Most feral cat caretakers didn't set out looking for cats, the cats came to them. We've all been there. The first impulse for animal lovers is to set out food. And as we all know, regular feeding makes you the new caretaker of these skittish, often untouchable, cats. As seasons pass, caretakers will notice pregnancies, kittens, and an ever-growing population of feral cats coming to eat. We swear they must tell their feline friends about the great food because one by one, more arrive. The following information should help caretakers manage their colony of cats, both humanely and effectively.
Dinner is Served...
Feeding feral cats simply involves placing food and water where you see cats on a daily basis. Here are a few helpful hints:
1) Put the food out at the same time and location every day. The cats will probably run away at first but they will return to the food as soon as you leave. You may also notice how quickly and how much they eat, almost as if they haven't eaten in years. This changes too. Once the cats get used to a schedule, they will no longer gulp their food at the speed of light. They will learn the feeding schedule and will come around to eat at the same time each day. This makes a regular schedule vital. It also helps with trapping--for example, if the cats expect food in the morning, they will all come to their feeding site in the morning, making it easier to catch the maximum number.
2) Watch how much food the cats eat. If all the food disappears quickly, try putting out more. Remove any leftover food at nightfall, to avoid drawing unwanted animals such as skunks, raccoons and possums. If you provide moist (canned) food, also add dry food during the winter because the moist food will freeze shortly after being put out.
3) Provide shelter from bad weather, such as a covered porch or a barn for feeding. If no shelter exists, you can build one. This can be as complicated or as simple as you wish. One simple plan uses a large domed garbage can lid and four 12-18" dowel rods. Glue one end of each dowel rod to the underside of the lid, so that they make four poles to hold up the lid. Then either place this in a non-windy area or "plant" the ends of the dowel rods in the ground. The lid will keep rain and snow off the food. If you have carpentry skills and tools, check out Alley Cat Allies' feral cat feeding station plans (http://www.alleycat.org/pdf/feeding.pdf) or the plans for Fuller's Feral Feeder (http://www.alleycat.org/pdf/feederplans.pdf) to make attractive, durable food shelters.
4) Eliminate insects by keeping the feeding area clean. Dry food attracts fewer insects than canned food. Rubbing vegetable oil on the outside of food and water bowls also prevents most insects from climbing in.
5) Provide clean water. Though cats may drink from any source, including rain puddles, they appreciate clean water sources. During summer months, water is vital to prevent dehydration. Special attention is also required to prevent water freezing in winter. You can slow or prevent freezing by providing larger water bowls, by putting water in a place shielded from wind, by placing water bowls in direct sunlight or by using electrically heated water bowls.
Home Sweet Home...
Feral cats need protection from the elements--wind, rain, snow and freezing cold. Your feral colony may already have adequate shelter--ideally a space with at least three sides to block the wind, a roof to block precipitation and a floor to keep paws from getting frostbitten on the frozen ground. Watch the cats as they come and go from the feeding area to see if they have sheltered areas nearby, such as a barn, under a porch or a densely wooded area.
Cat shelters don't need to be expensive or elaborate. Even a cardboard box with a small door cut in it to block the cold wind is better than nothing!
You Can Go Home Again...
If you are caring for feral cats in Monroe County or nearby areas and wish to have them spayed/neutered and vaccinated, contact Feral Cat Friends. You will be asked to provide certain information--the number of cats, the approximate number of males and females in the colony, etc.--and Feral Cat Friends will then arrange a time to trap, neuter and, most importantly, return them to you.
Volunteers from Feral Cat Friends will come out to your property, trap your feral cats, transport them to the vet and return them to you after surgery. The live traps used are very safe and humane. Local vets volunteer their time or reduce their fees for Feral Cat Friends, allowing us to help the maximum number of animals. The vet or a volunteer will watch your cats overnight to make sure the cats are fully recovered from the anesthesia before returning the animals to you within a couple of days of being trapped. You will then have healthier--and therefore happier--cats back where you can continue caring for them.