Feral Cats


Community Benefits of Feral Cats 

1)      Feral cats can minimize rodent problems. While cats cannot hunt rats and mice into extinction, they can keep their populations in check and discourage new rodents from moving into the area. Often feral cats fill in a gap in the current ecosystem. For example bob cats or lynx used to live up and down the East Coast but were hunted ruthlessly and driven away by development. Feral cats are similar in size and behavior to these native feline predators and help to control the same species of small prey animals.

2)       Many people enjoy watching feral cats and observing animals has been shown to lower blood pressure in medical studies.

3)       People who help to care for feral cats by feeding them and taking them to the vet enjoy many benefits. Often cat caretakers are elderly and live alone, a population at risk for depression, loneliness, and isolation. Cats relieve these conditions and often bring a sense of happiness and purpose to people who help them. Just as companion animals have been shown extend life expectancies, lower blood pressure, and relieve stress, caring for feral cats improves the health of their caretakers.Photo Copyright: Gina Mantero.

4)       Individuals who cannot take on the full time commitment of adopting a companion animal can participate in programs to help feral cats. This provides a viable alternative to irresponsibly purchasing an animal one is not prepared to care for.

5)       An established, stable, vaccinated, and sterilized colony of feral cats will deter other stray and feral cats from moving into the area. This actually decreases the risk that residents will encounter an unvaccinated cat, and will virtually eliminate problem behaviors like fighting and spraying.


Preventing Feral Cat Colonies from Forming 

Although we protect and defend feral cats and promotes their humane control, we also work on programs that prevent new colonies from forming. Preventing colonies from forming means working with the caretakers of domestic housecats, and with local animal shelters, and implementing the following:

  • low-cost spay/neuter programs and neuter-before-adoption

  • helping people solve cat behavior problems to stop cats from being abandoned

  • encourage innovative and aggressive marketing programs for shelters animals

  • increase supply of rental housing where animals are allowed

  • restrict backyard breeding

  • humane education

Ordinances are difficult to enforce and offering low-cost or free sterilization programs are usually more effective.


Relocating Feral Cats

Guidelines for Safe Relocation of Feral Cats

Introduction Many people would like to find a sanctuary for feral cats. Sanctuaries, however, are few and most ferals will not be happy living in confinement. They are wild animals and used to living outdoors.

Feral cats are social animals. Many biologists have completely overlooked this and consider lions to be the only social felines. Colony cats develop strong bonds with one another. When you relocate feral cats, you may be separating them and consequently causing them undue stress.

However if a caretaker is not available, or if the cats simply cannot remain at their present location for safety reasons, then ACR believes relocation can be a viable option. But this has to be undertaken with great care and used as a last resort. Relocating a colony of feral cats is time consuming, new homes are difficult to find, and certain procedures have to be followed, otherwise the relocated cat may not remain on the new premises.

1) Assessment of the Colony

Establish how many cats are in the colony so you will know how many homes you will need. Farm homes or horse stables are the best places for relocation. Most farmers will only take two to four cats. At least two cats from one colony should go together. They have bonded with one another and the move will be less traumatic. Adjusting to their new home will be easier if they have the security of a familiar companions.

2) Finding the new outdoor home

Contact friends and relatives who live in rural areas. Ask them to place notices in newspapers and in stores—especially tack supply stores.  Feral cats can even be relocated to a backyard, especially one in a suburb. Make absolutely sure that the new home checks out before relocation. Another alleyway may be an option, especially if it is close to the original home. An alleyway further away will require a confinement period in a cage or playpen, not an easy task to accomplish unless a sympathetic neighbor will allow you to place a playpen in their backyard for a few weeks.

The new caretaker Must be interested in providing a good home. A country home only occupied on weekends is not acceptable. The cats need daily food and water. People must agree to provide basic needs, including veterinary care if necessary and sign an adoption contract (agreement) similar to one used for domestic cat placements

Be wary of homes on busy country roads. One may presume that these, not usually as busy as city roads, are less dangerous. City cats are used to slower city traffic and although there may be fewer cars on country roads they tend to go much faster.

