Feral Cats
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Do You Get Too Attached to the Feral Cats in Your Care?

Becky Robinson of Alley Cat Allies talks about how to be good caretakers to ferals -- without overstepping boundaries.

 |  Sep 30th 2013  |   15 Contributions


Ever since I fell in love with a feral cat who visited our home, I have been intrigued with the relationships we form with ferals. How do we help them without getting too attached to them? In my case, I started to get attached. He was a cute gray tabby and I couldn't get real close to him, but did manage to pet him on the head once while he ate. I hoped he would take refuge in our garage during the long and cold winter. He was starting to get comfortable and I could often pull in the driveway and see him napping in a garden near the house. He did funny things, like stand on the roof peak of an old barn-shaped tool shed and hunt for mice. He made me smile.

Ferals don't fare too well where I live -- there are too many predators in the woods. This guy disappeared one day and never came back. I missed him for quite a while. Since then, I've been curious about what it takes to take care of feral cats. Do you need to cultivate a certain distance? Do you need to save your all-out-kind-of-love for your domestic cat companions?

If you can't take care of a cat, don't just dump him. Stray cat in white and yellow by Shutterstock.com

We spoke to Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, about how to care for ferals and what makes a good feral cat caretaker.

Catster: For the feral cat caretaker, how is the relationship with a feral cat different from the relationship with a domesticated or pet cat?

Alley Cat Allies: Relationships between caregivers and cats often mirror relationships between people and their house cats, but there are some key differences. Firstly, feral cats can’t be touched or held. They are not socialized, as are house cats. However, over time feral cats get to know and trust the caregiver and a close bond develops, all the more rewarding because it takes time to build that trust -- sometimes even months or years. Some feral cats can be petted while they are eating. But we advise to not attempt to pick them up -– or to place them in a carrier. The cats will not tolerate this. Caregivers have to keep in mind that feral cats belong outdoors and that although they may bond with people, the large majority will never be adoptable.

What qualities make a good feral cat caretaker, in your opinion? What do feral cats need from us most?

Feral cats need us to let them live out their lives –- most of them are surviving without caregivers. They do quite well on their own. But in many parts of the country where cats live in farming communities, residential and even business areas, there are people who improve these cats' lives by seeing that they are sterilized and vaccinated. Spaying and neutering as well as vaccinations is perhaps the best thing we can do for cats.

A caretaker cares for a feral cat colony. Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society.

A good caregiver needs to have these qualities:

  • Acceptance that the cat belongs outside and is content outside, and that it does not belong indoors.
  • A commitment to seeing that the cats are safely "integrated" into the neighborhood. In addition to carrying out Trap-Neuter-Return, the first and foremost act to help them, caregivers feed on a regular schedule, often creating a shelter for them so the cats have their own place to bed down.
  • A willingness to advocate for cats and educate other people about the needs of feral cats. People interested in community service make good caregivers because they are willing to knock on doors, dispel myths, and help others learn. Check out www.commonsenseforcats.com for more information.
  • An understanding that our neighborhoods are homes to many species, including cats, and that they are part of the community. They have lived among us for thousands of years.

What are ways you’ve seen caretakers deal with the issue of attachment, or not getting attached to ferals? Is it an issue? How have you seen or heard this play out?

Just like cats bond with their caregivers, caregivers bond with the cats, too -- it goes both ways. Good caregivers are aware that the needs of outdoor cats are different from the needs of indoor cats, and that feral cats belong outdoors. That’s where they want to be.

Good caregivers also take responsibility for the cats and ensure that the cats are taken care of, even when they are not around, or if they are on vacation or moving out of an area.

If a person wanted to help feral cats in their neighborhood, what are simple and effective first steps to take to make a difference?

There are many ways a person can help feral cats. Getting educated about Trap-Neuter-Return is a great first step. A wealth of information on TNR can be found at www.alleycat.org. Those who want to help feral cats should also get in touch with pounds and shelters in their communities and ask if they have a TNR program in place, and encourage those who don’t have a program to launch TNR. Check out blueprints for building humane communities at Alley Cat Allies’ National Feral Cat Day website.

During TNR, a caregiver humanely traps a cat, transports him to a veterinarian where he would be neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped, and then the caregiver transports the cat back to his colony where he will continue to live. TNR also benefits the community because it stops undesirable behaviors like yowling, spraying and fighting. Not only does the health of the cats improve, but TNR also stabilizes the feral cat population because there are no more kittens. Neighbors are welcoming of a colony especially when they know the birthrate has stopped and the colony is not growing.

Contacting local legislators and policymakers to educate them on feral cats and TNR can also get the ball rolling on protecting the lives of feral cats in your area.

Feeding feral cats is another way to help. Feeding can be a simple, once-a-day practice. The feral cats in the colony will also need clean water every day.

Finally, we encourage all cat lovers to participate in National Feral Cat Day on October 16. On this day each year, hundreds of individuals and organizations host TNR events and advocacy programs to spread awareness in their community about the benefits of TNR. Those interested in hosting an event or getting involved in this year’s event can visit the National Feral Cat Day website.

So, there you have it, readers. It's really pretty simple. The best way to help feral cats? Realize that their needs are necessarily different from your domestic cat. Come to the relationship with different expectations, and provide these cats with what they need -- spay, neuter, vaccinate, feed, and do TNR where this makes sense. Maybe next time a feral cat wanders by my house, I'll be able to get a little less "attached" and still help her.

Do you help feral cats in your neighborhood? How has that experience been for you? How is the relationship different than the one you share with your domesticated cats? Please share in the comments!

Read more about feral cats here:

About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.

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