Friday, May 19, 2017

Feral and stray cats and caring for them

Mandy Cooper

What are feral cats?

The term “feral” describes members of a domesticated species that have reverted to living as wild animals. Feral cats have little or no contact with humans and trying to tame them could seriously compromise their welfare. Feral cats live alone or in groups called colonies and are often seen in towns, cities and rural areas.

Caring for feral cats

One of the greatest risks to feral cats is the bitter cold of winter weather. If you have an outdoor shed with a window, you could leave it ajar so cats can slip inside for shelter. You could also provide a box with a blanket in. When feral cats rely on wildlife for food, they expose themselves to dangerous situations due to care and diseases. Put food in an old bowl and put it out for a very needy cat. If the weather is very cold, you could heat the food up slightly to warm a cold kitty's tummy. Cats don't need a lot of space, just a space large enough for them to stand and move about and stay safe from harsh outdoor elements. 

Home-made shelters can be made out of nearly everything from a sturdy cardboard box to a plastic garbage can. Cats will require extra calories and fat during the cold weather months. A dry kitten formula is an excellent source of extra calories. Canned cat foods are also a great source of high calorie nutrition.

Food and water should be protected from the cold and placed as near to the sleeping shelter as possible so cats aren't exposed to harsh conditions.
Feeding the cats at the same time every day will allow them to expect and rely on a routine.

Some people view feral cats as pests. Thankfully, many more value then far more. Despite their wild nature, feral cats still benefit from a certain amount of care, including spaying/neutering. This has major health benefits.

These days, activists are working to protect and control feral cat populations so that these cats can thrive. Feral cats are being offered food, health care and TNR (trap-neuter-release) to ensure these cats stay healthy. Most feral caretakers provide food and water, provide TNR, shelter from the elements, monitoring health concerns by arranging any vet care when needed, making sure their rabies vaccinations are kept up to date, provide vaccinations, provide parasite prevention medication, care for litters of kittens and finding indoor homes for any social cats and kittens that are abandoned at a colony site.

Buying in bulk helps a lot. Think of caring for a feral cat as adopting a pet. You wouldn't welcome a cat or dog into your home and then change your mind several weeks later or drop them off somewhere and hope for the best. People assume that cats are great survivors, find a meal and be just fine but in reality, these cats are cats like the ones you have at home. They are dependant on you so never give up on them. If you can't commit to taking care of feral cats, don't take on the responsibility. In a free roaming environment, feral cats avoid humans and will hiss, growl and bare their teeth if they feel trapped. 

Feral kittens can be trapped and socialised and then adopted but this would need to be done between 7 weeks and 4 months of age. Feral cats in managed colonies can live long lives. Without human assistance, feral kittens are expected to have a high death rate. Trap-neuter-return (TNR) involves trapping feral cats, spaying and neutering them and then returning them to the place they were trapped from where ongoing care if provided by caregivers. When neutered/spayed, the cats receive vaccinations against rabies and other needs such as dental care and flea treatments. Remember that it doesn't take a lot for you to reach out and help a cat whether they are feral, stray or domesticated cats. They all deserve a chance and they can be treated humanely if things are done correctly.

Feral kittens

Healthy kittens that are more than 8 weeks old or weigh 2 pounds are fine to be released back into their colony after being trapped and spayed/neutered but if you have the time and resources, it may be possible to socialise kittens up to 4 months old to be friendly, cuddly cats. All you need is a little skill, hard work and lots of love.

If kittens has never met people, they will be frightened and show signs of fear like hissing, spitting and running away. They need to be taught that they can be comfortable around people. Kittens 8 weeks or younger can be socialised by anyone but kittens between 2 and 4 months old might require more time. Have a kitten wellness visit to the vet. Make sure kittens are vaccinated and dewormed. Rabies vaccinations cannot be given until a kitten is 4 months old. Get immediate vet attention if kittens become lethargic, lose their appetite or have persistent diarrhoea. Make sure you have a room that can be closed off to give you easy access and keep kittens away from other pets. Make sure you keep kittens from hard to reach places and windows should be in the room and it would be quiet. Make kittens feel safe with a little safe zone.

Stray cats

If a cat is approachable and friendly, it may be a stray cat. It's best to try and find its owner if you can. Ask around to see if anyone knows who the cat belongs to. If you can safely transport the cat to a vet, you could have it scanned for a microchip. If no owner is found, you can take on the stray cat yourself. If you are unable to keep the cat for any reason, contact a local shelter for help. You can go to Cats Protection or the RSPCA for help in the UK and to the Humane Society in the USA.