Be careful of dogs at the new home. Although it may not be a problem, the new caretakers should be willing to introduce the dogs to the new cats slowly and not allow the cats to be chased, or they will leave.

3)  Confinement period

  1. Cats need to be confined initially in their new home for at least two to three weeks in order to familiarize the cats with their new environment, so that they will remain on the premises. Even though there are instances of cats remaining when they have escaped upon arrival, this is rare and most cats will take off, never to be seen again.

  2. Other than being dangerous for the cat, this can be traumatic for the rescuer who has usually put a lot of time, energy, money, and care into the rescue.

  3. Some people see confinement as cruel, but a short confinement period is a very necessary part of the relocation project.

  4. Not confining the cats and having them run off could mean a far worse fate for the cats. You should warn the new caretaker that during the first day or two, the cats may struggle to find a way out. Most cats settle down in the cage after a day or two when they realize that no harm will befall them.

Tips for safe relocation:

  1. Be skeptical if you are told the new barn is completely cat-proof and that the cats will not escape. There are few barns that really are escape-proof. Always take some cages/playpens along with you. Cats will escape through the tiniest hole

  2. Make sure the confinement area is located near a place where the cats can hide once they are allowed out of the playpen.

  3. Successful confinement periods range from 14 days to 3 weeks.

  4. A long confinement period, such as three to four months, is unnecessary and can be harmful to the cats and to the relocation project.

  5. If a cat does escape, set food and water out and sprinkle their used litter (for scent) around the barn. Cats often hide for a period of time but will stay on the premises. Leave them plenty of food and water to prevent them from leaving in search of food.

  6. Make sure the new caretaker will make contact with the cats by talking to them or by playing a radio softly so that they get used to human voices. It is usually those people make the effort to communicate with the cats who will have the most successful relocations.

  7. You can relocate new cats into an already established colony. Introduce them slowly, as you would any new cat into your home. In a colony setting confine the new cats to a cat playpen in an area where the established cats sleep and eat.

  8. After a two to three week period, the cats will be quite familiar with each other and when they are released, they all should live together in relative peace. Make sure ALL the cats have been sterilized. Most fighting occurs in un-sterilized cats.

4) Follow-Up

Call or visit after the relocation. You will want to stay in touch to make sure the cats are fine and also to keep a contact for future relocations.

5) Conclusion

Relocation can be a safe and viable option if undertaken properly and if these guidelines are followed. But remember that the very best option for a feral colony is to remain in their original home. Sometimes this may mean finding caretakers or fighting for the cats to stay at their present location.

If you do remove a whole colony, make sure the food sources disappear completely or other strays will move in to repopulate the area. This can sometimes be difficult to achieve especially when garbage is thrown out in backyards and alleyways. Check from time to time to ensure that no new cats have moved into the vacated territory.

In his landmark book The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat, Tabor writes: “…in most sites in London where colonies have developed, if the site is good enough to support a healthy colony, eradication merely leaves an effective vacuum that envious cats around the corner are only too keen to fill. Therefore eradication over a large area such as London is doomed to failure.”

There have been some innovative programs around California where the un-sterilized tame cats and kittens on farms have been replaced by sterilized feral city cats. The farm cats are then sterilized and placed in homes as companion animals and the feral city cats have a safe place to live. This is a good plan since many rural cats are never sterilized.

Alley Cat Allies  is an organization that can provide assistance to those needing help with changing public policies at the state and local levels to enable managed feral cat colonies to remain in their homes. Give us a call and we can either assist you in contacting them or assist you with the issue as well.

Taming Feral Cats

The young offspring of feral cats or abandoned domestic cats, learn from their mothers to be wary and distrustful of humans, and to hide and defend themselves against adversaries. The tiny kittens will spit and hiss if approached by humans, and though small, will bite and scratch if not handled with respect for their wild natures.  Remember that when dealing with feral cats, as with any wild animal, you should have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination and take care to keep your tetanus shots current. Minimize all risks by using the correct equipment.

Kitten season can extend from February though November. Some females have three litters each year, with a gestation period of approximately 65 days. Cats, like many wild animals, overproduce to ensure survival of the species, thus feral cats have many kittens.

