I like to write things down to help me collect my thoughts. Here are some basic things I want to tell the new owners. Anything else you can think of?
Iâ€™d like to share some of my experiences and knowledge gained over the years with the cats in a rural area. I share this with you in hopes that it jump starts your knowledge. It took me a number of years of trial and error to stop making mistakes.
I was not surprised when you told me you found red kittens under the front porch. We were greeted by a tortoiseshell kitten about 2 months after moving in. 4 months later and a litter of 2. Another 4 months and a litter of 3. The mom would have them elsewhere, drop them off and leave.
There are some fundamental things to think about. Iâ€™ve done a lot of research over the years on cats in the wild to see how I could best help the ones that did show up at the house.
People dump their pets in the country because they think they will have a better life out there. It will anger you.
If you donâ€™t put food out and you have good hunting grounds, you will still have cats wander thru the property. They probably wonâ€™t stay long. If you put food out, you will attract cats, and they will probably stay close by because it is very convenient for them to â€œhunt the allusive food bowlâ€ (as Steve calls it). And if you put food out, put it on a platform or you will also attract skunks.
Cats left on their own, even if previously owned will become fearful of humans and can be considered feral cats. Some of these can be turned around to trust humans again, but it is very hard to differentiate between strays that have been outside a long time and those born in the wild and never had human contact. Most of the adult cats you will encounter will be feral cats. You can see the fear in their eyes when they see you and most will bolt when they see you. The longer they stay before they bolt, the less the time they have been in the wild.
Feral cats form colonies. They do that because it is convenient for them to hunt together, it gives them an outlet for breeding and there is more safety in numbers. When one arrives, donâ€™t be surprised when more follow. Cat colonies can be anywhere from a couple of cats to dozens. They usually consist of related females with a male or 2 thrown in for mating purposes. If the male kittens are not neutered early enough, the colony will drive them away by the time they are about 18-24 months old. Female kittens will stay with the colony to continue the breeding cycle. Males that are driven off sometimes form their own groups with the intent on finding their own female colony to oversee. Male cat fights are all about territory around females.
A well established colony will limit the number of cats that they allow into the area. There is a condition that cat experts call the â€œvacuum effectâ€. You can wipe out all cats in an area but the void will always be filled by a new set of cats.
The unfortunate diseases within cat colonies are those that are spread thru mating and fighting. Feline Leukemia (FeLV) is always fatal, and kittens usually are born with the disease when their mom gets it during mating. Kittens will usually die by the time they are 18 months old, if not sooner. An adult may live longer. FIV is less fatal, but like AIDS, reduces their immunity and a cat in the wild with FIV usually succumbs to an opportunistic infection.
Kittens born in the wild with no intervention have a very high mortality rate. Most are victims of predation: roaming dogs and coyotes, snakes, male cats trying to invade the territory, owls, hawks and disease. My guess is that about 75% do not make it to 6 months old.
Kittens born in the wild usually become feral and much harder to tame once they pass 8 weeks old. You can tame them at a later age, but it takes longer and they may never be a normal house cat. They are harder to adopt out the older they get. If you plan on adopting kittens, catch them between 6 and 8 weeks. Any earlier than 6 weeks and you may need to bottle feed, and they will not have learned the necessary â€œcat lessonsâ€ from their mom.
Let me share my story so you understand where I was when I moved into the house and some of the lessons I learned over the years.
When we first moved to the house and found the first kitten, we had her spayed and started putting food out for her. She was a bit wild, I knew nothing about wild kittens and we already had 2 cats in the house. Then the next 2 showed up. They were wilder than the first and we only caught one to have spayed. The next 3 showed up and we caught 2 out of 3.
Next year we had 2 more litters from the first yearâ€™s kittens. We did good with those â€“ found most of them homes but we never caught the moms. 4 months later another litter and another set of homes for most of them. By the next year people were tired of me asking if they wanted kittens and I was spending a lot of food for the â€œoutside catsâ€.
I borrowed a humane trap from my vet to try to catch the unsprayed females. I was successful with all but one. She got wise and like her mom, would disappear for long periods of time, only to bring her kittens to the house and disappear. Her kittens were nearly all wild by the time we got to them. We did our best to tame them and adopt them out, but the outside population still grew. We peaked at one point with 14 feral cats. We left on vacation one time and had 6 cats disappear (probably predation). The next year FeLV hit the colony and wiped out a lot more.
Then I really started doing research on how to manage feral cats. I bought my own humane trap, caught any cat that dropped in for a snack at the feeding bowls and got the â€œcolonyâ€ under control at 4 cats. Once they were fixed, they hung around all the time, and they successfully kept the other feral cats in the neighborhood at bay for the last 3 years that we lived there. We lost Larry, a cat from the 2nd litter last fall at the ripe old age of 12. Very old for a feral cat that I was only able to touch twice in his life â€“ the first time when I grabbed him to drop him in a cage, and the second time when I came up on him while he was feeding at few months before he died. He was fixed young, therefore he not only stuck around, but had a good long life.
There is no surprise on my part that a cat has shown up to fill the â€œvacuumâ€ left when I moved those cats. I donâ€™t want the cycle spiraling out of control for you as it did for me. No one warned me, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way.
You will have heartbreak seeing cats die or disappear. The fundamental rule of managing the situation is simply this: get any kitten over 8 weeks old spayed or neutered. Break the cycle of breeding and you break the problem. You may still lose the occasional cat to predation, but far less so when the cats are fixed and staying close to home.
You cannot save them all. As much as you want to find a home for every last cat you come across, there will simply be cats that are too wild to tame. The best you can do for them is to get them away from breeding, give them food and clean water, and they will find shelter around the property. We never lost a cat from the cold. A heated water bowl in the winter works wonders.
If you want to create a bond with the feral cat, even if it is a precarious bond, here are some great techniques that Iâ€™ve learned from experts.
-\talways feed them at the same time each day
-\ttalk to them in a calm voice and talk to them often
-\ttry never to tower over them â€“ tall things threaten them
-\tgreet them by giving them â€œeye blinksâ€. Cats in colonies greet each other by slowly blinking their eyes at each other. You are speaking their language.
-\tNever force yourself on them. Some will tame up to a point that they will follow you around on walks. But you will lose their trust if you try to pick them up and you have to start over again.
You will hear the farmers say that you keep a cat to be a good mouser. Iâ€™ll add that you also keep them to prevent your place from being overwhelmed by them, but only if you get them spayed or neutered.
There are some vets that offer low cost spay/neuter to people that take care of feral cats. There is no animal control in town but you can borrow humane traps from xx Animal Control with a deposit. Some Humane Societies will lend you traps if you are willing to pay for spay/neuter. There are also low cost spay/neuter clinics sponsored by the Humane Societies (as low as $10). Call around to see who will work with you. I ended up buying a trap because I missed opportunities to catch a cat that wasnâ€™t a regular when I tried to borrow them. My motto was simply this: if you want a meal at my house, you will be spayed or neutered, no questions asked.
What we were blessed with through all of this is the knowledge that we did help a lot of cats from dieing over the years, and it gave us our 3 babies: Stumpy (found in the storm cellar with half a tail), Scarlett (born in the garden over the storm cellar), and Muddy (born off the front porch). There will be some cats that you cannot let out of your life.
And yes, Stumpy and Scarlett are red tabbies, and Muddyâ€™s 2 brothers are red tabbies (the ones with the extra toes loved by my friend). There is a strong red cat gene in the neighborhood.