By Geoff Williams
Feral cats can stir up a lot of emotions in communities across the country—both positive and negative. But these days, more animal activists are working to protect and control feral cat populations so that these street-savvy felines can thrive.
Organizations and individuals are offering feral cats food, healthcare and trap-neuter-return services to ensure these wild kitties stay healthy. However, caring for feral cats is a big undertaking and it’s not for everyone.
But if you are considering a direct approach to helping your community’s feral cats, don't run out and buy a bag of cat food just yet. You'll want to think this through first.
What is Involved in Caring for Feral Cats?
A quick look at what you're in for. As you probably have already guessed, caring for feral cats involves a significant amount of money and time, but you still may be surprised at just how much money and time is spent caring for feral cats.
Jennifer Behler, the chief operating officer at the San Diego Humane Society, says that most feral cat colony caretakers provide the following:
- Daily food and water
- Trap, spay/neuter and return (with ear tipping); also known as TNR
- Shelter from the elements
- Monitoring health concerns by "arranging veterinary care when available or [for] humane euthanasia as needed," Behler says.
- Up-to-date rabies vaccinations, which are required legally by most states or communities. (Note that rabies vaccinations need to be boosted on a set schedule so unless this is an old cat nearing its end, you're going to be doing this periodically.)
And that's only if you're caring for a feral cat colony on a basic level. If you're really ambitious, Behler says, some caretakers also provide:
- Vaccines (other than rabies, to prevent feline-specific diseases such as feline leukemia virus)
- Parasite prevention medication, including preventative heartworm medication for cats and preventative cat flea and tick treatment
- Care for litters of kittens that are born to “pregnant females who were not trapped and altered in time, or females that are abandoned at the colony site,” Behler says.
- Finding indoor homes for any social or semi-social cats or kittens that are born in or abandoned at the cat colony site. "Friendly or appearing to be owned cats should be microchip scanned and reported to the local shelter as a stray, as an owner may be looking for them," Behler advises.
How Much Does it Cost to Care for a Feral Cat Colony?
It's really difficult to say how much you will be spending on cat food, since it depends on the brand of food you buy and how many feral cats make up the cat colony.
There is a possibility that you will be spending some serious money on food.
Judith Yancey, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches English as a second language at a community college, has been caring for a feral cat colony for almost two years. When she started, she was feeding 9 to 12 cats a night. Yancey found homes for three of the cats. Another was killed by a car. A few others are presumed missing or dead. She is now down to three or four cats a night.
It currently costs her about $60 a month to feed these cats, but she says she has a neighbor who feeds 30 cats per day in his own backyard, which would mean, if you do the math against Yancy's own dollar outlay, he might be spending around $600 a month.
"If you're buying [cat food] in bulk, that helps a lot," Yancey says.
Who Handles Medical Care for Feral and Street Cats?
Medical care for feral cats is what will overwhelm you, both in money and time. Even if you can handle the food and water without feeling as if you're in over your head, anyone can become discouraged by all the medical care involved in caring for a street cat colony.
For starters, you really should get all of your cats spayed or neutered. Aside from it being the right thing to do, you'll help yourself out, too. If your colony is currently at five or six cats, you don't want it to grow to a population of fifty or sixty cats.
Yancey advises finding a local animal rescue and requesting their assistance with medical care. She says that the cost of offering healthcare services for her cat colony of the last two years has been shouldered by a neighborhood animal rescue that has relationships with various veterinarians, which allows the group to get the cats spayed and neutered for a far cheaper price than an individual could on their own.
"That organization also provided traps and helped us with trapping," she adds.
So far, Yancey said she hasn't had any experiences with a cat that has been injured or sick. That may be because feral cats tend to hide when they're suffering, Yancey says. She adds that if and when something comes up, she'll pay for it out of pocket.
Make Caring for Feral Cats a Team Effort
Maybe in the beginning, if you're feeding one feral cat, this will be a solo effort, but word may get around the local feline population, and if one cat becomes two, and two cats become three, you should try to make your feral cat care a group project. That's especially important if you don't have an endless supply of money and all the free time in the world.
Enlist your neighbors to help, says Jen Weaver, who has been caring for feral cats for about eight years now. She concedes that's often easier said than done.
Weaver regularly volunteers at Itty Bitty Kitty, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has a shelter in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and also an adoption center in a local PetSmart. Weaver is also caring for one feral cat (now that she’s found homes for the cat's five kittens) outside her home in nearby Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, but says she could do so much more in her neighborhood if her neighbors were willing to work together.
Instead, Weaver says, a lot of people in her neighborhood will put food out for the cats, but they have zero interest in catching, spaying or neutering, and then returning them to the community.
"I have one neighbor two doors over that has three kittens from the spring; he won’t let me trap them,” Weaver says. “Now that they are six months old, it will be harder to socialize once I do get them," she adds, “but I cannot legally trap on his property."
It wouldn't bother Weaver if her neighbor adopted the cats, got them fixed and brought them into his house. But that isn't what is happening, and those three kittens will eventually be cats roaming the neighborhood, and could soon be cat parents themselves if not caught in time.
Don't Start Something You Can't Finish
This may be the most important thing to remember. Think of caring for a feral cat as adopting a pet. You wouldn't welcome a cat or dog into your home and then change your mind several weeks later, only to drop them off outside somewhere and hope for the best. The same rules apply for a feral cat.
“The financial cost pales in comparison to the commitment you're signing up for,” Yancey says. “Once you start, you can't stop, even when it's raining, snowing, or you don't feel like going out."
When planning for a vacation or weekend trip, Yancey says that you should find someone to take over feeding the cats for you.
"People assume that cats are great survivors; they'll find a meal elsewhere and be just fine," Yancey says. "In reality, these cats are simply cats like the ones you have at home. They are dependent on you, and if you were to suddenly stop feeding them, they—being extremely loyal to familiar territory—would continue to come and wait for you for many weeks before giving up on you, even if it means starving."
Behler backs Yancey up.
"Caretakers provide this daily support for the lifetime of the cats in their colony," Behler says.
Or at least that's what she hopes happens.
"If [caretakers] ever move away from the area, they’ll need to locate and train others to take over those duties or, as a less preferred option, do a lot of research and planning into the steps and supplies necessary to successfully relocate the cats," Behler says.
Yancey says that something along those lines recently occurred in her area.
"In the next neighborhood over, we met a woman who had actually moved away a year earlier, but still returned every Saturday to maintain her kibble feeder," she says. "That's dedication. I feel like it would be easy to say that woman is crazy or extreme, but if you really think about it, she's none of that. What kind of person would leave four cats to starve to death?"
Photo Credit: iStock/Nikola Nastasic
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