Kitten mortality rates are usually very high—over 50 percent. Many become sick from diseases that may be treatable, such as respiratory infections, but without medical care and supportive treatment, the weak kittens usually perish. Those kittens who survive this initial period, often build up immunities to common cat diseases, and once controlled and stabilized, a colony remains healthy and viable for many years under the care and supervision of caretakers.

Catching Feral Kittens

Capture kittens between five and eight weeks, when they are developed enough to leave their mother but still young enough to be tamed. Use baited traps for safe handling of feral kittens. They may look sweet and innocent (and they are!) but one should remember they are wild animals even though they may look like any domestic kitten. They have wild natures and have been taught by their mothers to defend themselves with teeth and claws. Be careful!

Orphaned or Young Kittens

If kittens are under five weeks of age and unable to eat solid food, bottle feed them with kitten formula (KMR, Similac or Just Born) obtained from veterinary clinics or pet supply stores. Cow’s milk does not contain enough fat or protein for kittens. Very young kittens should be kept in a box lined with absorbent paper towels. Keep the box warm (around 90 degrees F.) during the first two weeks of life, using a heating pad covered with a towel, or an infrared lamp. For three-week-old kittens decrease the temperature to around 80 degrees F. If a kitten is too weak to drink from a bottle, feed her from an eye dropper. Massage the belly to stimulate digestion, and use a cotton ball or paper towel to stimulate elimination of urine and feces after each feeding. Moist cotton balls can be used to clean the area afterwards. Rub Vaseline on the anal area. The mother usually cleans the babies during the first few weeks so you will have to take on this task. Begin weaning from three to four weeks old. Mix canned kitten food with kitten formula and hand feed until the kittens are accustomed to eating on their own, then gradually change over completely to canned food.

Nearly all feral and stray kittens have internal parasites and need to be dewormed by a veterinarian. Any upper respiratory infections should be treated with antibiotics and eye ointments. Left untreated, they can cause severe health problems, pneumonia, eventual blindness or even death.

If you do not have kitten formula on hand (KMR –Kitten Milk Replacement available at your local petstore) use the following formula for temporary feeding only (12-24 hours). Add one  egg yolk to eight ounces of cow’s milk for short term feeding. Feed kittens two tablespoons per four ounces of body weight daily. Divide total amount into equal feedings. Small weak kittens should be fed every three to four hours.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep the orphan kitten warm.

The Taming Process

1. Containment in cage.

2. Periodic and brief handling with protective towel.

3. Containment in small room.

4. Exposure to other humans to help with socialization.

5. Feed with baby food on a teaspoon or on your finger (do not feed baby food with onion in the ingredients. Onions are toxic to cats.)

6. Placement in suitable adoptive home as soon as possible to get the kitten used to their new environments.

Containment in Cage

A feral kitten is usually frightened at first and may hiss and spit at humans. Begin the taming process by confining the kitten in a cage/carrier in a small room. Feral kittens must first learn to feel safe. Visit frequently and talk to the kitten to get him used to your voice. Get him used to human voices by leaving a television on radio set on low volume. Feed the kitten moist cat food and leave dry kitten chow out at all times. If the kitten is still rather small or undernourished, pour some KMR kitten milk over the moist food.

Handling Feral Kittens

Select the least aggressive kitten, place a towel quietly but firmly over the kitten’s body (do not cover his head) and pick him up. If the kitten stays calm, pet gently on the head from behind. Never approach from the front—they may bite when approached. Grip securely by the skin at the nape of the neck, put the towel on your lap, and set the kitten on the towel. Stroke the kitten’s body while speaking in soft, reassuring tones, then relax your grip. Make this first physical contact brief. Go through this process with each kitten, and give them a special treat after all have been handled. Repeat this process as frequently as possible. Comb and brush the kitten gently as well. You can also offer the kitten baby food  on your finger to get him used to your hands.

Containment in Small Room

Each kitten will develop at a different rate. They should then have open access to the room. Any kittens who do not seem to be taming should be placed in a separate cage in another room. This will allow you to work with the kitten more frequently and will increase dependence on a human. It will also prevent perpetuation of wildness in littermates.

