Feral Cat Guide

We can’t end euthanasia in our local shelters without addressing the problem of feral cats. It’s almost impossible to paint a full picture of the situation. Research suggests there are anywhere from 60 to 100 million feral cats in the United States. Limited resources, abandonment, and insufficient spaying and neutering are just some of the reasons why the feral cat population continues to grow.

If you’re an animal lover at heart, choosing to care for feral cats is one of the most impactful things you can do for our local community across Texas. Caregiving for feral cats isn’t for everyone. It can be a difficult and time-consuming task, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.

At TCAP, we offer humane sterilization for feral cats at our 8 DFW area flagship clinics. If you can successfully trap a feral cat, you can take them to our Allen, Arlington, Burleson, Denton, Fort Worth, Hurst, Garland, or Weatherford locations for sterilization. We provide 12 free sterilizations of feral cats daily from 8 am. Alternatively, you can pay a $20 fee to sterilize a feral cat and schedule an appointment.

Before you can think about sterilization, it’s important to take a step back and understand how caregiving works for wild cats. This guide takes an in-depth look at everything you need to know about caring for feral cats.

 

Table of Contents

Overview of the Feral Cat Issue

Not all feral cats don’t start their lives on the street. Many of them were originally domestic cats who reverted to a wild state after being abandoned or lost by their original owner. Insufficient spaying and neutering often leads to young kittens being abandoned, adding to the overpopulation problem. Feral cats are rarely spayed or neutered, creating a never-ending cycle with their kittens being born in the wild.

When a domestic cat is released or abandoned, they may join an existing feral colony or form a new one. The lack of spaying and neutering inevitably leads to an increase in the cat population as cats (including domestic ones) can reproduce rapidly. Areas without affordable spaying and neutering services are more likely to have a larger feral cat population.

Feral cats can create problems for the local community and wildlife. They face heightened health risks, including diseases like FIV and FeLV, and parasites that can affect cats, other animals, and even humans. When a cat becomes feral, they revert to their natural hunting skills, which can pose a risk to local wildlife and disrupt ecosystems. These factors can contribute to the local population turning against feral cats due to their odor, noise, and risk of disease transmission.

There’s no denying that the feral cat problem is a challenging one, but there are steps you can take to help. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs aim to humanely trap feral cats to have them spayed or neutered, before returning them to their habitat. Many feral cat caregivers provide ongoing care to the cats they help through TNR. You can also help combat the feral cat problem and overpopulation by spreading awareness for responsible pet ownership and supporting access to affordable veterinary services and spaying and neutering.

Importance of Feral Cat Caretaking

When you care for a feral cat, you’re positively impacting the life of more than just one animal. Feral cat caregivers provided compassionate care to these animals by providing food, water, and shelter. Without our intervention, feral cats are often left to suffer under harsh environmental conditions with many of them malnourished and dealing with untreated injuries or illnesses. Intervening to provide care for a feral cat means health issues can be detected earlier, and vaccinations can help reduce the spread of diseases, including to humans.
There’s no way to address overpopulation without taking caring for feral cats. TNR programs will help gradually reduce the feral cat population by preventing new litters and reducing the strain on free and accessible resources.
If you’ve ever seen a feral cat in action, you’ll know that they’re trained hunters. Providing food for feral cats reduces their dependency on hunting local wildlife. Preventing these issues can help create more positive community relationships and encourage other people to care for feral cats. Advocacy is crucial. One of the most impactful things you can do is raise awareness for TNR and the importance of spaying and neutering.

Getting to Know Feral Cats

Before you can think of caring for feral cats, it’s important to get to know them. Feral cats are not stray cats. Their behavior is different, and they separate health concerns that should be considered.

What are Feral Cats?

Feral cats are animals who were previously domestic pets but have been abandoned or lived in the wild for an extended period. This results in them reverting to a semi-wild state. They typically avoid human interaction and may exhibit behavior traits widely associated with wild animals, including hunting. Feral cats often form colonies, including in urban areas, and seek shelter in abandoned buildings or secluded areas.

