Although the weather is still a bit cold, soon spring will officially be here and the stray cats will come out of their winter nests and start searching for food in earnest…
Stray and feral cats are described by many labels: doorstep cats, porch kitties, bush dwellers, stray cats, feral cats, fractious cats. Feral cats are commonly thought to be disease-ridden, troublesome, pests, a nuisance something that needs to be eradicated. When truth be told, most “feral cats” are stray cats with feral tendencies.
Cats that lurk around homes and businesses become easy prey for the darker side of humanity. If they are lucky, where they have hidden themselves, they can scrounge daily for food and water. Cats skilled in survival conceal their presence well. Anywhere they can find a space that will not touch the outer tips of their whiskers, they know they can get inside and be safe. So adept are they in hiding, that there is currently no accurate count of how many stray and feral cats there are in the United States. There is just speculation.
Stray cats scavenge for food in dumpsters, behind restaurants and fast food places. If they are lucky, they find a kind soul who will not only feed them, but also trap neuter and rehome or release them into the wild. Without kindly benefactors these cats are left to survive the elements, predators and diseases on their own. Perhaps long abandoned on the streets by clueless owners or dumped out into the middle of nowhere by heartless humans for not being the “perfect cat,” former house cats’ memories of warm houses soon fades, replaced instead by their feral tendencies.
Tomcats roam looking for intact females and submissive males. Slowly, the cats find each other, fighting for dominance the group determines their pecking order, an Alpha takes over as leader, mating begins and the group grows. The cats begin to colonize especially around an easy food source.
Setting dry or wet cat food outside on a regular basis is a sure sign that a cat or two will soon appear. Feeding the stray cat in your yard, though admirable, only creates more of a problem. The cat once realizing that food is plentiful will start to spray your bushes with a pheromone alerting other cats that the house is “safe” for other kitties. This marking of your home or property identifies your home as a easy mark, a place of food.
The cats in the immediate area and over a mile away will pick up on this initial scent by using their Jacobson’s Organ (an organ located inside the mouth just behind the front teeth). As more cats arrive to the feeding bowls, more pheremones are sprayed. Soon, one cat becomes two, then three then ten. Unaltered cats and sadly most strays and feral cats are not neutered will stay near the food source and begin to fight and mate.
If you don’t spay and neuter the cats on your property, soon they will be breeding, fighting for territorial rights. The tomcats will be screaming in the middle of the night as they confront each other and fight for food, the right to mate and challenge the alpha of the group. Alphas are not always surprisingly the males. Females have been known to effectively achieve the level of Alpha in a group.
Cats are fierce predators. Cats teamed with humans when we began the agricultural part of our existence. Farmers feeding livestock grain, soon became overrun with rodents. Cats, realizing that living closely with humans increased their chances of getting a good meal of prey began to seek out human contact, lurking in barns and keeping the rodent population down. The barn cats of today still maintain this predatory role, while their cousins the housecats enjoy a life of being pampered and fed inside the home.
If you feed feral cat, you should also do what is known as TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release). Trapping is not always easy to accomplish. The best way to trap a large colony of cats is to have multiple traps set up all at once to trap as many cats as possible. Once the cats witness other cats being caught in traps, they will begin to steer clear of any trap making trapping difficult.Withholding food 24 hours before setting the traps makes the cats hungry to go in and eat the food that is set out for bait. The traps should be scrubbed out after every capture with an enzyme remover such as urine-off or Zero Odor. Cats, when they are stressed will be spraying the wires with urine. This urine tells other cats to “stay away.”
Some cats do not like the feel of the wire under their paws. Using a thin layer of newspaper to pad the front part of the trap, or once the trap is in place using kitty litter will also work. Just don’t impede the trigger.
For the hard to catch male stray cats, try using a little bit of soiled cat litter. Sprinkle it towards the back of the trap near the trigger to lure them in. They will catch the scent of the strange cat and move in to cover it.
There are several types of traps to use. Hav-A-Heart is a humane trap, they make them in several sizes, including kitten size. The Tomahawk Company out of Wisconsin also makes humane live traps. Traps can sometimes be rented from Animal Control, Animal Shelters, some veterinary clinics, feed stores, and pest control services.
There are drop traps you can build if there are two of you that will be trapping. Alley Cat Allies website has instructions on how to build one. http://www.alleycat.org/pdf/droptrap.pdf
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You want to place the trap in a secure location that is not out in the open. If you are trapping at a shopping center, your best bet is to place the traps near the dumpster where the cats will typically go to gather food. Please monitor these traps if at all possible, for someone can come along and steal the trap and the cat inside. Have a dark cloth ready to throw over a trap once a cat is caught, as well as something to weight down the top of the trap, for the cat will repeatedly throw himself against the wire in a frantic effort to get out. The blanket or dark cloth you place over the trap, will help to calm the cat quicker than leaving it exposed. It is best, once a cat has been trapped to remove the trap quickly to another area so the other cats don’t become spooked and run away.