Exposure to Other Humans and Other Cats

If the feral kitten can be around another calm, friendly cat, this will help the taming process. Kittens are “copy-cats”. Give frequent treats by hand, and teach them to play with cat toys, such as the Cat Dancer or Cat Charmer. Interaction with humans during play can hasten the taming process and is highly recommended.

If you have to medicate, use liquid medicine in moist food, or crush tablets into baby food. Forcing tablets into a feral cat or kitten may cause trauma and can undo the taming process. Socialization with other humans is very important. However as stated before, feral kittens (or feral cats) tend to bond with one human so they adjust to a new home better if they have also socialized with other humans.

Placement in Adoptive Home

Some people are afraid to tell potential new adopters that the kittens are feral, for fear they will not be placed. The kittens may retain some feral instincts. Education is important, and people have to be made aware of the millions of feral cats living in alleys who need our understanding and help. Most people who have lived with cats before will understand that many cats are shy and can act wild at times.

Kittens do best if there are no small children in the home. All the work you have done can easily be reversed by a child’s normal activity and noise. The most suitable home is a calm environment so the kittens feel secure. Ideally, two kittens should be placed together in a home, or with another cat or friendly dog or where an adult person is at home part of the day.

The taming process is extremely rewarding. Many tamed ferals will continue to be a bit elusive, while others will demand human contact constantly. People who have tamed formerly feral cats have reaped many pleasures from their company.


Veterinary Care for Feral Cats 

Preliminary Plans

When planning a colony management program, the client should consult a veterinarian before trapping. The size and health of the colony should be assessed. As it is difficult to guarantee that cats will be trapped on a predictable schedule, flexibility to receive cats is needed. We recommend that clinics draft a list of what they require of clients. This should include hours of operation, that the cat should remain in a trap, and what procedures need to be performed.

Remember the cats’ well being is very important, or the objective of trying to help may be entirely lost. No cat should be left in any danger or allowed to become too stressed. They should be left alone to recover, with traps or cages covered, and with little human contact after surgery.

Fund Raising and Payment Plans

Payment plans should be worked out ahead of time. Both client and veterinarian must remember that, while clinics cannot function without adequate remuneration, a client attempting to control a colony usually has limited resources and is working to help resolve a community problem using their own funds. A workable plan usually can be devised to suit veterinarians and caretakers. 

There are national low-cost sterilization programs available. Veterinarians can participate in the Friends of Animals subsidized program (800-321-PETS), which reimburses veterinarians for part of their surgical costs. SPAY/ (800-243-SPAY) maintains a national registry for low-cost services.

Equipment & Handling

Having the proper equipment is vital when working with feral cats. Special traps, squeeze-side cages, restraint modules, and cages to house the cats after surgery are all necessary.  All equipment containing feral cats must have large notices attached, reading “Warning! ...This Cat May Bite.” 

A small “transfer” cage which fits against the sliding door of the trap can be used to move the cat if necessary. Some veterinarians tranquilize the cat by tipping the trap on its side. It is easier to immobilize ferals while still in their traps. These cats should be handled only when tranquilized.

Hazards to Humans

All those dealing with feral cats should have pre-exposure rabies vaccinations. Any bites to humans should be washed thoroughly, and treated immediately to prevent infection. 

Testing for Viral Diseases

Each colony caretaker, shelter, and veterinarian must come to their own decisions about how they wish to spend their resources, and if they should run these tests.

Testing for viral diseases such as FeLV and FIV in feral cat colonies should be optional and not mandatory. The reasons for this are:

1.   The rate of infection in feral cats is very low, 4% for FeLV—2% for FIV. Based on statistics provided by Julie Levy, DVM Operation Catnip, North Carolina, Feline Medicine Club, University of California at Davis, and Alley Cat Rescue’s colony stats in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. 

2.   Funds for sterilization programs are usually limited. Therefore resources may be better spent on sterilization and rabies shots, and not on testing. The time taken to collect blood and run tests and the cost of testing may be better spent on sterilization if, as a nation, we are going to reduce the feral cat population (between 60 and 100 million)  to any great extent. FeLV is primarily spread from infected mother cats to kittens and FIV is mostly spread among fighting tomcats through deep bite wounds. Spaying and neutering therefore will decrease the spread of these infections. Mass screening of healthy cats can result in large numbers of false positives.

