The onset of cold weather in New England conjures up images of hot chocolate by the fire and cozy curl-ups with our favorite furry family members by the fire. For us at the shelter it’s also when we start getting phone calls that sound like the title above. Good-hearted people worrying about the “neighborhood cat” and wondering if they should try to trap him and bring him to the shelter before the snow starts. If the cat is clearly an abandoned pet or a friendly stray we say of course and schedule an appointment. If it is a free-roaming cat, that is, a cat whose owners let it go out, we encourage you to let it be -she knows her way home. (PS: if you’re not sure how to tell the difference between a free roaming cat and a stray we did a handy blog post earlier this year about how to tell, you can read it here). But what about the cats that are clearly feral, have adapted to life in the wild, and both want and need to live outdoors. What do we do about them?**
Can We Just Bring Them To The Shelter For Adoption?
The first thing we want to tell you is that with 50-100 Million feral cats in the US, according to Alley Cat Allies, a Washington, DC based nonprofit, you’re not alone in wondering what to do about feral cats. Unfortunately, adoption isn’t a good option for feral adults or even older feral kittens. Essentially, once a kitten reaches 5-6 month of age as a feral they will always be that way. These cats are not socialized and will not make good house pets, their brains have already developed to permanently adapt to life out doors away from people. That means that even if you brought that cat to the shelter we couldn’t adopt it out to a family. The people wouldn’t be happy and neither would the cat. It would most likely hiss, scratch, bite, and dart out the door as soon as possible, ending up outside but without the advantage of familiar surroundings. So what can you do if you have a friendly-enough-but-not-really-a-pet type of personality feral cat in your neighborhood? Well, the good news is that cats are wonderful survivalists and great at adapting to weather and other challenges. They’re actually pretty good at surviving on their own. If you’re committed though, all they really need is some passive assistance to help them through the worst of the winter.
Feral cats often rely on each other for heat and protection during the winter so winter shelters for feral cats can be a simple as a place for them to shelter from the worst of the wind and snow. If you want to make something specifically for them you can see a simple tutorial that the ASPCA offers here.
By and large though feral cats are adept at finding places to shelter for the winter. Under porches and decks, in sheds or garages, or even under dumpsters. It’s not a cozy warm house to be sure but ferals are good at staying warm and dry so if you see one and it doesn’t look like it’s in any trouble, it’s probably not.
Cats are excellent hunters and can catch everything from bugs and mice to chipmunks, birds, and a host of other animals. With that being said, feral cats require more food and water in the winter because they are burning calories to stay warm in addition to their regular energy output. Many people choose to put out cat food and water in the winter but you should be aware of some caveats before you decide to go this route:
- If you feed them they will come. And bring their friends. And not leave.
- If they get used to you feeding them they will rely on you for food instead of hunting. Then, if you stop they will go hungry instead of hunting because they’re expecting you to come and take care of them. You could actually cause them more harm in the long run.
- Putting out a bunch of high calorie food in the winter may attract non-cat animals like raccoons, squirrels, or even predators like coyotes and that might cause fights, disease, and other trouble for your ferals.
- If you feed the cats but don’t clean up afterwards the neighbors will get mad and understandably so, no one wants a big cat mess of dirty plates and scattered moldy food in the neighborhood. That could make things bad for everyone, cats and humans.
If you do decide to feed your ferals though there is one big upside, feeding them creates a safe location that they will go to with some degree of predictability and that makes it easier to TNR – that it, Trap, Neuter, and Release.
TNR is our ultimate goal for feral cats that cannot adapt to living in a home with a family. The concept is simple and effective, trap the cat with a box trap, bring the cat to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and have it’s ear notched (the universal sign that a feral cat has been neutered and vaccinated), and then return the cat to it’s cat colony outdoors. The cat lives out the rest of it’s days without creating any more baby cats and with no new population the colony naturally dies out over a few years.
TNR not only controls the cat population without mass euthanasia but it reduces disease and improves the quality of life for the cats in the colony while addressing human concerns about the stray cat population. If you have made the decision to care for a cat colony by putting out food or creating a shelter TNR is the next logical step to ensure that your efforts don’t go on forever, something both the cats and your human neighbors are sure to appreciate.
If you have a feral cat or even a cat colony visit our resources page for information about MA organizations that do TNR.
What To Do
In conclusion, if you observe a cat in your neighborhood and you’re worried about what to do as winter arrives:
- Determine whether it’s actually a stray or is rather a free-roaming cat or a pet that has gotten outside
- If the animal is hurt or injured call animal control immediately
- If the animal is feral and seems fine, it probably is. Don’t try to bring it to the shelter because we can’t adopt out feral cats. Instead decide how you want to do to support the animal through the winter and then reach out to a non-profit that does TNR for feral cats.
** If you have found a hurt or injured cat please call your local animal control immediately.