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Beyond 9 Lives: Should You Take Care of a Feral Cat?

by Elizabeth Arguelles December 18, 2015 at 1:30 pm 17 Comments

Beyond Nine Lives

This is a sponsored post by  Elizabeth Arguelles, veterinarian and owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. It does not represent the views of Reston Now. 

In our last article, we discussed what to do with stray cats that you encounter in your neighborhood.

This week, we’ll tackle an issue that is related but that presents very different challenges: how to help feral cats living near your house.

What is a feral cat?

As we mentioned in a previous article, feral cats are felines who have been born and raised in the wild.

Unlike strays (cats that at one time had human owners), feral kitties have had little to no previous contact with humans. Because of this, you should always approach ferals with caution and avoid handling.

What should you do if you encounter a feral cat in your neighborhood?

Before doing anything, make sure that the feline is indeed feral and not lost or a stray. In our last article, we discussed a variety of ways to determine whether a kitty already has a home or has grown up around people. If you suspect that the cat in question might be domesticated, take the proper steps to ensure that it is either returned to its owners or brought to a shelter.

Once you have ascertained that the cat does not have and has not had a human owner, the next step is to take it immediately to a vet for sterilization and a rabies shot. As we have mentioned in past articles, the best way to reduce the number of euthanasias performed at clinics and shelters around the country is to limit the number of unwanted kittens born.

Getting a feral cat to the veterinarian is not an easy process, given that such felines are not accustomed to human contact. Fortunately, animal welfare organizations like Alley Cat Allies and the ASPCA have developed Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) protocols that are designed to humanely capture feral kitties, get them to the vet without putting them or any humans in danger, and return them to the wild. For more information about how to trap feral cats, the most effective equipment to use, and the best way to bait the traps, please visit AlleyCat.org or ASPCA.org

What is the best way to protect the health of feral cats in the long term?

Providing long-term care to a feral cat is more complicated than it is for a stray kitty, but certainly worth the effort. Feral kitties that are properly cared for can live for ten years or more. Before making a commitment to a feral cat, however, you should ensure that you have the financial means to do so for the cat’s entire lifetime, that arrangements can be made to care for the kitty if you travel or move, and that the area where you live is safe and suitable for cats. If you still want to care for a feral cat or feral colony after considering these issues, here are some steps to take:

Coordinate with neighbors who might already be caring for the cat. You may find that someone else in your neighborhood is already providing food and/or medical care for feral felines living in the area, so make sure that you are not duplicating efforts.

Feed the feral kitty at regular intervals. Leave food and water out for about 30 minutes and then take it away. It is important to be dependable and consistent, so have someone sub for you if you are unavailable. Dry food is better than wet food, as the former keeps longer and attracts fewer insects.

Provide adequate shelter, especially in the winter. Though cats have heavy winter coats to keep them warm, they have trouble drying off if they get wet. Without a proper “house,” a kitty can get hypothermia and die, so giving it a doghouse filled with straw or space in a shed can greatly improve its living conditions. Make sure to properly insulate the structure to provide a warm and dry place for the cat.

Monitor the cat’s health. Check the kitty’s eyes and fur on a regular basis. Its eyes should be clear and without discharge, and its coat should be clean. If you notice anything amiss, contact your vet immediately. Remember to monitor your ferals from a safe distance. If one of the cats does need medical care, use the safe Haveahart traps to catch them.

Watch for other feral cats living in the area. Feral kitties often live in larger groups known as colonies. Though you may not have the time or resources to care for an entire colony, getting the other members sterilized and vaccinated will help ensure that the cats for which you are caring remain healthy. Learn to recognize the cats that are part of the colony so that you can quickly identify any newcomers and get them fixed immediately. Remember Trap-Neuter-Return programs are the BEST way to help feral colonies.

Even though feral cats are not dependent on humans in the same way that domesticated felines are, they can still benefit from our help and care. Life in the wild can be difficult and fraught with disease, potential starvation and numerous risks to life and limb.

With only a minimal investment of time and resources, you can help limit the number of cats ending up in shelters or even euthanized and improve the quality of life for your community ferals.

  • east297

    NO! Feral cat had kittens in our window well…darling but had heck of a time placing them in homes.

  • kitcatkitty
  • HajjFredHMinshall

    Right. The thing to do is foist invasive, destructive, disease-ridden vermin on my neighbors, my neighbors’ children and on local naturally-occurring wildlife, because some find them ’emotionally appealing.’

    Fine. I find red-bellied piranhas (Pygocentrus nattererii) emotionally appealing. I raise large numbers of them in aquariums. You have NO idea how ‘cute’ they are when they shred goldfish, mice and hamsters alive.

    What a FINE reason to give about a thousand of them a ‘forever home’ in your local reservoir, swimming hole or fishing lake! Don’t worry, I’ll ‘trap-neuter-release’ four of them so they can’t reproduce (that’s about the percentage of feral cats that have been trapped-neutered-released in the last 17 years). And I’ll clip part of the gill-flap on those fish so you’ll know they’re ‘free-roaming’, not ‘stray’ piranha.

    That way you’ll know they can’t reproduce and return them to the water after they’ve bitten a chunk out of you. Sound like a good idea?

    • Ladycat

      Just don’t get any pets, they wouldn’t like you either.

      • HajjFredHMinshall

        Hmm…the cat I rescued as a tiny kitten from freezing to death on Popof Island, Alaska back in 2004 would probably disagree with you.