As there is no reliable test for FIP, this is also not recommended. Also, because FIP is mainly spread through the feces of cats, it is found mainly in catteries and crowded shelters, less in feral cat colonies.


Criteria for euthanasia should be established before trapping begins. Most adult ferals are very healthy. They may only need to be de-wormed and some may need antibiotics for URI or for wounds. If feral cats survive to adulthood, they are usually very healthy, robust cats, and often immune to local diseases.

What to do if Feral Cats Escape

If a feral cat escapes from the trap or cage while in the clinic, a special net available from Animal Care & Equipment Services (ACES) can be used for recapture. Under no circumstances should anyone try to catch the cat by hand. Do not attempt to throw a towel or blanket over the cat. This is dangerous and the cat can still attack. These cats are wild and should be treated with caution.  If the cat hides in an inaccessible place, it is best to set a trap baited with tuna. Cats can be left for 4 to 5 days without food to make them hungry enough to enter the trap, but water should be left for them outside the trap.


Sometimes it is difficult to know whether cats have eaten before being trapped for surgery. In the United Kingdom, where these programs have been implemented for over three decades, flank incisions are recommended for females (who are not pregnant) as this could possibly lessen the chance of infection and evisceration. However most U.S. veterinarians use the midline incision, dissolvable sutures with surgical glue. Teeth should be examined and any decayed teeth removed.

A long-lasting antibiotic should be given to both male and female cats to treat underlying infections. Wounds, eye and ear infections should also be treated. If antibiotics are needed after release, they should be given to the caretakers who can mix crushed tablets or liquid medication into moist food.


A number of good general anesthetics such as Telazol and Atropine along with Valium are available for smooth surgical procedures with a minimum of post-surgical trauma.  Some veterinarians use an injectable combination of Telazol, Ketamine, and Xylazine.  In the cases of pregnancy and excessive blood loss, the cat should receive 100 ml of subcutaneous fluids. A few days of recovery with antibiotic treatment is recommended before releasing the cat.


Absorbable sutures should be used to avoid the trauma of having to re-trap female feral cats for suture removal. Recommended: Coated Vicryl or Ethicon PDS II (internally); Nexaband S/C (externally).


ACR recommends a three-year rabies vaccine for cats one year old and over. Usually one injection of a four-way vaccine—feline distemper, along with viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and chlamydiosis is given as well. 


All feral cats, while still under general anesthetic for neutering, should have the top quarter inch of their left ear removed. The shape of this ear is then unmistakable, even from a distance. It must be emphasized that if too much of the pinna is removed the ear looks “cropped” and may be aesthetically unacceptable to the cat caretakers. If too little is removed, the cat will not be identifiable from a distance. Also, if the cut is not straight, the silhouette is not distinctive enough.

Ear-tipping allows the caretaker to easily spot any new cat entering the colony, and neutered cats will not have to be re-trapped. Any ear-tipped cat trapped in error can be identified within the trap and released.

Homeostasis may be achieved in several ways: by following the cut with digital pressure, electrocautery, or application of a styptic or drying antiseptic powder.

It is important that ear-tipping become common practice. Rescue groups are promoting widespread publicity for left ear-tipping as the preferred universal method for identifying neutered feral cats belonging to controlled colonies. Some cats are ear clipped with a “V” shape, but this can be confused with an injury to the ear from a catfight.   

Ear-tipping is vital for identification and can save the animals life. If an ear-tipped cat is caught by animal control they will know that the cat comes from a managed colony and the cat can then be returned to the caretaker. Ear tags may fall out or get caught in bushes. Tattoos are hard to see by caretakers and animal control. Collars can choke or injure cats, or become lost. Microchips are a good idea only if used in conjunction with ear-tipping.


Early sterilization can be performed on kittens from eight to sixteen weeks old. Neutered feral kittens can be returned to the colony if homes cannot be found for them. Please make sure they do not have any upper respiratory infections before releasing them.

