Coming in from the Cold
With a few odds and ends and a trip to the hardware store you can help feral cats find a safe place to survive the worst that winter can offer.
The weather report warns that a winter storm is moving into the New York area. Ten to 12 inches of snow are expected to fall by morning. Joan Scroggs leaves her home on Long Island and heads for the 12 feral cat colonies she has tended seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for 14 years. At each colony, Scroggs inspects the handmade cat shelters to determine if the seams are sealed and the boxes are elevated adequately to keep cats high and dry. She angles a board in front of each shelter to protect the occupants from wind and blowing snow. Scroggs knows that once the storm hits, she must return to each shelter periodically during the night to dig out a path so the cats can come and go. Caring for feral cats involves much more than simply feeding them, which often results in cats congregating and breeding more than they might if individual cats roamed freely. Diehard soldiers such as Scroggs know that being a caregiver is a year- round responsibility that involves trapping, vaccinating and spaying or neutering the cats prior to releasing them again. But tending cat colonies is especially arduous when temperatures drop and the weather becomes harsh. Even though feral cats develop a thick coat in the fall to keep them warm, they can die from exposure if at least some protection from the elements is not available.
Shelter Doâ€™s and Donâ€™ts
With a little ingenuity, caretakers can provide the added warmth that these cats need by constructing a homemade shelter. A shelter may provide warmth for two, three or more cats, depending on its size and the sociability of the cats. Feral felines who compete for food at other times of the year may find they are willing to overlook their differences when temperatures drop. "There are no enemies in a snowstorm," says another veteran caregiver, Joanna Harkin, an attorney and director of Alliance for Stray Animals and People (ASAP), a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
The reason for these newfound alliances is a practical one. "Cats give each other body warmth in the cold months," explains Louise Holton, president of Alley Cat Allies, another Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to non lethal feral cat control. Holton has seen as many as 12 cats come out of one shelter during a blizzard.
Before constructing a shelter, be sure to obtain permission from the landowner on whose property it is to be placed. Alley Cat Allies recommends that a shelter be at least two feet by three feet long and 18 inches high. It should have an opening small enough to prevent dogs or other large animals from entering and a flap or L-shaped entryway to keep the cold air from blowing in. And bigger shelters are not necessarily better. The body heat generated by the cats huddling inside tends to disperse, leaving the interior of the shelter as cold as the weather outside. Ideally, the shelter should be small enough to transport in your vehicle to the colony site.
Shelters can be built of wood or other materials and need not be complex. Alley Cat Allies publishes a fact sheet with plans for building an insulated, wooden cat shelter (see "Feral Cat Resources"). The plans include materials needed and schematics for cutting the wood and insulation. Materials for one of their wooden shelters should run about $25-$30 at your local lumberyard. For about $25, Scroggs constructs boxes made of two-inch-thick home insulation boards. The boards come in large sheets at home supply stores. She seals the seams using a silicone gun to prevent cold air from entering. Scroggs then elevates the shelter on cinder blocks and places a flat piece of wood on top to weigh it down.
You can make an "instant" shelter from a cardboard box with a trash bag taped over it. Cardboard boxes from moving companies or ones in which computer equipment is packed make sturdy little dens and can be obtained for little or no cost. Tape a few boxes together to create a hallway. "One can be creative with cardboard," says Harkin.
Once the boxes are positioned, throw leaves over them so that theyâ€™ll remain out of sight. Another option is to use milk crates wired together and covered with plastic. For those who have no construction skills, doghouses that are winterized with plastic coverings or insulation make convenient cat shelters. Reduce the size of the original doorway, and install a flap on the opening to keep out cold air and wind.