A stray cat is a cat who has been socialised to people at some point but has left or lost their domestic home as well as most human contact and independence. Over time, a stray can become feral if their contact with humans dwindles. Under the right circumstances, a stray cat can become a cat pet again. Stray cats that are re introduced to a home after living outside may require a period of time to adjust. They may be frightened and wary after spending time away from people.

Stray cats may approach people, houses or cars and will likely live alone. They might walk and move like a house cat such as walking with their tail up (a sign of friendliness), they will looks at you, blind and make eye contact , may be vocal or meow, may be visible during the daytime, may appear dirty and will not have an ear tip.

Stray kittens

Before you rush to handle a stray kitten, remember that the mother could be close by, watching and waiting for you to leave. Try to distance yourself from the kitten but remain close enough that you can see whether the mother comes back.

If you see the mother return, take note of your location and contact a local charity. Let them know that you've spotted a stray cat and kitten's. If however, the mother doesn't return, access the kitten's condition and temperament. Make sure it can breathe clearly. Check its paws and body to see if they are cold to the touch. Check for discharge from its eyes or nose. These are signs that the kitten's need vet attention right away. Contact a shelter or charity to explain the situation and ask for advice. Take special care when approaching a kitten who is nervous, crouching, growling or hissing. Call an animal rescue if you can't hand the kitten's yourself. If a kitten is over friendly, it may be someone's pet and you should report is as found. It's important that you can handle and transport the kitten's securely (such as a carrier or well aired box).

How to make a shelter for a feral or stray cat that appears near you

Building a winter shelter for a feral or stray cat can be both simple and inexpensive. Two of the most popular styles are Styrofoam bins and plastic storage bins with removable lids.

When making a shelter, a few basic things to keep in mind are:

       Strong insulation (use straw, not hay or blankets)
       Minimal air space ( a smaller are means that less heat is needed to keep the kitties warm).
       Shelter size is very important (smaller shelters can be heated only by one or two cats. Larger shelters with only one or two cats inside will remain cold. Two smaller shelters are better than one large one. Don't underestimate the cats that come into the shelter. Try to provide more shelter space that you can imagine needing)
       The placement of shelters is also important in keeping cats safe from predators (have the entrance face a wall so only cats can get in and out. All shelters should be out of sight no matter how friendly and are may appear).
       Don't place the shelter directly on the cold ground ( Use materials to raise it off the ground and place straw underneath).
       Make the door as small as possible (Cats need an opening about the size of their whiskers. A small door discourages larger animals from entering. A smaller opening also provides more heat).
       Locate the door several inches above the ground level ( Rain won't splash up through an above the ground door. Snow is less likely to trap the cats by blocking an above the ground door).
       Create extra protection (Use plastic or heavy garbage bags over the opening to provide more insulation and keeping rain and wind from the shelter. It also makes the cat feels safer).
       Prevent dampness ( Raising the rear of the shelter slightly higher from the front helps to keep rain from pooling inside and snow from piling up on the roof. A small hole drilled in the side or bottom of the shelter allows rainwater to drain out. A slanted roof might also discourage predators from sitting on the roof to stalk).
       Secure lightweight shelters against the wind by putting barbell weights on the floor of the shelter under the bedding. Put heavy, flat rocks or bricks on the lid/top. Place two shelters with the doors facing each other to protect the entry).
       Insulate the shelter for extra comfort and warmth (Only insulating materials should be used. Blankets, towels, etc retain wetness and should not be used. Use straw because it can absorb more moisture and is less prone to mold or rot. Don't place water bowls inside the shelter as they can get knocked over).

To assemble a storage bin with removable lids:

       Cut a doorway 6 inches by 6 inches in one of the long sides of the bin towards the corner. Cut the opening so that the bottom of the doorway is several inches above the ground to prevent flooding.
       Line the floor of the bin with a piece of Styrofoam, using the yardstick and box cutter to cut the piece. If doesn't have to be an exact fit but the closer the better.
       In a similar way, line each of the 4 interior walls of the bin with a piece of Styrofoam. Perfect cuts are not necessary. Leave a cap of 3 inches between the top of the Styrofoam wall pieces and the upper lip of the bin.
       Cut out a doorway in the Styrofoam interior wall where the doorway has already been cut out in the storage bin.
       Measure the length and width of the interior space and place a second, smaller size bin into the open interior. This bin should fit as snugly as possible against the Styrofoam wall pieces. Cut a doorway into this bin where the doorways have been cut into the Styrofoam and outer bin.
       Stuff the bottom of the interior bin with straw or other insulating material to provide both insulation and a comfortable spot to lie down.
       Cut out a Styrofoam roof to rest on top of the Styrofoam all pieces.
       Cover the bin with its lid

This shelter is easy to clean by taking off the lid and the roof. It is lightweight and may need to be weighed down. A flap over the doorway is optional.

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