Pregnant & Lactating Females

Lactating females should not be trapped, if possible. The kittens could die from starvation and exposure. However if one is inadvertently trapped, the kittens should be found or the mother can be spayed through a flank incision and returned to the colony once she has recovered to resume nursing.

Because there are limited funds available, and healthy cats are being euthanized at shelters, we recommend that pregnant females be spayed. If they are almost due to give birth, they can be fostered in a  cat playpen until the birth of the kittens. They should be kept in a quiet place with little contact. 

Parasite Control

Most feral cats have internal parasites such as round­worms, hookworms, coccidia, and/or tapeworms.  For parasite control, including ear mites, cats can receive 0.15 ml of Ivomec subcutaneously. Alternatively, a broad-spectrum dewormer such as Drontal can be used. Albon should be used for coccidia. Advantage, Frontline, or Revolution can be applied for flea control.

Post-Operative Care

No cats should leave the clinic until fully conscious. Male cats need a minimum of an overnight stay in the clinic or in a home where their recovery should be monitored. Females need to be kept for a few days to recover properly. Cats who do not recover well from the surgery should be checked by a veterinarian before release. If they are not fully conscious after 6 hours, they may need fluids or be checked by a veterinarian.

It is safer to keep the cats in a large carrier or in the trap. These can then be used for direct transportation to the colony site. This will lessen the danger to humans and trauma to the cat that transferring cats from cage to carrier causes.

If the cats stay in cages at the clinic, remember that they are wild. A small box (or Recovery Cage - call 800-338-ACES) for them to hide in will make them feel more secure.  This will also prevent the cat from escaping and make it safer for staff to work in the cage. A cover pulled over the door of the cage will also help lessen their stress. Make sure the cage is securely locked, or the cats will escape. Use clips to secure the cage door.

Never underestimate the cats’ ability or determination to escape. Exercise great caution when changing cat litter or when feeding. Their sometimes-docile appearance can be very deceptive—they may lunge at the door in an attempt to escape.


Winterizing for your Feral Colony 

In one survey, shelter for feral cats was found to be more important than food. Cold, and especially wet, weather can have adverse, and even serious, effects on animals. They can become hypothermic and could even freeze to death. Actually the biggest problem is if the animals get wet and cannot find a warm place to dry their fur. Most feral cats can usually cope with cold weather, as is well documented on Marion Island , where as we mentioned before, it either rains and snows for over 300 days each year. And yet the feral cat population grew from just 5 cats to over 6,000!

Domestic cats and dogs, if left outside, probably suffer more from cold weather conditions than feral cats, who develop a winter coat in the fall. Ferals need a warm, dry shelter to protect them from wet weather, as well as extra nutrition and fresh water, which can be a problem during freezing weather. A feeding station will help to keep food and water from freezing. Bedding should be made of  hay or a synthetic material such as that used to make horse saddle covers. Blankets and towels retain moisture and should not be used during the wintertime.Photo Copyright AC Photo.

Providing shelter is a crucial aspect of colony management You can build a simple shelter or  you can provide other types of protection against the elements. Shelters provide a safe haven to keep cats dry and warm and will prevent them from roaming. With this provision managed colonies can be very hardy in the wintertime. Helpful tips for creating or building feral cat shelters:

You can use any type of strong box or crate, or buy a dog “igloo” from your pet supply company.

Tips for Winterizing Your Colony:

·       You should insulate the shelter with thick plastic or other material to keep out wind and cold.

·       Leave a small opening for the cats to enter. Put this opening on the side of the shelter that is protected from the wind.

·       Use  hay for bedding. Do not use blankets or towels as these retain moisture.

·       Raise the shelter off the ground by placing it securely on bricks or on a wooden pallet. If left on the ground it will retain moisture and will rot.

·       Clean shelters each spring and autumn by replacing the bedding with fresh hay.

·       A feeding station – a simple structure with a roof and floor will help keep food dry and provide a dry place for cats to eat. Fresh water can be a problem during freezing weather. Hot water can be poured into their water bowls, which may give them an opportunity to drink once it cools. For porch cats a heated water dish can be used.

Feral cats will huddle next to each other to keep themselves warm. This is one reason they become such social animals: it is a survival ploy for them.


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