Compassionate Care for Feral Cats: Our Findings
When we first started working with ferals, we couldn't find any information about caring for ferals outside of the traditional Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) process. Based on everything we read, we didn't think the things we're doing now were possible.
We were so wrong! And that's why we're documenting what we're learning as we go... so others like us have a starting point, and at least know these things are possible. This page is a work in progress, and will change as we continue to learn.
The most important thing to understand:
Feral cats are individuals. They each have their own personality, and your approach MUST be tailored accordingly. You have to try to decode how each cat responds to stress, and whether they respond to rewards, and then you can figure out how best to interact with them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for working with feral cats, but we will outline the techniques that have set us up for success.
Creating a cage-free, low-stress environment
We keep our ferals loose in rooms specifically designed to be low stress.
- We bring in materials from their colony - we started with logs and boxes of dirt, which were time consuming to clean around and impossible to disinfect, so we use giant potted ferns and zippered pillowcases full of dirt/leaves now to make the room smell and look familiar.
- We use Feliway diffusers.
- We have one Bin of Safety (see below) or Nest per cat, depending on the scenario. When I first started, I had several nesting options per cat, but have designed a nest prototype that works very well for me and for the cats, and all have been quite happy having that as their only option. You'll know if they don't like it, and can adjust accordingly.
- We use Kuranda towers since these cats often have ringworm, parasites and viruses, and disinfecting is critical.
- Sometimes they use the litterbox faster if you mix some dirt into it, or add a layer on top of the litter. All of ours have accepted the litterbox, most right away, but some if the more stressed cats have taken a day or two.
- Noise control is essential. We have white noise machines and recordings from their forest to mask unfamilar noises and make them feel more comfortable. This one is super important.
- We have found that because these cats are used to a colony setting they are happier when they are housed with at least one other feral from the same colony. They find the most comfort when they are brought in at the same time, but we have added cats successfully days or weeks later (depending on health). Obviously, we would never house intact males with pregnant, nursing or intact females. ;)
Scenario 1: Intake
The easiest and least stressful way to handle, treat, and care for feral cats is to wrap them in a blanket, making sure their head is covered completely (and that they can breathe). You can then very carefully expose whatever area you need to examine or treat and do what you need to do.
- When you first bring the cat in, they will be in a trap or cage of some sort. I sit at the entrance to the trap (facing the trap) and put a large blanket in my lap and then fold it over the top and sides of the trap entrance. The idea is to give them a dark, enclosed place to go that will automatically wrap them completely in the blanket and in your lap where you can do an intake exam and any treatments that are necessary.
- When you are in position (make sure there are no gaps between the blanket and the trap for the cat to escape through), open the trap door and slowly uncover the trap starting with the opposite end. This should encourage the cat away from the light and towards your lap. If you have another person with you, they can move to the opposite end of the trap and quietly encourage the cat toward you.
- Sometimes it takes a few minutes, just be patient and wait. It is super important to keep everything as quiet as possible to not add to the cat's stress level unnecessarily.
- Once the cat is inside the blanket in your lap, quietly close the trap door and make sure the cat is completely and tightly enclosed by the blanket. This will make them feel less vulnerable.
- Most feral cats will shut down in a trapping scenario, which is a natural response to the stress and fear of trapping and interacting with a predator (you) they think is going to eat them. The stress of being trapped is unavoidable, but it can work in our favor because it makes it easier to do the intake exam.
- We clean ears, blacklight (for ringworm), check for injury, check teeth/mouth/gums, check hydration, and for adults we treat for fleas/ear mites/some worms (Revoultion), vaccinate, trim nails IF the cat will be staying with us for several weeks, and other things as needed. This is usually your best opportunity to fully examine the cat, so make sure you do as much as you can, starting with the highest priority tasks.
- To do an exam, start with the least invasive thing and work your way to the face area. Only expose the part of the cat you are examining, and make sure the head stays completely covered. If the face pops out, the cat may run away and you will have lost your opportunity to complete the exam and introduce them to the Bin of Safety.
P.S. Ear mites are your best friends.We have discovered why ear mites exist, and it is to help us give feral cats positive interactions with humans! Every single feral who has come in with ear mites has responded positively to ear cleaning and ear rubs - not just tolerated it, but leaned into our hands for more. It has been an amazing way to connect with them, and you can tell a lot about a cat's personality from how quickly and enthusiastically they respond to ear mite cleaning. Weird, but true.
- Once the exam is finished, I have the Bin of Safety set up nearby and ready to receive its new guest. This includes comfy bedding and Feliway. I carefully shift the cat out of my lap and in front of the entrance and then uncover the face with the entrance covered so the cat will go into the Bin instead of into the room, where they are more likely to panic. This establishes the BoS as their safe place, which will make your life 1000% easier when it comes to medicating and other interactions.
- Once they are in the Bin, we leave them alone until the next day and observe with a webcam.
Nests and Bins of Safety
Over the last year, I have designed some aids to make interacting with our ferals easier for me and less stress for them. The best two are the Nest and the Bin of Safety (BoS).
