Introduction to Ferals:

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Managing Feral Colonies

Ferals Food & Shelter

Trapping Ferals (TNR)

Fostering a Feral Cat

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Feeding and Food Stations

 

(The following guidelines are from the web page of Neighborhood Cats, a national feral cat organization, based in New York City. Visit www.neighborhoodcats.org for more information.)

 

How and where you feed a colony of feral cats can depend on circumstances beyond your control. If they live behind a fence which you can't get behind, then you're clearly limited in what you can do. If you have access to the cats' territory, but only at inconsistent times, that factor will drive how you feed them. Basically, you try to do the best you can and come as close to the ideal as possible.

 

Location

Ideally, the feeding station will be located at a spot where the caretaker has regular access, but is not visible or even accessible to the public. This protects the cats and makes it easy for them to come and go. Again, you have to adapt to the circumstances. For example, if you must feed through a fence, then buy an arm extender (available for about $8 at hardware stores - it's the tool used in stores for reaching items on higher shelves). Use the extender to push the food and water bowls out of arm's reach of your side of the fence (but not so far that you can't retrieve them). If you feed in an alley, but it's accessible to others, then try to hide the spot where you feed with a board or piece of wood.

 

The Station

Of course there are many possible variations on a station to put the food and water in. You need enough room for one or two cats and the food and water, plus it should be covered to protect from rain. One simple idea is a wooden box with one side completely open. It's important that one side be open because only a small opening or doorway could allow one cat to stay or sleep in there and keep the other cats out. If you (or anyone you know) does carpentry, build the box with a pitched roof.  Because the station will be outdoors, it would be best to seal the seams of the box with silicone and give the wood a couple of coats of deck paint. Otherwise, if you're using plywood, it will quickly rot.

 

Another idea is to buy a Rubbermaid storage bin and, using a box-cutter, cut out most of one of the long sides, leaving a few inches off the ground to prevent flooding. It's easy to clean because of the removable top and quick to put together. Small automatic feeders and waterers will fit inside.

 

If you're not able to place a station on your site, there is one trick you can use if it might rain. Put dry food into a tupperware container and then rest the lid upside down on top. This will keep the rain from getting to the food, but if a hungry cat comes along before or after the rain, she can just push the lid off and eat.

 

Depending on how often you're able to put out food, you might consider using automatic dry food dispensers and waterers. If you do, the station should be big enough to hold them. We recommend the Le Bistro brand. Different sizes at the best prices we've found are available through KV Vet Supply (1-800-423-8211 or www.kvvet.com). A ten pound feeder costs $14.95, and a 2.75 gallon waterer also goes for $14.95.

 

Trapping

Maintaining a regular feeding spot or station prior to trapping gives you the advantage of knowing where to find the cats. If you then feed at a consistent time of day, you'll also know when they'll be there. Knowing where and when the cats are coming, and essentially allowing them to come to you, makes trapping a lot easier than trying to go find them.

 

Winter Weather

Wet food, because it contains a large percentage of water, freezes in cold weather and so cannot be relied upon unless the cats come right away to eat it. Dry food then becomes the staple. One exception is if you are using, for the cats' sleeping quarters, a feral cat winter shelter similar to the one described on our Info page. These shelters trap body heat and keep the interior warm enough to prevent or reverse freezing. So you can place a small bowl of wet food inside the shelter in a corner, and often it will get eaten. But never put water inside the shelter - it could get easily spilled and it is just as important, to prevent illness, that a cat be dry in winter as warm.

 

Ants

One way to keep ants out of the cats' food is to create a little moat. Take a small tray of some sort that can hold a inch of water, put water in it, and then put the bowl of food on the tray. The water surrounding the bowl will prevent ants from reaching the food, but the cats can still lean over and eat.

 

Clean up!

Many feeders of outdoor cats put down cans, plates and bowls with the obvious intention of helping the cats. But then they just leave a mess for some theoretical person, or no one as the case may be, to come and clean up. Naturally, this engenders hostility among neighbors towards the feeder and, vicariously, the cats. For the cats' sake, as well as out of respect for the community, feeding areas should be kept as clean as possible.

 

Winter Shelters for Feral Cats

Originally designed by Karin Hancock of Port Washington, NY, the Feral Cat Winter Shelter shown here has many advantages. The two inch thick hard Styrofoam is excellent insulation and traps the cat's body heat, effectively turning the feline into a radiator. Air space is purposely limited, so there is less volume to be heated. Typically, 3 to 4 cats can fit comfortably inside, although more might curl up on a severely cold night. The plans for the shelter can be downloaded from the site of Neighborhood Cats.

