traps are available at Cat Care Society). These are generally box traps made of wire fabric with heavy steel rod reinforcements. Food bait is placed in one end of the trap and the cat enters through the opposite end. When the cat steps on the metal plate, the door is triggered to close behind him. This does not cause the captured animal any pain although it does frighten him. Humane live traps are available for rent at most animal shelters, humane societies, and some veterinarians.
Remember, it is essential to have a plan mapped out before you trap. Make your appointments ahead of time with a vet experienced in working with ferals, and only trap the night before or the morning of neutering. Confinement is terrifying for ferals, so you want to avoid holding the cat in a trap for any longer than 12 hours before neutering.
Always try to observe any cats before you trap to determine whether or not they are nursing mothers. If you have a mother with kittens, wait until the kittens are four to six weeks old before trapping. If you trap a mother cat, you should immediately trap her kittens. Be certain you know where they are before trapping the mother.
- Begin feeding the cat on a regular schedule, preferably early morning and late evening, in a safe area away from dogs or children. Do not feed the night before trapping.
- Line the trap floor with newspapers or cloth to encourage a trap-shy cat to enter and give him comfortable, solid footing during transportation.
- Place a small amount of strong smelling or enticing food such as tuna or chicken (no bones) at the rear of the trap. Keep in mind that too much food can cause serious problems during anesthesia and surgery.
- Never leave a trap unattended. Never trap during extreme heat or cold, or during rain, sleet, hail, or snow.
- Once a feral cat is caught, cover the trap with a light blanket or towel, leaving the ends open for ventilation. This will help calm him. Transport him to the vet as soon as possible. If a non-target animal is caught, release him immediately.
- Do not attempt to handle the cat. If someone is bitten, see a doctor immediately.
- When trapping a large colony of feral cats, Cat Care Society recommends ear notching. This is a humane way of identifying cats that are already neutered and prevents the additional trauma of retrapping, anesthesia, and confinement and eliminates repetitive work for the rescuer and veterinarian.
- Give the cat a day after surgery to recuperate before releasing him. Open the trap or carrier, stand way back, and allow him to come out on his own. Some cats take several minutes to reorient themselves before leaving the trap.
Taming your Feral Cat or Kitten
Working with a feral cat requires a great deal of love, patience and commitment. Kittens trapped between the ages of four to six weeks are quite easy to tame. Older kittens take longer; by ten or twelve weeks of age your success will depend more and more on the individual personality of the kitten, the amount of time you spend with them, and the number of different people handling them. Older kittens you tame may never trust anyone but you.
Confining the kitten to a small room such as a bathroom or bedroom where he cannot hide is essential. (Do, however, give him a box to sleep and hide in where he can feel safe but you can still reach for him easily). Check for any escape route such as places where plumbing enters the wall and heating ducts. Kittens can tear holes in window screen, so don't leave any windows open. Any place with an opening one inch or larger should be blocked. Provide a warm bed, fresh food and water, litter box, toys, and a radio to be played in your absence.
During frequent, short visits (15-20 minutes), talk softly to the kitten, handle him gently, and begin playing with him. The kitten may be so frightened by human contact he may attempt to strike or bite you. Heavy gloves will protect you and still allow you to handle the kitten, or you can start by touching with an "extension" such as a wooden spoon or back scratcher. Avoid eye contact at first; turning your head and blinking slowly when you must look at him. As you gain his trust, he will become more comfortable with your handling and the gloves can be removed. If you are working with more than one kitten, keep them separated during your visits. Be patient, and you will be amazed at the transformation.
Watch the kittens carefully for illness. Feral kittens often refuse to eat at first (offer chicken baby food). They may have parasites such as roundworms, and are susceptible to upper respiratory virus and other infectious diseases. Look for runny eyes, diarrhea, vomiting, bloating or weight loss, loss of appetite, and lethargy. Whether or not symptoms of illness are present, take your kittens along with a fresh stool sample to your veterinarian for examination as soon as possible. Keep the kittens isolated from your pets until the possibility of infectious disease has been eliminated.
Gradually introduce the kittens to others in your home. If you decide to adopt the kittens to a qualified family, have them go through the same procedures above. Feral cats tend to bond to one person, and proper introduction to a new home is essential.
Most feral adult cats can never tamed to be a "normal" cat, and it can be dangerous to try. It may be cruel to take an adult feral cat out of a known environment into confinement, even if our intentions are good. Given time, however, you can develop a different sort of relationship, developing a respect for one another, enriching your life and enlarging his world. If you choose to allow an adult feral into your home, start him out in a quiet part of your house. Children and other pets should not be allowed access to his area. Eventually, he will begin to explore. The adult feral will learn to trust at his pace, NOT yours!
Helping feral cats can be a time-consuming, frustrating, emotionally draining and rewarding experience simultaneously. Each situation presents a whole new sphere of learning experiences. Whether your decision is introducing the feral cat or kitten into your home, neutering, vaccinating, and returning the cat, or euthanasia, it is crucial to keep the welfare of the cat foremost at all times.
It is your love, concern, and active involvement that prevents further suffering, unwanted litters, and makes a better life for one of God's creatures.