Bait: You want smell to bring them into the trap, so mackerel, tuna, stinky cheap fish food, sardines or smelt all create an odor. Dribble the juice of the fish around the inside of the trap and on the trigger, and place a small amount of food in a large jar lid or a plate or a saucer, but not a bowl. The cat needs to see the food, and not just a bowl.
Once you have set the trap in place, carefully place the food at the very back of the trap beyond the trigger, and set your trap. Remove yourself from the immediate area, but check the traps about every two to three hours. Remember patience is key.
You can get creative, and start feeding your cats inside a large cardboard box that is flipped over on its side. Once they get used to going into the box, add a trap and go for the capture. You can also use what nature has provided to camoflague your trap. Pine branches, wood bark, leaves, wedge the trap between two logs, it all depends on where you are trapping.
If you are feeding a large colony of cats, keep a journal (and try to get photographs of each cat) that way you will have a record that you can refer to and be sure that you have trapped all the cats in the group. Record any type of distinguishing mark, color, sex, etc..
Persistence and patience is key here. Once you have the cat in the trap, get the trap to a vet that is familiar with handling feral cats. Don’t call and make an appointment without letting them know that your cat is feral. That is hardly fair to the vet and the vet techs. If you are using a spay day on a spay mobile, make sure you have enough dark cloths to cover each trap while the animal waits for his or her turn. There are a lot of cats on a Spay Day and the more you can reduce the animal’s stress, the better for everyone involved.
According to Lisa Doyle, cat rescuer and volunteer of AzCat the following items are essential to have with you while trapping large colonies:
Cover for each trap
Dish or lid to hold cat food
Tarp or plastic for under traps when transporting in vehicle
Coffee, blanket, radio with earphones (if you are going to stake out the area and watch the traps)
2. Set the traps around the area where the cats are used to being fed. You can also set up in areas where they are seen. In general cats like to be up against walls, etc. so you are more likely to catch them there.
3. Potential Trap problems: Be sure that the trap door has a full, unhindered swing. If you are using the brown traps with the side chain attached to the trip plate (thing that they step on) check to see that the chain is not twisted or jammed when you set the trap.
If your trap is one with a back door look at how it is secured when you get it so you know how to correctly close it. If you do not close it correctly the cat may be able to escape.
4. Put newspaper, folded in half length wise, in the bottom of the trap and put a small amount of smelly food on a lid or other small item in the back of the trap against the door that will remain closed. Sprinkle a very small amount of the food along the newspaper in one or two places. Never put any food outside the trap itself. Suggested food: Tuna fish; sardines; Fancy Feast salmon or other smelly cat food.
5. As you trap the cats and move them be sure to look at the ground. Sometimes the tuna or other food you use for bait will spill onto the ground. Pick it up immediately if you have not yet caught all the cats you are trying to trap. You don’t want it to be eaten by the other cats you are trying to trap.
When a cat is in a trap:
1. Immediately cover the trap completely with a towel or sheet then take the cat away from the area. (Careful as they can move back and forth quickly in the trap and catch you off balance.)
2. Always check to see if the left ear of the cat is ear-tipped. The tip of the left ear is cut straight across so that the tip is removed. That means that the cat was previously trapped, altered, and returned. It can be released. If you have sufficient traps, hold the cat in the trap until you are done trapping, and then release it.
3. It takes a while for other cats to come back in the area after a cat is trapped so be patient. It gets harder to catch the remaining cats with every trap they see or hear go off.
4. Do not feed the cat in the trap you risk escape and the cat is having surgery the following morning and should have nothing in its stomach. (The exception is kittens that are small but big enough to alter. Kittens blood sugar drops when they do not eat causing added risk during surgery so the recommendation is to feed them a small amount of MOIST cat food right up to a few hours before surgery.)
5. Put the trapped cat somewhere where it will not be too adversely affected by the weather and where it will be safe from people and other animals.
1. LEAVE THE TOWEL OR SHEET ON THE TRAP THE CAT IS IN THE ENTIRE TIME THE CAT IS IN THE TRAP. If the cat pulls the cover into the trap get another cover to put on the trap. Cats in traps must be covered.
2. You should put a tarp or other waterproof covering in the vehicle (for example, an old shower curtain.) The cats may urinate or defecate.