How Feral Cats Behave

Before you approach a feral cat, it’s important to understand their behavioral traits. Unlike domestic cats, they have a strong aversion to human contact and may hiss or growl if you approach them. Feral cats can be easily startled as they may perceive humans and other animals as a threat. They often establish territories using scent markings and may exhibit aggressive behavior towards animals in that area.

Feral cats are nocturnal hunters, speaking most of the daytime in secluded areas. They have reverted to a semi-wild state, relying on their hunting skills for food. Female cats can have multiple litters every year, which can lead to large colonies and add to overpopulation.

Health Considerations for Feral Cats

You’ll rarely find a feral cat without a health condition. Many of them won’t have their vaccinations. Virtually none of them will be spayed or neutered. It creates a breeding den for overpopulation and disease. Caregiving for stray cats helps to prevent infectious diseases and control parasites by ensuring these animals receive vaccinations, deworming, and flea or tick treatments.

TNR programs deliberately focus on spaying and neutering feral cats to prevent overpopulation, which also comes with a range of health benefits, including reducing the risk of reproductive-related diseases and hormone-influenced behavior.

Feral cat caregivers will monitor the health of the cats in their area, especially if they’re providing them with food or shelter. Detecting a health issue early is crucial to preventing disease from spreading and ensuring the cat receives treatment. Feral cats can experience medical emergencies, just like their domestic counterparts. Animal charities and affordable veterinary care are crucial.

As a feral cat caregiver, always consider your own health and safety. Feral cats can carry zoonotic diseases, which are transmissible to humans. Always practice proper hand hygiene and avoid direct contact with feral cats. Wear gloves and avoid touching the cat.

How to Get Started as a Feral Cat Caretaker

Now you understand the behavior of feral cats and their health risks, you can start taking active steps to manage your local feral cat population. You might have already identified a feral cat colony in your area or be caring for one. We’ll cover how to create a caregiving plan for feral cats in the next section of this guide.

Identify a feral cat colony

The first step is to identify and assess your local feral cat colonies. You’ll typically find them in rural areas, industrial sites, urban neighborhoods, and secluded buildings. Makeshift shelters, cat feces, and scratch marks are common signs of a feral cat colony. Speak to your neighbors to ask if they’ve seen any feral cats or heard fighting during the night. Members of your local community may have already engaged with the cat colony or be able to point you in the right direction. 

Visit the feral cat colony

Once you’ve identified where the colony is living, you can visit the area to assess the environment and observe their behavior. Does the area have sufficient access to water, shelter, and food sources? Feral cats will typically forage in garbage bins for food. Look out for any potential hazards, such as traffic, and other animals in the area.

You must track the cat colony and share this information with other caregivers. Make as many notes as you can about the colony and the site, including the number of adult cats and kittens. Observe the colony for any health or behavior issues, including any pregnant females. All this information is crucial to creating a management strategy, including TNR programs.

The Human Factor

Humans and feral cats inevitably cross paths. Assess the potential impact of any human intervention, including residents and any development projects happening nearby. These observations can help identify potential problems and allow you to mitigate their impact by taking proactive steps.

When you decide to care for feral cats, you’ll want to establish relationships with people nearby. Speaking to residents, property owners, and local businesses can give you an insight into the colony and their behavior. These individuals may be able to give you feedback on any challenges or interactions they’ve had. If these cats have previously posed a problem, the local community may be willing to offer help with feral cat management. Establishing relationships is important to spreading awareness for advocacy and teaching the wider population about feral cats.

Legal Considerations

It’s not humans you need to consider. There are legal factors you may need to consider. It’s best to speak to your local animal control office to find out if there are any legal requirements you must meet. You may be required to register as a caretaker or report feral cat colonies to local authorities. Registering a cat colony may provide them with some protection and a paper trail if they’re collected by animal services.