A shelter should sit a few inches off the ground on bricks, blocks or pallets (wooden platforms used for unloading boxed goods) to keep it from becoming waterlogged. Shipping firms or hardware, farm or pet stores may be able to provide discarded pallets or offer advice on where to obtain them. "As long as the cats stay dry, they can survive any climate," says Holton. During snowstorms, dig out a pathway from the shelter so the cats can get in and out. Although some areas of the country have relatively mild winters, providing shelter to protect the cats from the elements is still important. At California Polytechnic State University in San Lius Obispo, members of the Cal Poly Feral Cat Program built 12 feral cat shelters out of dark green, 55-gallon trash cans, cutting a doorway out of the side of each. "We like these better than dog houses because we can conceal them in the shrubs," says Edie Griffin-Shaw, director of the program.
Alley Cat Allies recommends the use of hardwood shavings (no cedar or pine), straw or fake sheepskin as bedding in the shelter. "Never use towels, blankets or sheets because they retain moisture," says Holton. Scroggs places bed sheets made from cut Mylar,â€™ a space-age product that retains body heat, in her shelters. These sheets can be found in the home section of department stores and are easily cut to size.
To protect food and water from the elements, place them in a covered shelter that will also protect the cats as they eat or drink. A stand with a sloping roof, open on two sides and off the ground, may be all that is needed for several cats to eat together. The same kind of trash cans used for shelter at Cal Poly also serve as protection for food and water. The campus also uses three-sided, covered wooden boxes to house the food and protect the cats. "The boxes are open enough that the cats donâ€™t feel trapped," says Griffin-Shaw. Providing fresh food and water at a consistent time each day is especially important during the winter. Feral cats soon learn when the food arrives and will be waiting, even if in hiding, for a fresh supply of rations. Scroggs visits her 12 colonies once a day at a set time. "The cats know when Iâ€™m coming, so they get some of the canned food before it freezes," says Scroggs. Having backup volunteers to care for the colony is important throughout the year, but takes on special significance during inclement weather, when getting to a site at a consistent time is so vital.
If you know your colony will eat right away, warm up the canned food prior to taking it to the site. Always leave dry food, because canned will freeze, advises Holton. To keep food dry and relatively warm, Scroggs carries it in insulated bags and sets it inside doggie houses that have flip-up roofs. Alley Cat Allies estimates that a caretaker will spend $700 to $750 per year for a colony of 10 cats. That includes a 20-pound bag of dry food and two cases of canned per month. Cats need extra calories in the winter to maintain their energy levels, so expect to provide the colony residents with extra rations, which will drive up the feeding costs. Scroggs negotiated a discount at the pet store where she buys the food to feed the nearly 80 cats she tends. Taking hot water to the feeding stations helps keep it drinkable for a while before it freezes. If you have a feeding station near an electrical outlet, electrically powered water bowls designed to keep the water above freezing are an option. In most colony locations, however, these are impractical.
Veterinary care even in the winter, trapping and sexually altering the colony residents is important. The birthing season can begin as early as February and may occur more frequently among cats who live closely together. Work with spay/neuter groups to obtain the necessary surgery at a reduced cost. A spay may cost anywhere from $65 to $120, depending on your geographic area and whether the female is in heat. A neuter runs between $25 and $50. Going through a spay/neuter organization may reduce the cost by as much as half. Ask the veterinarian to notch a catâ€™s ear when it is neutered or spayed so that it will be easier to visually determine which cats have had the surgery. Cats who are spayed or neutered, provided with shelter, fed on a consistent basis and vaccinated usually become hardy enough to survive the cold winters, although older cats may have difficulty. Establishing a relationship with a veterinarian who is accustomed to caring for the colony becomes crucial to its continued health and well-being during the colder months.
Degrees of Wildness
The word "feral" comes from the feminine form of the Latin ferus, which means wild animal and refers to animals that have, according to Websterâ€™s, "escaped from domestication and become wild." Cats are only one species that may have feral counterparts. Pigs, horses, pigeons and burros are other groups whose members may revert to their wild ways once they leave their domestic settings. A feral cat is not the same as a stray. "Stray cats have previously lived inhuman homes," says Louise Holton, president of Alley Cat Allies. When forced to live on their own, strays develop their wild instincts. Their social skills, however, are still close to the surface, and once trapped, they can be re-socialized. After the age of two months, feral cats are difficult if not impossible to tame. "A kitten born to a feral mother is pretty wild," says Holton. The older the generation, the more wild they become, so that a tenth generation feral is more difficult to socialize than a first or second generation feral.
