What You Can Do to Help the Plight of Feral Cats

By Sara Neely

Feral cats are generally those who have been without human contact long enough that they have become un-socialized and cannot be handled. At any given time in the U.S. there are between 10 and 70 million feral cats, most living together in colonies near a source of food or water. Allowing a pet cat, especially an un-neutered one, to roam outside, is the single largest factor contributing to the growth of the feral cat population. Many pet owners erroneously believe that an outdoor cat can never adjust to indoor life. In addition, many pet cats become pregnant with unwanted litters because the owner could not afford to neuter the cat, the cat got out of the house, or the owner mistakenly thought that the cat was too young to get pregnant or that a nursing female could not become pregnant.

Other than preventing pet cats from becoming strays, what else can cat lovers who are not experts do to curtail and aid this ever-growing population? Most experts agree that at this time the answer to the cats’ safety, quality of life, and attrition lies in programs referred to as Trap, Neuter, and Rescue (TNR). How is this accomplished? The first step is as simple as carrying a car kit, similar to a first aid kit, in your trunk. This kit should contain items such as a gallon of water, a small bag of dry cat food, 2 cans pull-top cans of wet food, 2-4 Ziploc disposable bowls, a blanket, and a leash or harness. All of this can easily be stored inside a 36-inch-long trap purchased from Home Depot.

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Once a feral colony is identified, trapping individual members for neutering becomes the goal. Tuna in oil, sardines in oil, or mackerel should be placed inside the trap, with water available outside. Traps should never be left unattended. Other forms of wildlife, such as raccoons, can be caught, or cats can be held terrified for long periods of time. As soon as the cat is trapped, put a sheet or blanket over the trap to calm the frightened animal. It is best to have a pre-arranged agreement either with a personal vet or with an agency that specializes in low-cost neutering. At the very least, the cat should be sterilized, have its ear tipped to identify it as a neutered cat, and be vaccinated for rabies. Many people believe that the cat should be tested for FeLV and FIV; others believe that this is not critical, as the incidence of these diseases is approximately the same in feral populations as it is in the domestic cat population, which is roughly only 4%. Many vets believe that vaccinating the cat with an FVRCP (feline viral rhinotracheitis, calcivirus, panleukopenia) vaccine, either live virus or inactivated, can provide the re-released feral cat with substantive immune protection for an extended period of time. Following sterilization, it is recommended that male cats be held for 24 hours, while non-nursing females need 24-48 hours before release. Nursing females need typically to be released sooner. Feral cats should be re-released to their original location, provided it is safe. Plans for daily maintenance of the colony should be established prior to release. The colony will need daily food and water, as well as monitoring for sick or injured members.

What resources are available to individuals wanting to help feral cats but having limited funds with which to do so? First, consider forming your own group of concerned cat lovers to care for an individual colony. Choosing to donate to this cause is as valid as donating to any charitable organization, and sharing the expenses helps considerably. Second, become politically proactive. Determine if the local shelters, both municipally funded and non-profit, sterilize animals for reduced fees or for fees paid by the individual adopting a pet. Advocate strongly for additional funds for all municipal shelters; work to increase donations to non-profit organizations. Volunteer to shelter or foster cats that need to be socialized. Help educate the public about the validity of the feral cat cause.

Finally, come up with a list of resources available to all who seek to help. Start with local resources. Nationally, The Humane Society of the United States offers many resources. Cities having veterinary schools are frequently fortunate enough to have shelter medicine programs available at substantially reduced costs through programs at the vet schools. Additionally, there are multiple web sites providing information on feral cats, TNR programs, homeless cats, and missing cats.

Based on the book Urban Tails: Inside the Hidden World of Alley Cats. Photo Copyright © 2006 by Knox. Text Copyright © 2006 by Sara Neeley. Reprinted with permission of New World Library , Novato , CA

Sara Neeley is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and former high school English teacher. She can be reached at http://www.urbantailsbook.com