Creating a Caretaking Plan for Feral Cats

Once you’ve identified and documented the feral cat colony, it’s time to put a caretaking plan in place. There’s a lot to consider, from the basics of a trap-neuter-return (TNR) strategy to providing care for feral cats after spaying or neutering.  We’ll cover how to trap a feral cat and care for them post-surgery in more detail in the next section.

Understanding Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)

TNR involves trapping feral cats with human live traps so that they can be taken for spaying or neutering. You’ll set up traps in areas that the feral cats commonly frequent, usually near the colony site or areas where they get food. Place food inside the trap as bait for the cats. We recommend not using canned food as this metal may hurt the cat when they become distressed. Remove the food from the container and place it inside the trap. We suggest having newspaper or cardboard inside the trap for lining.

1. Trapping the Cat

When the cat takes the bait, a mechanism will be triggered that closes the door, safely containing the cat inside. Once the door shuts, secure both sides with zip ties. You’ll want to take the cat to a veterinary clinic or a facility as soon as possible. Take any steps you can to minimize stress during transportation, especially if the cat has an apparent injury that may require surgery.

2. At the Clinic

Once at the clinic, the cat will undergo a thorough medical evaluation to check its physical health, check for infectious diseases, and provide treatment for parasites. These checks will be conducted before the cat is placed under anesthesia to be spayed or neutered.

It’s normal protocol for feral cats to be ‘ear-tipped’ while they’re still under anesthesia. A small portion of their ear tip, usually from the left ear, is removed to provide a visual indicator that they are a feral cat already vaccinated and sterilized. It ensures that other caregivers are not trying to trap cats who have already undergone TNR.

The cat may also receive vaccinations for common diseases, such as rabies. Other services will vary between clinics as some may provide only basic medical care while others may offer treatments for parasites and even microchipping.

3. Post-Surgery Monitoring

Part of your role as a caregiver is to monitor the cat as they recover from surgery. While they’re recovering from the anesthesia, you’ll want to provide a quiet and warm environment with food, water, and shelter. Once they’ve recovered, the cat should be released back to their original colony site. They can continue to live there without posing the risk of continuing to breed or spreading infectious diseases.  

If you decide to undertake feral cat management, it’s important to note that TNR isn’t a one-and-done situation. It’s an ongoing process and one that involves monitoring the colony, providing food, and undergoing TNR with any new cats that join the colony.

Providing Ongoing Care for Feral Cats

Your caregiving journey doesn’t stop at TNR. Providing ongoing care for feral cat colonies is a crucial part of ending euthanasia in animal shelters and preventing overpopulation.

Providing food, water, and shelter is crucial for supporting feral cats and ensuring they don’t disrupt local ecosystems and endanger native wildlife. This isn’t as straightforward as you might think. There are different factors to consider and steps you can take to make the caregiving process safer.

Giving Food to Feral Cats

Feral cats need adequate food and water regularly year-round to prevent them from hunting local wildlife. We recommend feeding feral cats during daylight for your safety and to make it easier to observe the colony. Plan to feed the cats first thing in the morning or during the early afternoon, as you’re less likely to attract other animals and wildlife.

1. Nutritional and Seasonal Needs

You’ll need to consider nutritional and seasonal needs when providing food for feral cats. Just like humans, cats have their own nutritional needs. You’ll want to consider other food sources, the weather, and their size when leaving food. It can take a little trial and error to work out the exact amount of food to provide.

We recommend observing the colony discreetly as they eat. If the cats eat all the food within 15 minutes, add a little more next time. If there’s still food remaining after 30 minutes, add a little less net time. You’ll want to add more food during winter to help the cats maintain their energy levels.