        And I’m not trying to make friends. You’re just pissed off because by analogy I’ve clearly demonstrated how destructive, irresponsible and inconsiderate you TNR hobbyists are.

        You prioritize the ‘good feelings’ you get pretending to be ‘humane’ by cutting cats’ balls, re-abandoning them, and occasionally dropping kibble on paper plates and leaving it for others to clean up, over the health of your neighbors and over the extinction of native wildlife.

        I don’t want to be your friend. I want you to stop destroying native wild animals and spreading disease through your precious ‘pets gone wild’. Are we clear?

        • Ladycat

          Well you seem to care a little bit, at least enough to continue arguing so not so sure you’re valid on any points. But please get help and just turn your little blinders on for the lost kids, some of us are already taking care of it.

          • HajjFredHMinshall

            The existence of 25 year-old feral cat “colonies” in Washington DC, Disneyland and elsewhere suggest that in fact you’re not ‘taking care of it’, not to put too find a point on it. There has been no example of feral cat colony attrition anywhere in the WORLD since TNR was first implemented in the 1950s. Not one.

            And they’re not ‘lost kids.’ They’re stinking feral CATS. That you would call them such while turning your nose up at the thousands of homeless CHILDREN in this country is yet another indication of how woefully perverted your priorities are.

  • lotielz .

    Feral cats are still domestic cats. They are not a separate special species. They are not wildlife. It is disgusting to know that a vet would support turning an invasive domestic animal out on the streets. My sister has a problem with your feral hoards coming into the yard and defecating. Why are you not cleaning up after your animals? You have absolutely no regard for human health or private property. The way to properly take care of your feral cats is to build a safe enclosure, not to dump them out into the streets of Northern VA.

  • Gail

    What happens if you take this fractious feral cat to a vet and it is found to have ear mites, intestinal parasites including Coccidea or Giardia, upper respiratory infection or even feline leukemia or FIV, if indeed it is tested for these? Are you going to put it back like that? If it has URI are you going to keep it confined to a cage and treat it until it is better? What if it doesn’t get better? What if an upper respiratory doesn’t clear up, as many of them don’t and the cat remains a carrier of viruses such as Calici and Rhinotracheitis. What if you get scratched by the cat while it is in the cage and you develop cat scratch fever from the Bartonella bacteria that it might be carrying. What if these cats need more than just a neuter and a rabies?? I’ll leave the environmental concerns for others to comment.

  • Donna Nespoli

    Ferals should trapped and taken to humane society for placement or euthanasia. Save wildlife and help human health by eliminating feral cat colonies altogether.

  • Ladycat

    Have a heart, they didn’t choose to be cast away from the selfish hands of humankind. Most of these cats had a home at one point and then the owners got bored. Seen it all my life and happy to say I’ve personally placed over 25 cats in loving homes over my lifetime. Even a few feral babies taken and raised inside amazing how quickly they domesticate.

    • HajjFredHMinshall

      And the Disney-Channel generation rears its empty head. No animal consciously ‘chooses’ to be anywhere. They are where they can be. Dunno if that’s too difficult or too simple for you to understand.

      And former owners’ motivations for abandoning their charges are no more relevant than irresponsible TNR hobbyists’ for RE-abandoning them after cutting their balls off.

      As for you laudable record in ‘feral baby placement’, please work faster. There are (by ASPCA estimate) 46,999,975 more to find homes for if you want to have anything like meaningful impact.

      • Ladycat

        I have no idea what your attempt at a point is, but like most people you can ignore the helpless kids on the street and mock those who attempt to help. All I can say is glad I don’t think like you, and actually give a hoot.
        Baby cats have been literally abandoned in my backyard, at my horse barn, etc. by the hapless hands of mankind. So yeah, they did not choose that fate, they were fortunately found by somebody who cared.
        As for you, a final judgement will ultimately find you too my friend, try to build up those heart muscles.

        • HajjFredHMinshall

          Right. When confronted with facts. respond with whiny, emotional twaddle-speak and tell us all how “caring” you are. Guess that’s the best you can do.

          And of course you don’t think like me. You don’t think at all.

          And yes, I will face the Final Judge. I hope for His Mercy. I fear His Justice. But that’s between Him and me. You have nothing to do with it. Worry about your own soul (such as it is).

          • mjhunt102

            Do you eat meat? If yes, you have no cause to condemn a cat for hunting.
            Your facts are not relevant. You do not show that native animals are inherently more valuable than cats. You just assert it. Moreover, nobody suggests intentionally introducing more outdoor cats. It is only that we should not kill ones already there.
            A mouse or bird does not care if he/she is killed by a cat or a native predator. He/she dies either way.
            I guess we could kill any carnivorous animal we catch rather than try to rehabilitate and release (or find a captivity home). But, that seems cruel.
            I also do not care if you become my friend or not. Whether you like it or not, I do not accept that a modern cat should be treated differently than another carnivore for this purpose.

          • Ladycat

            Tell it to the big guy when you meet him, he’s gonna love you.
            Me not so much, and you’re just here to incite which makes you a troll. Nothing to offer from you at all.

          • HajjFredHMinshall

            Of course I have nothing to offer you. All I have is facts. You don’t have much use for those. At least not to any that point out that valuing the emotional “high” you get fawning over invasive, disease-ridden “community” vermin because you think they’re ‘cute’ over the moral imperative of not exposing your neighbors or their children to debilitating, potentially fatal diseases, contaminating their property, and allowing your precious ‘pets gone wild’ to cause species-level extinctions of native organisms is neither humane or responsible behavior.


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