Caring for Community Cats
Seven Steps to Success
The first step in caring for community cats is providing food and water, but the most IMPORTANT step is the spaying or neutering of your colony. Spay/neuter, vaccinate, ear tip, and microchip all cats in the colony, including those that only visit sporadically and newcomers as soon as they appear.
Cats going through our TNR programs will be safely and humanly trapped and taken to the vet to be fixed and then returned to the colony. This is where The Loudoun Community Cat Coalition is here to help! To start the process please fill out a TNR Assistance Form so we can come out to assess the cats and then arrange for their TNR services.
2) Provide Food and Water Daily
What Should I Feed?
Dry food is recommended for colony feeding because it can remain out all day and not spoil. If you choose to feed wet food, do so in a separate plate or bowl rather than mixing it in with the dry food. Although most cats enjoy canned food, feeding a colony dry food alone is fine as well. If you do feed the cats wet food it will spoil if not eaten and will attract ants and other insects. If you do decide to feed wet food make sure you can pull up right away any uneaten food.
Expect the colony to consume more food in the winter because they will need extra calories to maintain energy levels. It is advisable to just stick with dry food in places where wet food may freeze.
Always remove uneaten food within 30 minutes. Never allow food to sit out, as it may attract insects and wildlife. While this scenario is ideal, it may not always be possible to follow this guideline especially if the colony does not come at a given feeding time.
It is recommended that feeding take place first thing in the morning, during the day, or early evening before 5pm. If feeding is done in the morning, the cats can eat all day. If you feed in the early evening, it allows the cats a chance to eat before dark when wildlife is more likely to venture towards the food.
How Much to Feed
One cup of dry food a day per cat in your colony is plenty. You should try to monitor the amount of food the cats leave behind to determine the proper portion. If the food is all gone (and it hasn't clearly been eaten by wildlife), then you may want to increase the amount. If there is a substantial amount of food leftover, you should decrease the amount.
It is extremely important to keep the feeding station neat and clean. This is vital, not only for the health of the cats, but also for community relations. Keep the food/water dishes clean by having two sets. One at the site, and another clean and available to replace the dirty ones. Keep the food dishes in one place to facilitate cleanup and to provide a tidy appearance.
Fresh water should be given every day. If water is gone when you visit the colony, increase the number of water bowls or get a bigger one. It is important that water is available always.
Here are some tips on preventing water from freezing throughout the winter months:
- Refill the bowls with warm or hot water. A pinch of sugar stops water from freezing as quickly.
- Use heated water bowls if there is an electrical outlet close by.
- Keep the water in the sun and use dark colored bowls.
- Use wider and deeper bowls.
- Insulate the bowls.
- Use double-layered bowls.
- Place the water dish inside a styrofoam cooler to slow freezing.
- Use microwavable disks under the water bowl.
- Surround the top and sides of the feeding area with plexiglass to create a greenhouse environment for the water.
- If there is a water source like a spigot, run the water slightly since it won’t freeze as quickly as still water.
- Shield the bowl from the wind.
Feeding Locations and Stations
Unless there is a covered area where food/water bowls are kept, a feeding station is recommended to keep the food protected from birds, insects, and the weather. Although feeding stations are not a requirement, establishing a specific area for feeding can help conceal where the cats eat and make colony management easier on the caregiver. The goal is for this area not to be visible to the public. Also, you can gradually and easily move the feeding stations when needed to address neighborhood concerns. Feeding stations should not be placed near high traffic areas, sleeping locations, or the place where they eliminate.
For information on how to build a feeding station visit: alleycat.org/colonycare.
Cleanliness is also essential to feeding. An area cluttered with debris and trash will cause undue attention. Removing this daily or weekly will help make the feeding station sanitary and unobtrusive. This also helps avoid possible health code violations and maintain positive relations with the residents.
3) Provide Shelter
Feeding Station and Winter Shelter
Community cat sleeping shelters that are designed to protect cats from the winter weather are a great idea. Some colonies find shelter for themselves in a shed or under a building where their safety is uncertain. You might want to consider building a shelter to keep the cats safe from the elements and help you control their location and deter them from neighbor’s properties.
Somethings to keep in mind when building your shelter:
- Size of the doorway
- Protection from the elements
- Deterring wildlife
4) Monitor Members of the Colony and Provide Ongoing Health Care
New Cats and Kittens
Know who your regular/core colony members are versus occasional visitors from the neighborhood. If you have a "newcomer" to the colony that is not ear tipped, and is not a neighborhood pet, it is important to get it altered immediately. All newcomers need to be trapped, altered, vaccinated, and then returned to the colony. This is a VERY important aspect to successful colony management. If new cats show up, please fill out a TNR Assistance Form so we can help.
The Healthy Colony Cat
The general health of the cats should be assessed at every opportunity. Note the condition of their eyes and fur. Eyes should be clear without discharge and coats should be clean. Unkempt fur can be a sign of disease and discharge from eyes could mean upper respiratory infections or a sign of more serious illnesses. If a cat is injured or sick, please fill out a TNR Assistance Form so we can help.
When cats are returned to the colony after the spay or neuter surgery, you will be given their rabies vaccination certificate and their microchip information so you can register them online with your information.
Signs of Illness or Injury
If you have been feeding your colony for a while you probably will notice any changes in a cat’s behavior or eating habits. Sudden changes are often an indication something is wrong, but other problems might be more subtle. Sick cats often experience fever and fatigue, and with community cats these signs are often harder to detect. The greatest risk to community cats is injury through predators, cars, accidents, or exposure to extreme weather.
When To Seek Veterinary Care
- If the cat seems to have lost its appetite, is losing weight, suffering from diarrhea, or vomiting.
- If the cat appears to have an upper respiratory infection. Symptoms usually include sneezing, runny or itchy eyes, and heavy breathing.
- If the cat appears to have skin issues. This can include hair loss, intense scratching, and scabs. A flea infestation can lead to anemia, especially in kittens.
- If the cat is limping or appears to have any open wounds.
If you notice a cat is sick or injured cat the best thing you can do for him, and your colony is to fill out a TNR Assistance Form. Trapping the cat as soon as possible will prevent the disease from spreading and infecting other cats in the colony and injuries can be addressed immediately.
What You Can Do
As the caregiver, you are the one who will be “the voice” for the cats. You can protect the cats by being open and listening to any concerns or complaints from neighbors and letting them know how to contact you if any issues arise. By establishing a friendly dialog, they know that they can freely come and chat. If a neighbor has concerns, remain calm and constructive and determine the specific problem, steps to address the issue, and do your best to resolve it.
Here are some steps that may help you avoid potential questions or concerns altogether:
- TNR all the cats in the colony.
- Clean feeding areas and follow feeding protocols.
- Keep the location of feeding stations and shelters discreet.
- Provide litter box areas.
- Use humane deterrents to keep cats away from places they are not wanted.
- Address poisoning threats.
- Maintain colony records including vaccinations, microchips, and photos.
- Protect yourself and the cats and type up an agreement with neighbors if there are concerns.
5) Help Your Cats Co-Exist With People
6) Plan for Substitute Colony Care
Sometimes things come up and it’s important to plan. What if you can no longer care for the colony? What happens when you go on vacation? Coming up with a substitute caregiver isimperative to providing for the colony. Reach out to your community or contact Loudoun Community Cat Coalition for suggestions on what to do if you are no longer able to feed your colony or to get suggestions for a vacation caregiver.
Although we tend to focus a great deal on the cats, it is equally important that you stay safe while caring for your colony. Some suggestions include:
- Feed during daylight hours.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Do not touch or try to catch a sick cat or kitten.