2. Dry food vs. wet food

Dry food is usually the best option for feral cats as it is just as nutritious as canned food but less expensive. Any uneaten food should be removed after 30 minutes as otherwise it can attract other wildlife or insects. Keep the dishes in a clean condition and in one place to make clean-up easier.

Not all cats will eat an equal amount, especially as hierarchies commonly exist within feral cat colonies. While we recommend dry food, you may choose to use wet food as well. You’ll want to pay close attention and ensure it is removed quickly afterward if any is leftover. Dry and wet food should be kept in separate dishes and not mixed.

FAQs about Feeding Feral Cats

Q: How much food should you give?

A: We recommend providing one cup of dry food per cat. You’ll be able to work out the best amount to provide by monitoring the colony and determining how quickly they eat the food or if they leave any behind. Don’t forget to leave extra food during winter.

Q: Should I create a feeding station?

A: If you can’t find a covered area to place the food and water bowls, it’s a good idea to create a feeding station. You want to ensure the food is protected from the elements and other wildlife, including birds. Keep the feeding station clean and tidy. You can make the feeding station as simple as you’d like, but a practical design can help it stay looking tidy.

Q: How can I prevent insects from getting into the food?

A: There are different ways to keep insects out of the food. You can apply ‘food-grade’ diatomaceous earth around the bowls. It’s important to use the food-grade version as it means there are no chemicals added. While this is effective in keeping insects away, you’ll need to reapply it after rainstorms. Alternatively, you can use cooking oil to keep ants and bugs away from the bowl. Placing the bowls on a tray and adding water to a 1-inch-deep container will also keep away wingless insects. If insects become a concern, provide only dry food.

Giving Water to Feral Cats

Just like food, feral cats need daily water. While this is easier to provide, you’ll want to consider how to keep the water from freezing during colder months. Throughout the year, you should provide fresh water with food. You should provide enough water to last between visits. If the water is gone by your next visit, switch to bigger bowls or add extra ones. Provide clean, fresh water every time you visit.

Providing Water During Winter

You’ll need to take extra steps to ensure the colony has fresh water during the colder months. It’s a good idea to refill the bowls with hot or warm water to stop them freezing. Adding a pinch of sugar can also slow down the freezing process. If your feeding station is near an electrical outlet, you may be able to use heater water bowls.

Place the water bowls in the sun and switch to dark-colored bowls to help the water absorb heat to prevent freezing. Wider and deeper bowls can also prevent freezing. If you live in a colder climate, double-layered bowls can provide insulation. While there are heated bowls that you can purchase, a cheaper alternative may be to add plexiglass to your feeding station to create a greenhouse-style environment.

If you’re providing water from a nearby water source, such as a tap, you’ll want to run the water at regular intervals to prevent it from freezing. Don’t forget to consider the impact of high winds and other winter weather conditions. Shield the water bowl against the elements and move it closer to the food bowls if necessary.

Recap of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)

TNR may seem overwhelming, but it’s a long-term strategy to end euthanasia by reducing overpopulation and promoting advocacy for more education and community outreach.
It’s a humane method of feral cat management and crucial to stabilizing the cat population. TNR also reduces mating behavior, leading to less fighting, and removes the risk of reproductive-related diseases. Feral cats are less likely to end up in animal shelters and euthanized when they’re part of a TNR program.
At TCAP, we provide TNR services throughout North Texas at 8 of our clinics throughout DFW, including, Allen, Arlington, Burleson, Denton, Ft. Worth, Garland, Hurst, and Weatherford. We offer free sterilization for the first 12 feral cats at each location every day and the option of paying a $20 fee for a scheduled appointment. If you have the resources, booking a scheduled appointment can ensure we offer sterilization services to as many feral cats as possible.

How to Properly Trap a Feral Cat

Safely trapping a feral cat is the most important part of TNR. It’s easy to feel scared or intimated the first time you try to trap a feral cat.

