4 min read

How to Take Care of a Feral Cat


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 06/16/2021, edited: 09/24/2021

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Published: 9/24/2021
Some people think that feral and stray cats are the same, but they are quite different. Stray cats once shared a home with people, and somehow got lost or stranded. They may approach a human and accept food from them, and can even be adopted from the streets because they’re used to living in a house.

Feral cats, however, live outdoors, have had limited to no contact with people, and are typically not adaptable to the indoors unless they’re rescued as young kittens. These wild kitties scrounge for food wherever they can, including from garbage containers, restaurant back doors, and alleyways. Sometimes, they form large colonies in sheltered places like abandoned buildings or junkyards, where they multiply. And they may venture out from the colony to seek food elsewhere, including in your backyard.

If your heart may go out to the feral cats in your neighborhood, take a look at what you can do to help these wild kitties stay safe.

What Feral Cats Need

Feral cats have the same basic needs as any cat, a shelter against the elements, food, and water. Chances are they aren’t eating every day, and sometimes the food they find can make them sick. Feral cats also have no access to medical care, and their situations worsen as they breed more kittens. 

Here are some pawsome ways you can help the feral cats near you:

Build a Shelter

If a feral cat or two arrive in your yard, it’s okay to feed them, but it’s wise to think about their longer-term needs. For instance, you can buy or build a shelter made from wood, or fashioned out of a plastic storage container with a door cut out of the side. Even cardboard works if it’s well sealed and insulated. There’s no need to make the shelter huge, as cats rely on body warmth to stay cozy in cold weather.

Whether built or bought, every shelter should be insulated with straw, Styrofoam, or both to keep the cats cozy. Newspapers work, too, but stay away from blankets as the cats may urinate on them, making the shelter smelly and moldy. Placing the shelter in the shade during warmer months can keep them cool, and elevating it on bricks or railroad ties can keep it off the damp ground and dry.

Cater to Their Hunger

When you provide food for feral cats, it’s ideal to feed an ample amount only once a day. This schedule lets them know when it’s dinnertime, and they’ll begin to appear at that time every day. After 30 to 45 minutes, pick the bowl up until the next day. 

Canned food is ideal for winter because of its higher fat content, which provides more energy than dry food. If you have difficulty paying for food, some shelters and pet organizations in your area may offer free cat food. Pet stores may also feature discounted or free food to feral cat caretakers, so find out what resources are available in your area.

Keep Them Hydrated          

A dehydrated cat can experience stomach cramps, headaches, and a loss of energy, so it’s essential to provide fresh water both summer and winter that’s easy to access near their shelter.  In winter, the air is dryer which leaches moisture from a cat’s skin, and shivering uses up a lot of energy. Water can help bolster the cat’s overall system.

Prevent the water from freezing by placing the bowl in an inexpensive Styrofoam cooler with a hole cut in one end for the cats to enter to slow the freezing process. Put the lid on and weigh the container down with bricks or a heavy rock. It shouldn’t be large enough for cats to sleep in.

What About Overpopulation of Feral Cats?

Feeding and sheltering a feral cat or two, or even a whole colony, is an excellent start to helping these creatures have better lives. However, it isn’t the solution to the overall problem: too many roaming, wild cats. 

An overpopulation of cats brings with it some measurable, practical issues. As colonies of cats grow, health problems for them increase, as does the competition for resources. More kittens add to the strain, resulting in death by starvation, dehydration, or violence. Other animals and birds in the area are in danger of becoming prey, and neighbors may be affected by fights, noises and spraying. And when adult feral cats are brought to shelters by well-meaning people, these unadoptable felines can take up room that could be used for healthy, adoptable cats and kittens.

A Better Way

A TNR, or Trap-Neuter-Return, is a process that has been shown to reduce numbers of roaming cats while also reducing the causes for objectionable behaviors like yowling and spraying. Feral cats are rounded up in traps using food as an enticement, and taken to a veterinary facility where a veterinarian spays or neuters them. Their ear is then clipped to identify that they’ve been fixed, and they may also receive rabies shots and get tested for feline leukemia and FIV.

After recovery, volunteers return cats to their previous homes, and over time, population growth slows, the cats are healthier, and the noise and spraying stop. Adopting the program for your community is a great way to help control feral cats, but it may not be a simple task. You’ll need cooperation from your neighbors and from local veterinarians.

Steps to start a TNR program include:

  1. Gain support from your neighbors. Whether you discuss the program at town meetings, social gatherings, or a place of worship, getting the word out will go far toward success. A door-to-door strategy may be necessary to include everyone.
  2. Establish a fund-raising effort. You’ll need some monetary help to pay for the spaying and neutering, the vaccinations, tests and food. You will also need to purchase a dozen or so wire traps. This may mean asking for donations as you talk with your neighbors, or planning an event to collect funds.          
  3. Enlist a veterinarian. You’ll need medical advice and help to assist with neutering, testing and immunizations.
  4. Advocate against feral feeding bans. Some members of your community may believe in “Starving them out,” but this will only make the felines more desperate. They may begin to range further and further into the community looking for food in people’s yards or businesses, where they’ll continue breeding. Feeding them regularly in one area can stop the roaming.

If you’re a cat-lover or just a compassionate person who cares about feral cats and their impact on communities you can help form a grassroots team to tackle the situation safely and effectively. Be part of the village and help the cats!

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