3. MAKE CERTAIN THE TRAPS CANNOT ROLL OVER IN YOUR VEHICLE. Gravity-operated (brown) traps will open if turned upside down. If you must stack the traps on top of each other make certain that the handle is not sticking up on the trap that is on the bottom and that the top trap is secure so that it will not tip on either side.
Holding the cat overnight and releasing the cat:
1. Hold the cats in an area where they are safe from predators and protected from the elements. After surgery, cats cannot regulate their body temperatures the way they normally can, so their holding area cannot be too cold in winter or too warm in the summer.
2. You should give the cats water and a little moist food, use extreme caution so the cats cannot escape from their traps. Using the same door you used to put the bait in the trap, lift the door up no more than necessary and never so far up that the cat can fit through the door if it suddenly decided to bolt forward. (The door should come up only a couple inches.) Be sure to secure the door correctly as well. If a cat is very groggy or unsteady, wait. You do not want to risk having the cat drown in the water or choke on the food.
3. Hold the cat a minimum of 24 hours after surgery. If there is continuing bleeding or other problems do not release the cat. Follow the instructions given by the veterinarian.
4. To release take the cat to its usual secure location preferably where there are bushes or other things in which it can hide, open the back door, pull the trap cover back, and stand at the opposite end of the trap to wait for the cat to go out. If it is near an area where there is vehicular traffic wait for a time when there is no traffic because the cat may make a panic run directly into oncoming traffic.
1. Clean the trap with a bleach solution. Bleaching traps helps prevent the spread of any diseases for future trappings.
1 gallon of water to 4 ½ oz. of bleach
2 gallons of water to 8¾ oz. of bleach
3 gallons of water to 13 oz. of bleach
4 gallons of water to 17 1/4 oz. of bleach
5 gallons of water to 21 ½ oz. of bleach
2. Wash the towels or sheets that were used as trap covers. Use bleach.
If you are only trapping one cat, this becomes easier. However, if the cat is older and trap savvy, he may not enter the trap readily.
Once the cat is trapped, transport him to the vet clinic. Be sure and call the clinic first to let them know you have a stray cat in need of a neuter. While the cat is being transported, be sure and keep the trap covered. This calms the cat down, though you may still hear him rush against the sides of the wire in a frantic attempt to get away. This is normal for trapped cats to feel such panic. You also need to prepare yourself for seeing some blood once the trap is uncovered. Many cats slash open their nose or face while attempting to flee captivity. If possible, keep the cat in your car in the covered trap until the vet is ready to see the cat in his treatment room (weather permitting). This decreases the amount of stress the cat is subjected to, shielding it from the other stess pheremones from the other animals waiting to be seen.
Initial Vet Visit
Any cat that isn’t used to being handled is considered feral to the vet and the clinic. This cuts down on the amount of injury to the staff and the cat as well. If the cat is brought into the clinic in a covered trap, the office girl will take down all pertinent information.
The cat should be tested for the prevalent viral diseases in the area. This testing will be undertaken once the cat has been sedated. What tests are taken should be determined by the vet and the owner. The cat is then carried back to the kennel area. His trap is then inverted upright (vertically) instead of horizonally. This minimizes the injuries he can cause himself.
At the clinic, they have an apparatus called “metal fingers.” This is a series of long metal rods that can be inserted into the main trap. The tech’s hands are outside the cage, holding on to the special gripper handle. The metal fingers are then worked through the bars of the trap, forcing the cat down into the bottom of the cage. The fingers, hold the cat securely in place while the vet administers the sedative. Different clinics use different drugs; Telazole, Rompum, Ketamine, Torbugesic or Xylazine are the preferred drugs of choice.
Once the cat has been sedated, he is removed from the trap. If ear tipping has been requested, the vet will surgically remove the bare tip of the left ear. This ear tipping is performed if the cat is being re-released back outside. Then all routine exams are performed, bloodwork taken to test for viral disease. If the cat is healthy, he will then be neutered, returned back to his trap or a waiting cat carrier if the owner provides one.
This type of treatment, no matter how gently it is carried out by the vet and the staff, only proves to terrify a stray cat more. Used to being able to escape in all directions, the cat wakes up in discomfort and on edge. It is imperative that when transporting the cat home, you keep the carrier or the trap covered at all times. Pain patches should be applied to help with the level of pain the cat will experience during the recovery process.
Because you have trapped this cat, cut off all access of freedom for him, you move quickly in the cat’s eyes from “rescuer” to predator. He is not going to trust you for sometime and may even do you great harm. Handling him right off if you don’t know what you are doing must be done minimally, especially if your goal is to just release him back into the outdoors.