- Nests can be designed to allow easier access to kittens for weighing and in case any need extra attention. My latest prototype is this Ikea cabinet modified with a guillotine-style escape door in the back. The guillotine is raised and lowered using a pulley and some string that I secure outside the door to the room so I can raise and lower without entering the room. This allows me to wait until mom is off the nest and then prevent her from re-entering so I can safely access kittens through the cabinet doors in the front of the nest cabinet. It also allows me to close her in to reduce stress if I need to do more disruptive cleaning tasks in the room. I install dim LED lighting and cameras inside the nests so I can monitor remotely with good visibility. A nightvision security camera could be used without lighting.
- A Bin of Safety (BoS) is extremely helpful when you have to do meds or interact with your feral. This is what we used with Skye when she needed eye meds three times a day and we didn't want to stress her out by chasing her around the room three times a day. She would hide in her BoS when I came in to do meds, and I could just unhook the blanket, lift off the bin and pick her up. This has worked beautifully with many different feral personalities.
- If you have a feral that charges you, and won't retreat to a BoS, you have to take a different approach. I have found that even ferals who charge are able to be handled once you have them in the blanket, but getting them into the blanket can be tricky. Make a plan in advance and try feeding them in the BoS to get them used to going inside. Monitoring cams become super useful in this scenario because you can observe from outside the room and either drop the blanket flap to enclose them using a pulley and a string, or if they'll stay in the bin just enter the room and quickly drop the blanket flap yourself. This is far less stressful for both human and cat, it just takes time and patience.
BIN OF SAFETY AROUND 1:27:00
Scenario 2: Socializing
We have been surprised by how many of our adult or injured ferals have responded to socialization - 78% to be exact. We are usually able to tell within the first week whether the cat is open to us or whether she would be happier returning to the wild once she is healthy. If a cat seems open to us, we will work with her as long as she continues to make progress and as long as she seems content in captivity.
We judge contentness via our cams, so we can observe whether she is doing normal happy-cat things - eating, drinking, using the litterbox, playing, exploring, interacting with the other cats - when the human predator isn't around.
We do not recommend keeping a cat that is not engaging in normal happy-cat behavior any longer than absolutely necessary. It isn't kind or fair to them to try to force socialization if they aren't receptive to it, and they are very happy returning to their colonies.
- We have a team of volunteer snugglers who take snuggle shifts starting a few days after intake. They use various approaches, but the goal is to have positive, non-threatening interactions with the cats. Some sit quietly with the cats, some talk to them, some offer treats, some try to engage them in play, some will wrap in a blanket and rub itchy ears or do grooming. A variety of approaches seem to be effective, depending on the personality of the cat.
- I have found that humans usually have to make the first move to make contact, and cats are usually reassured by the human's touch as long as they don't have to look at us at first. My approach is to push their boundaries very gently to help them build confidence more quickly.
- I blanket-wrap the cats (usually because I have to do meds or check incisions/bandages) and the ones who are receptive will eventually relax in my lap if I pet them slowly while keeping their faces covered. If you give them plenty of time to relax the first few days and they remain tense the whole time, they are less likely to be receptive to socialization.
- You might make amazing progress in one session with a feral, but you will have to re-establish trust the next time you go in. Don't be discouraged, this is normal. It will take them less and less time each visit for them to remember you are not there to eat them.
- Pay attention to how they react when you clean their ears. (Also, MAKE SURE you know how to properly clean ears before you attempt it). Cleaning the ears will give them some relief from the itching of ear mites, and seems to feel REALLY good. The cats we've had success socializing have responded noticeably to the ear cleaning and subsequent ear/neck/cheek/head rubbing. It can take 20-60 minutes per session to get them relaxed enough to respond positively, but if you eventually feel them lean into your hand to ask for more, they are almost always going to be receptive to socializing. If the cat is very stressed or panicked and you don't notice that improving within the first 10 minutes or so, it's better to let the cat go and see if they are more settled the next day.
- Know the difference between a cat that is shut down and a cat that is relaxed. Most ferals will respond to the stress of trapping by shutting down. A cat that is shut down won't respond to tempting treats like tuna, she will tolerate petting but will not enjoy it, and you will see signs of stress - increased respiration rate, large pupils, sweaty paws. This is pretty common in the first few days to a week when the feral is adjusting to her new environment. At some point, you will notice a change - some will become more assertive/aggressive as they become more confident, some will become more accepting of human interaction, and some will become more intent on avoiding you. Just because a cat is shut down doesn't mean she won't relax and enjoy petting during a session.
- Confident cats and receptive cats are more likely to become adoptable than fearful cats. I am working on a model for evaluating feral cat behavior that may predict outcomes and identify the best approach. Stay tuned. :) Things that might help:
- Housing them with a more socialized feral, if possible. We work on socializing our ferals at our feeding station and bring any in that seem ready for a home. They make great ambassadors for less confident ferals.
- Hand-feeding tuna
- Playing - iPad with cat games that make mouse/bird noises, catnip toys and wand toys have been pretty popular with ours.
DISCLAIMER: Working with feral cats (like any animal not socialized by humans) can be dangerous and result in injury without proper training. This information is provided to help make it less dangerous, but please use it very carefully, with common sense, and at your own risk.
TinyKittens Society is a volunteer-run non-profit society registered in British Columbia, Canada.