 

The shelter is lightweight and should be weighed down. Best is to place two shelters about a foot apart with the doors facing each other. Bridge the gap by laying a piece of plywood across both roofs. Now the shelters are fully protected against the elements.

 

After the cats have begun using the shelters, you might try adding a flap door which can be easily pulled back. A piece of of a clear vinyl mat will do, attached by drilling (or poking) two holes above the door opening and using plastic nuts and bolts (like those used to attach toilet seats). Bowls of food can be placed in the shelter, but never water (which can spill and threaten the cats' health by getting them wet).

 

The cost of the shelter will vary from place to place, but on average, the 8 foot sheet of Styrofoam will run about $9 (uncut). A few linoleum floor tiles, a tube of silicone sealant, some contact paper for the interior walls and enough deck paint will run the total cost up to somewhere from $15 to $25.

 

The CSM Stray Foundation Winter Shelter

Here's another idea inspired by the CSM Stray Foundation in Kew Gardens, Queens (email: csmstray@aol.com):

 

Materials needed are: a large Rubbermaid storage bin, an eight foot by two foot sheet of one-inch thick hard Styrofoam, a yardstick, a box cutter or utility knife, and straw, shredded newspaper or other insulating material. Then assemble as follows:

 

1. Cut a doorway six inches by six inches in one of the long sides of the storage bin towards the corner. To prevent flooding, cut the opening so that the bottom of the doorway is several inches above the ground.

 

2. Line the floor of the bin with a piece of Styrofoam, using the yardstick and box cutter to cut out the piece.

 

3. In similar fashion, line each of the four interior walls of the bin with a piece of the Styrofoam.  Perfect cuts are not necessary. Don't make the Styrofoam go all the way up to the top of the bin, but leave a uniform gap of at least three inches between the top of these Styrofoam "wall pieces" and the upper lip of the bin. There needs to be room for an interior Styrofoam "roof" to fit.

 

4. Cut out a doorway in the Styrofoam where it is lined up with the doorway that has been cut out already in the storage bin. Trace the outline of the doorway on the Styrofoam first before cutting.

 

5. Stuff the bottom of the bin with straw or other insulating material to hold the Styrofoam interior wall pieces in place.

 

6. Cut out a Styrofoam "roof" to rest on top of the Styrofoam interior wall pieces

 

7. Cover the bin with its lid.

 

This shelter can be cleaned by taking off the lid and the Styrofoam roof. It's also lightweight and may need to be weighed down. A flap over the doorway is optional. Catnip can be sprinkled inside at first to attract the cats.

 

Other Alternatives

An adequate shelter for one cat can be made from a simple Styrofoam cooler available at any hardware store for about $6. Glue the lid onto the cooler, turn it upside down and cut a hole in one side (anywhere but in the middle of one of the long sides).  The Styrofoam containers used to ship meat can be turned into shelters in the same way and can, depending on their size, house 3 to 4 cats. If you want to get fancy, get a large Igloo cooler and, with a jigsaw, cut a hole towards the left or right of one of the long sides. The attached lid will allow for easy cleaning.

In a pinch for just a temporary fix, even a cardboard box is better than nothing - tape the top closed and cut out a hole in one side for a door. Tape a piece of plastic (cut out from a large trash bag) onto the top. Put newspaper on the bottom and, if possible, place the box under something to protect it further from rain - a piece of wood leaned against a fence, under a tree, etc. If possible, raise the box off the ground where it might get wet.

 

Insulation

The cats' shelter will be warmer and cozier if you put loose insulating material inside. The material must be dry and loose, so that the cats can burrow into and underneath it. Straw is the best, while shredded newspaper will also work. The worst are blankets, towels or folded newspaper.  Because the cats can only lie on top of these materials, they actually draw out body heat and defeat the purpose. But do keep in mind, if you use insulating materials, you must be able to change them regularly in order to ensure they stay dry. If you can't, it's better not to use anything except the shelter itself.

 

Extreme Cold

Claudia Hickling of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, lines the interior walls of her styrofoam shelters with a Mylar reflective blanket, which can be bought at survival stores as thermal safety blankets for people (in case your car gets stuck in the cold.)  The Mylar reflects the cat's body heat back onto him and can make the difference in extreme temperatures, particularly in the more northern states and Canada.