Before you can trap the cat, make sure you follow the earlier steps in our guide in the ‘How to Get Started as a Feral Cat Caretaker’ section. Doing this first will make it easier to provide post-surgery and ongoing care. You’ll also want to ensure you have all the necessary equipment to properly trap the cat. We’ve provided a list at the end of this guide for easy reference.

Trapping The Cat

Box and drop traps are the most common human live traps for feral cats. You want to choose a trap large enough for the cat with a proper trigger mechanism.

You want to place the trap in a location frequently visited by the cat. If you’re returning to a colony that you already care for, you can place the trap near the feeding station. Setting an empty trap out a few days before means you can pre-bait the area. Add food near the entrance of the trap without setting it. While this will make the process longer, it increases your likelihood of trapping the cat.

Once you’re ready to set the trap, place it on a level surface. We recommend adding newspaper, towels, or cardboard to the bottom of the trap to make it easier to clean and give the cat a comfortable space. The bait should be placed at the back of the trap to ensure the cat goes far enough in to trigger the mechanism.

Check the trap regularly to minimize distress if the cat is trapped. Never set a trap overnight.

Handling and Transporting the Cat

Calmly approach the trap and avoid making loud noises or sudden movements that could startle it. Many caregivers recommend applying zip ties before lifting the trap to keep the cat securely inside.  Covering the trap with a blanket or towel will help keep the cat calm while you take them to the clinic. Take the cat as soon as possible, placing it slowly into your car and taking care when driving. If you’re walking to the clinic, make slow and deliberate movements to avoid injuring the cat.

What to Do While Waiting to See the Vet

It’s unlikely you’ll see a vet right away. Whether you’re going to a walk-up clinic or waiting on an appointment, having the trap covered will keep the cat calm. It can be difficult to listen to the cat whine or whimper when they’re inside the trap. It’s important to remember the bigger picture.

Cats are adaptable animals. Place the trap in a quiet and warm place as you wait for your appointment. Remember, the trap is a safer environment for them than the great outdoors.

Caring for a Feral Cat Post-Surgery

Everyone needs a little TLC after seeing the doctor. Feral cats are no exception. Caring for a feral cat post-surgery mainly requires monitoring. While the cat is in surgery, clean out the trap and prepare it for their recovery.

 

1. Provide a Safe Environment

You’ll need a quiet, warm area for them to recover that’s also secure. If you don’t have a sheltered area indoors, you may want to return the cat to the trap or another cage. Add newspaper or cardboard to make it easier to clean up. You’ll also want to add a blanket or towel to their recovery space. Cats can quickly lose body heat during recovery, and a blanket can help them stay calm.

2. Monitor for Any Complications

The focus post-surgery is to monitor the cat for any signs of complications. If you notice the cat is struggling to breathe or excessive bleeding, contact the veterinarian clinic immediately. It’s also important to restrict their activity during recover to ensure they fully heal. Keeping the cat in the trap will help.
When the cat becomes alert after waking up, offer it a small amount of food and water. Observe the cat to ensure they are eating and drinking enough. If they have no appetite, contact the clinic for advice.

3. Release After Recovery

After the cat has fully recovered, it’s time to release them back to their colony. Male cats can usually be within 24 hours post-surgery. Female cats may require at least 48 hours to recover. Some caregivers may keep the cat for several days post-surgery, but it depends on their recovery speed.
Although the cat might have seemed comfortable during recovery, the natural environment is now their home. You’ll continue to have a relationship with them by providing ongoing care with food, shelter, and water once they’re released.

How You Can Spread Awareness for TNR

Advocacy and awareness are just as important as caregiving. If you’re not able to care for feral cats directly, you can help spread awareness for TNR programs. Community outreach is the backbone of any successful feral cat management program.

  1. Social Media

Social media campaigns are one of the most effective ways to raise awareness and engage your local community. Share photos of the cats, post resources, and provide educational content. Local followers can alert you to sightings of cats and your work might inspire them to start caregiving as well. Tag any local organizations or charities that work with feral cats to encourage them to promote your posts to their network.