Often, a feral will hook up with a tame domestic cat and mimic the catâ€™s social behavior. Such copycats are more easily approached and may be easier to tame. "If a prospective owner wants to work with a feral cat, he or she must have patience and move at the catâ€™s pace," advises Holton. Alley Cat Allies estimates there are more than one hundred million feral cats roaming the United States. The result of abandonment or the offspring of unaltered free-roaming domestic cats, feral cats congregate around food sources near restaurants, on college campuses and military bases, at prisons and around shopping malls. "Anywhere there is trash from a cafeteria and rodents, there are cats," says Holton.
The ABCs of Maintaining Feral Cat Colonies
by Rebecca Rhoades
Proper management of a feral cat colony is a long-term, year-round responsibility and should not be undertaken lightly. Are you up to the challengeâ€™ If so, here are some guidelines to follow.
Adhere to the Trap, Test, Vaccinate, Alter and Release (TTVAR) method, which provides humane care while gradually reducing the colonyâ€™s numbers. Before trapping, make sure your veterinarian is comfortable handling feral cats. Try to negotiate a lower price for the entire colony. Basic veterinary care for each cat should include a physical exam, tests for worms, earmites and contagious diseases such as leukemia and Feline AIDS, vaccinations and alteration. For easy identification of altered cats, ask the veterinarian to notch the ear tip of each cat during surgery. Try to find homes for any cats who appear to have been socialized.
Keep a record of each cat. Include: description, gender, age, date when altered, vaccinations and, if possible, a photograph.
Create a feeding site and feed and monitor the colony on a daily basis.
Leave feral kittens with their mothers until they are weaned at approximately 8 weeks, at which time you can capture them and commit yourself to finding homes for them.
Be alert for any new cats who enter the colony. Immediately trap, test, sterilize, inoculate and identify them before returning them to the group.
If you have to go away on a trip, move or leave the colony for a long period of time, arrange for a volunteer to handle these duties. If you need to relocate the colony, consult a feral cat expert.
Feral Cat Resources
Alley Cat Allies serves as a resource center for literature and educational information on all aspects of feral colony management. 1801 Belmont Rd. NW, Suite 201,Washington, D.C. 20009-5164 Tel: 202-667-3630
The Feral Cat Coalition is an all-volunteer group that traps and sterilizes feral cats, then returns them to their caretakers. It offers detailed instructions for operating a large-scale spay/neuter program. 9523 Miramar Rd. #160, San Diego, CA 92126 Tel: 619-497-1599
Operation Catnip advocates a no-cost trap-neuter-return (TNR) program. The non-profit organization offers a guidebook on starting a TNR program and welcome visits from groups that want to start their own. P.O. Box 141023, Gainesville, FL 32614 Tel: 352-380-0940
The San Francisco SPCA offers free spay/neuter, pre-recorded telephone programs, literature and the Feral Cat Workshop Series. 2500 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-6589 Tel: 415-554-3000, Fax: 415-552-7041
The Doris Day Animal League is a national citizensâ€™ lobbying organization.A brochure on feral cat care is also available on their Web site. 227 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E. Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20002 Tel: 202-546-1761
The Neponset Valley Humane Societyâ€™s Cat Action Team has become a model for other humane management programs. Copies of "How to Create a Grass Roots Community Program to Help Feral Cats" are available for $15. 152 North Main Street, Mansfield, MA 02046 Tel: 508-261-9924
This article may be legally reproduced as long as proper credit is given to the respective authors and the ASPCA.
Â© 1999 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch - Winter 1999