 

Caretakers have reported the Mylar blankets are also effective when laid on the floor of the shelter.  They don't absorb and take away body heat like ordinary blankets when a cat lies on top because the Mylar reflects the heat back.

 

Mylar blankets can be purchased at a cost of $1.49 each from Healthy Harvest. Go to http://www.healthyharvest.com and do a search for "Mylar Blanket."

 

Another blanket-type product reported to do a good job of warming cats in shelters is the "Flexi-Mat Mysterious Purr Pad" available at Petco. Made of polyester fibers, it absorbs then holds body heat.  A set of two costs $10.99 and can be found in most Petco stores. You can order them online at http://www.petco.com (do a search for Item No. 166626, or for "Flexi-Mat Mysterious Purr Padd").

 

Additional Winter Shelter Ideas

(Further information on providing winter shelter for feral cats is provided here by Indy Feral {www.indyferal.org} of Indianapolis.)

 

In cold weather, shelter is actually more important for stray & feral cats than food. Even though feral cats build thicker coats for winter, they can quickly succumb to hypothermia, particularly in rain & snow when their fur gets wet and doesn't insulate as well. Also, stray & feral cats are more prone to parasites, respiratory infections and minor illnesses. Combined with cold, wet weather, these relatively minor maladies can quickly prove fatal.

 

In emergency situations in winter, if you do not have quick access to a shelter, a strong cardboard box or container preferably weather proofed with plastic, trash can turned on its side, large plastic tub turned upside down with a door added etc, can provide a temporary solution until a more permanent shelter can be obtained. It's more important to do something to protect the cats from the cold and elements than to wait for "the right" shelter. Unless you operate a managed colony, don't underestimate the number of cats in your area - you may only see one or two, but there are probably more. Try to provide more shelter space than you imagine needing.

 

Ideally, we suggest that stray and feral cats have access to heated shelter with clean dry bedding. Recognizing that it may be difficult, if not impossible to provide this, IndyFeral is producing and selling outdoor shelters. The shelters are constructed from durable, weather-resistant, all-wood construction. They are insulated with a non-toxic, foil-faced insulation that reflects their body heat. The bottom parts are made from rot- and insect-resistant wood and may rest directly on the soil. The roof comes off for easy cleaning. That cleaning would consist of removing old bedding material or other debris and putting in fresh bedding. Please visit www.indyferal.org for further information on the outdoor shelters offered by Indy Feral.

 

Facing the Elements...and How to Avoid it!

Bedding material typically consists of straw, or wood chips and similar materials. Cedar bedding materials may be added in small amounts to provide flea resistance. Alternately, we recommend a sprinkling of a high quality, veterinarian recommended, cat-safe flea powder in the bedding. Do NOT use blankets, towels, etc. inside the shelter! The inside will be exposed to moisture from outdoors and the cats themselves, and fabric tends to mold and mildew. We believe thick straw bedding to be preferable to insulation alone, since the shelter has an uncovered opening into the living space. The insulation would help prevent radiated heat loss, but not drafts coming in. On the other hand, thick straw bedding allows the cats to "nest" and curl up into heat-conserving positions with the bedding providing a wind-break and insulator. In some cases, tacking strips of cloth over the shelter openings can provide additional protection from drafts, but may require additional "training" to get the cats to enter the shelter. In very harsh conditions, caretakers may wish to provide weatherproof dog-house heating pads. These are constructed of sealed, heavy plastic with damage-resistant cords. Only use these if you can safely run power to the unit using a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). The GFCI will disconnect the power in the event of a short circuit or damage to the cord. When plugging a heater cord into an extension cord, make sure the connection does not lay on the ground where it might be prone to water. Special waterproof extension cords are available at hardware stores.

 

Locating the shelter is also an important topic. IndyFeral paints shelters in neutral and earth tones to blend with their environment. We recommend that shelters be located away from areas of vehicle and foot traffic. Locating it in a wooded area or in the margin of a wooded area is ideal, as this provides cover from the elements and makes the shelter less obvious. In more developed areas, locate the shelter behind buildings or someplace where it will not be disturbed. Cats will shun shelter if they are disturbed there regularly. Orient the shelter to block the entrances from receiving direct wind and rain/snow. It may also be helpful to place sturdy building materials adjacent to the entrance to provide additional wind protection - about 12" from the entrance would be fine. Make sure that if you place anything over or around the shelter that it is anchored firmly and will not blow or fall over in front of the entrance.

 

Final note (from Jan Raffaele): Alley Cat Allies also provides excellent resources on designing and building of feral cat shelters.