  1. Local Groups

If you’ve got a heart for animals, consider setting up a local volunteer group. You can start it with your friends and host outreach events or create printed materials to highlight the importance of TNR and looking after feral cats.

Creating a local group means you can share resources and divide caregiving responsibilities. Facebook is one of the easiest ways to start a group and attract local members outside your personal network. Your group can also fundraise and volunteer for local charities, including those providing free or low-cost spaying and neutering services.

If your group becomes large enough, you may be able to provide support for other caregivers, including first-timers. Supplying traps and offering to help with colony management can make feral cat caregiving feel like a community-based project.

  1. Speak to People One-on-One

People often have misconceptions about feral cats. Speaking to people one-on-one gives you a chance to directly address their concerns. When you’re working with a new colony, try to speak to residents about your work and the benefits of TNR. Advocacy also includes raising awareness for the benefits of spaying and neutering even domestic cats to help reduce overpopulation.

Health and Welfare Resources for Feral Cats

One of the biggest challenges involved with caring for feral cats is accessing health and welfare resources. Feral cats have more needs than domestic cats. They have a higher risk of contracting infectious diseases or being injured in the wild.

Many organizations, such as TCAP, provide their services at a discounted rate to make them more accessible for caregivers supporting feral cats. Low-cost spay and neutering clinics are crucial to stopping overpopulation and implementing feral cat management. Donating to organizations like TCAP ensures these vital resources can continue to be made available for free or at a discount for caregivers. While spaying and neutering can cost up to $500, TCAP will sterilize a feral cat for just $20.

One of the most important parts of caregiving is monitoring feral cats for any potential health issues. Common health problems like fleas and ear mites can be easily treated.

Caring for Feral Cats with Fleas

The challenge with caring for feral cats with fleas is that a flea bath is usually out of the question. The easiest way to treat fleas is by crushing up Capstar into their food. You’ll need to be careful when providing food. Kittens from four to eight weeks are only recommended a half-pill. Capstar can be purchased online or from pet stores without a prescription. It works within just six hours.

If you’re able to safely handle the cat, you can administer a topical treatment for longer results. Advantage, Frontline, and Revolution are the most popular products. However, these require a prescription but can also be used to address other health conditions, including roundworms and ear mites. Apply it tropically between the cat’s shoulder blades to provide continued flea protection for one month. Alternatively, Program tablets are noninvasive and can be crushed into food.

Alternatively, if you can handle the kittens, bathing them with a dishwashing detergent will kill the fleas on contact. Dip a flea comb in soapy water and brush through the cat’s fur.

Caring for Feral Cats with Ear Mites

Ear mites are not life-threatening but can make a cat feel uncomfortable. Revolution is the easiest way to treat this and can be applied during a vet visit or after surgery. While one application will usually eradicate the mites, most cats have two treatments, one month apart from each other. A vet may also apply Acarexx during a spaying or neutering surgery to clean and treat the ears.

Resources and Tools to Help with Caregiving for Feral Cats

While this guide has covered the basics of feral cat caregiving, there’s a wealth of resources you can utilize to continue your research. Whether you choose to join an online community or read further literature, understanding how to care for feral cats is the first step to taking meaningful action.

We’re sharing a list of further resources and websites you can utilize, along with a list of tools and equipment we recommend having in your home for feral cat caretaking.

Online resources and websites:

Recommended books and literature:

Take the Next Steps as a Feral Cat Caregiver

Reading this guide is the first step on your journey to becoming a feral cat caregiver. Congratulations! As part of our community, you can help us tackle Texas’ cat overpopulation problem, create a safer environment for local wildlife, and keep feral cats safe and healthy.

Find out more about our ‘Feral Fix Program’ and donate to the Texas Coalition for Animal Protection to help us continue our work to end euthanasia in our local shelters.