Proper management of a feral cat colony is a long term, year round responsibility and should not be undertaken lightly. Here are some guidelines to follow and suggestions regarding proper shelter and feeding to start:
Use the Trap/Neuter/Vaccinate/Return (TNVR) method. This provides humane care while gradually reducing the number of cats in a feral cat colony. Create a feeding site. Feed and monitor the colony on a daily basis. Build or buy a shelter for the cats. Place the shelter in an “out of sight” area to keep the cats warm and dry throughout the seasons. Be alert for any new cats who enter the colony. Immediately trap, sterilize and identify them before returning them to the group. Work with local animal humane groups in an effort to find homes for any cats who appear to have been socialized. Leave feral kittens with their mothers until they are approximately 5 weeks old. At that time, you can capture and socialize them in order to make them adoptable. If you go away on a trip or move, arrange for a new volunteer or neighbor to handle these duties. Keep a record for each cat. Include description, gender, age, date when spayed/neutered and vaccinations. Feral Cat Colony Log sheets are available through Feral Cat FOCUS for this purpose.
Tending to feral cat colonies can be difficult when temperatures drop and the weather becomes harsh, but this is when they need you the most. Even though feral cats develop a thick coat in the fall to keep them warm, they can die from exposure if at least some protection from the elements is not available.
To help these cats make it through the winter, you can construct a homemade shelter or purchase a dog house structure. Depending on the structure size and the sociability of the cats, these shelters can provide warmth for several cats. Keep in mind that feral cats that compete for food at other times of the year may find they are willing to overlook their differences when temperatures drop. They likely do this for survival since in the colder months, cats can provide warmth for each other.
Before placing a shelter, be sure to obtain permission from the landowner on whose property it is to be located. For the protection of the cats and the shelter itself, position the shelter out of sight. In order to keep from becoming waterlogged or covered by snow, it should sit about 6 inches off the ground on bricks, cinder blocks or wood. Make sure that the shelter is still sturdy when it is raised off the ground. During snowstorms, dig a pathway to the shelter so the cats can easily get in and out.
Alley Cat Allies publishes a fact sheet with plans for building an insulated, wooden cat shelter. The plans include materials needed and schematics for cutting the wood. These plans can be found at www.alleycat.org , links within our site also show you how to construct simple & effective shelters out of storage bins.
If you know someone handy, you can also make your own shelter. It should be at least 2 feet by 3 feet long and 18 inches high. It should have an opening small enough to prevent dogs and other animals from entering. Also, it should have a flap or L-shaped entryway to keep cold air from blowing in. To further prevent cold air from entering the shelter, after construction, the seams should be sealed using a silicone gun. Place a flat piece of wood on top of the shelter in order to weigh it down. Once the shelter is positioned, place leaves/twigs over it so that it will remain out of sight.
Another option for a shelter is to use milk crates wired together and covered with plastic. For those who lack construction skills, doghouses or igloos that are winterized with plastic coverings or insulation make convenient cat shelters. The size of the original doorway may need to be reduced. Install a flap at the opening to keep out cold air and wind.
Shelters can also be made out of new, dark green, 55 gallon, rectangular trash cans by cutting a doorway out of the side of each. Also consider installing a cat door with a plastic flap in a shed or garage for a feral cat colony. Cat door kits can be purchased at pet stores or larger hardware stores.
Inside the shelter, use hardwood shavings (not cedar or pine) or straw for bedding. Never use towels, blankets or sheets because they retain moisture and will freeze. Bed sheets made from cut "Mylar" a space-age product that retains body heat can also be used. These sheets can be found in the home section of department stores and are easily cut to size.
To protect food and water from the elements, place them in a covered shelter that will also protect the cats as they eat or drink. A stand with a sloping roof, open on two sides, and off the ground may be all that is needed for several cats to eat together. Three sided, covered wooden boxes can also be used for a feeding station. (Feral Cat FOCUS note: Another choice that’s simple and convenient can be a plastic storage container turned on it side. Place a heavy stone or patio block on top to weight it down.)
Provide fresh food and water at a consistent time each day. Feral cats soon learn when the food arrives and will be waiting for a fresh supply of rations, even if they are hiding in nearby bushes. Since flies are attracted to canned food, offer limited amounts of canned food during the summer months. Buy a plastic dispenser from pet stores for the water. This will allow more water to be stored in the area. Be sure to keep the water clean at all times.
In the winter months, if you know your colony will eat right away, warm up the canned food prior to taking it to the feeding site. However, always provide dry food, because canned food will eventually freeze. Remember that cats need extra calories in the winter to maintain their energy levels, so expect to provide the colony residents with extra rations. Also in the winter, take hot water to the feeding stations. This helps keep water drinkable for a while before it freezes. If you have a feeding station near an electrical outlet, an electrically powered water bowl designed to keep the water at a temperature above freezing is an option. These are available at feed stores. Consider having backup volunteers to care for the colony, especially in the winter months.
Special thanks to the ASPCA for the use of the resource material.
Founded in 2003, Feral Cat FOCUS is a volunteer cats in Western New York.