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How to Improve a Feral Cat's Life

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.

Without some degree of human intervention, feral cat populations will continue to live in less-than-ideal circumstances, with adverse consequences for their neighbors.

Without some degree of human intervention, feral cat populations will continue to live in less-than-ideal circumstances, with adverse consequences for their neighbors.

Why Feral Care Is Controversial

The main reason some say feral cats mustn't be fed is that it keeps them in peak breeding condition. This holds a grain of truth. However, a queen will come into heat and have kittens whether or not a kind person offers a daily bowl of milk.

Other reasons include the misconceptions that they are all permanently disease-ridden and dangerous. Those who feed them are often viewed as hippies who risk luring some flea-linked plague into suburbia.

Why would anyone want to take care of one? Feral cats can be dangerous if cornered (they prefer to flee). Also, a ticked-off feline looking like a snarling fuzzball from hell doesn't exactly have a face that says, “Can I have some tuna?” They also seem to be doing just fine on their own.

Here's why they need a degree of human intervention.

  • To start with, the constant breeding is not their fault; they cannot stop unless sterilized.
  • Feral cats are domestic cats that never socialized with humans during the critical first weeks of their lives. They are born wild and must survive in a world that created them but doesn't want them.
  • Many have short lives and painful deaths from illness, animal attacks, poison and bad weather.
  • It's a myth that they are one hundred percent self-sufficient.
Feral cats face speeding cars, dogs and other aggressive cats, to count just a few hazards.

Feral cats face speeding cars, dogs and other aggressive cats, to count just a few hazards.

There's Only so Much You Can Do

For an animal lover, and particularly individuals who have a deep connection with cats, the fate of ferals and their kittens is a heartbreaking thing. It's not hard to recognize them. Most look scruffy, some are thin and nearly all of them are exceptionally skittish. This look comes from a lifetime of surviving a dangerous world that's not cat-friendly.

Great, you've decided that caring for a feral cat in your area is something you want to do. It starts with a reality check: There's only so much you can do to improve the life of a wild cat.

Strays who had homes can be salvaged as pets—and even this takes time. Feral-born cats cannot be adopted. Any animal welfare expert will tell you the same thing. They might get used to you, but forget about cuddling or finding it a home. Cats are not like dogs, which can be born on the street and then become tame. Once they pass their first weeks without human handling, cats never truly become domesticated. To be fair, there are rare exceptions, but this remains extremely unusual.

First Things First: Food and Water

Caring for a feral cat is not hard when sticking to the basics. Many people just provide food and water once they identify an animal or cat colony in need, but what is the best food for feral cats and how to feed these wild wonders?

  • Giving it to them is as simple as just leaving it where you know they'll be sooner or later.
  • Feral cats readily accept any kind of food.
  • Limit the amount of milk as this can cause diarrhea in some cats and younger kittens.
  • It's best to stick to commercial cat kibble because it won't go bad when left in a dry area.
  • Once your feral grasps what's going on, it will visit the bowl daily.
  • You can place water in a nearby dish.
  • Make sure to check on both plates every day to top up the food and replace the water.

Queen of the Castle

Another step in caring for a feral cat is to provide shelter. Sometimes, the animal already has a good place, like a shed. Should you want to provide it with a better option, or deduce from its condition and behaviour that it doesn't have shelter during bad weather, there's no harm in training a feral cat to use a protected area.

  • Feral cats appreciate elements of safety when they rest: height, escape routes and protection against the elements.
  • Use these guidelines to build or buy a proper box, install it in a way that's not too low, allows the cat a quick exit and prevents wind, rain and cold.
  • Position the food bowl near the box and place tasty snacks inside.
  • It might take a while, but eventually, this could bring you a feline tenant.
When feral cats realize somebody cares for them, it's not unusual for them to hang around the house as semi-pets.

When feral cats realize somebody cares for them, it's not unusual for them to hang around the house as semi-pets.

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Preventing Kittens

Cat biology ensures prolific procreation. Sadly, most feral kittens don't survive their first year, and many females suffer from breeding-related complications. The best option to alleviate the situation is sterilization. Here's where things get hairy for the feral caregiver. One cannot exactly pick up the grouchy creature and spay her at the vet for free. It requires finances, trapping equipment, transport and time.

Certain welfare organizations rent cat traps and offer a sterilize-and-release program. If they only hire out traps, the responsibility of sterilization falls on the concerned citizen. Make sure you understand how the trap works as well as humanely transporting the cat. Veterinary options must be discussed beforehand.

The main problem is making an appointment when you cannot say for certain when the animal will be caught. Feral cats cannot be kept for long in cages, and it's best to operate as soon as possible. You and the vet need to be on the same page about how to go about this

Also, choose a vet who uses dissolving stitches. This prevents recapturing the cat when it's time to remove the sutures.

It's best to release a feral after sterilization. Don't hand such cats over to welfare. Once again, they cannot adopt out ferals nor keep them with other cats. That leaves just one tragic alternative.

A Rewarding Experience

At the end of the day, you might not be rewarded with a purring feline weaving around your ankles. However, it remains very satisfying to alleviate the suffering of ferals. These critters live with fear, danger, death, injury and hunger on a regular basis. If you can lighten their existence with a bowl of food every other night, or go all the way and sterilize a colony (even if it takes a year), it's all the same. Every cat being cared for reminds us of our own humanity and how small acts of kindness can fill a tummy or a warm bed.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit


CBTec on January 30, 2019:

Thank You Jana, I was beginning to worry, right now it is super cold here in North west Indiana and Shylo is out there roaming about like it's 30 degrees out there when in fact it's 15 or more below zero. So I guess all I can do is just make sure when he/she is here it has plenty of food and water. I don't put the food and water out until I know it's there so the food and water won't freeze. I don't know what else I can do I just feel so helpless for it, it's just so cold out. Than you again.

Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on January 26, 2019:

Hi CBTec. Thank you for caring for a feral cat. Shylo sounds very normal and healthy. Many ferals love basking in the sun, no matter the weather. Often, in the early hours of the morning, it's very cold inside a shelter and they seek out the warmth of the sun. This is a personal habit and some cats won't do what Shylo is doing, rather preferring to bask on someone's porch instead. Just keep making the porch a good option (food, water, shelter) and eventually your lovely stray will get the idea. But once again, this is very normal behaviour. :)

CBTec on January 26, 2019:

I have a feral cat on the grounds, have been feeding it for about five months, Made three different warming homes for it. and made a feeding station for it. Because of how the property is made the best place I could put the home for it is on the porch since it is high off the ground and I don't have to worry about the rain and snow covering the houses. The cat is using them and I make sure there isn't any food out at night this keeps the other welcomed guess away. Still in the morning when ever the sun comes out the cat will go find a spot no matter if it is super cold or not and bask in the sun. Why do they do this. Right now it is super cold outside and the cat is sitting in the snow in the sun. Is this normal for them? Is there any thing I can do to get it to do this on the porch instead? I don't think its a female have not seen any babies and the few times any other cats have made attempts to come on the property {Shylo} That's the name I have given it . chases them away. Any insight would be helpful. Thank You Jana.

Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on September 14, 2018:

Thanks, Linda. We have quite a few where I live. Been meaning to hub about it for a while! :)

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 12, 2018:

You've raised some great points in this article, Jana. The existence of feral cats is a sad and difficult situation. Thanks for sharing your advice.

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