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How to Properly Feed a Colony of Feral Cats

Feeding and TNR go hand in hand when managing a feral colony; also consider pests, predators, food quality, and human neighbors.

Marci Kladnik  |  Nov 5th 2015


I’ll say up front that feeding feral cats is a good thing — but it must be done responsibly. Feral cats have their place in our midst. All creatures are part of the web of life, and, if native, part of a healthy ecosystem. But cats are not indigenous to North America, so ferals’ breeding must be controlled through trap-neuter-return efforts.

TNR is also an essential part of caretaking. Easy food is a great way to entice them, and feeding plays an essential role in managing the colony. But again, it must be done responsibly, because feeding feral cats who are intact or pregnant is bad news for the colony.

Coming out from the bushes, these sisters are waiting for dinner.

Coming out from the bushes, these sisters are waiting for dinner.

Cold weather is coming

You might be considering the welfare of the cats hanging around the barbecue pits in the park all summer. If you know that no one is feeding them and want to do so yourself, be prepared to feed daily all winter, no matter what the weather, because it must be a commitment and not a hobby. Feeding once a day at the same time will be sufficient, but feed twice if you’d like.

You’ll need to follow certain guidelines to ensure the safety and health of the animals and to be considerate of the human community near the site. Be sure to check local ordinances before setting up a feeding site so as not to endanger yourself or the cats. Establishing a connection with a local TNR group is essential unless you are prepared to pay the vet bills for spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations, and parasite control.

Fleas and other parasites are a way of life for our feral friends.

Fleas and other parasites are a way of life for our feral friends.

Louise Holton, president of Alley Cat Rescue, suggests, “Visit local vets and tell them you are working with communities to help cats and people too. Ask them for a discount for services, tell them you will be introducing new clients to their clinics, through these colony caretakers.”

Feeding the cheapest food is not necessarily a kindness. Many types of kibble contain dyes and other additives detrimental to feline health. Cats don’t care what food looks like as long as it smells good. Cats are obligate carnivores, so whatever food you offer regularly must be mostly protein to be of much value.

Paul Glassner, award-winning writer, editor, and volunteer for Fix Our Ferals, feeds Science Diet to his colony because “outdoor cats need all the help they can get. [My eight] are a healthy lot.” Serving canned food at feeding sites is unnecessary and costly, so invest in a good brand of kibble. The only exception? When a cat is ill and needs meds. Because ferals cannot be touched, the only way to administer antibiotics or worming meds is through wet food, so use it as a treat.

As a post-TNR treat, these cats chow down on some wet food.

As a post-TNR treat, these cats chow down on some wet food.

Unlike dogs, cats consume only as much as they need and will walk away from a bowl that still contains food. If you leave too much food you’ll waste money and invite pests. Unless food is consumed immediately, it will draw flies, ants, and bees. It also draws dogs, skunks, raccoons, rodents, and other animals including predators. Some of these scavengers carry diseases and parasites hazardous to your colony.

Five hours after irresponsible feeders left this bowl of kibble mixed with wet food, it was crawling with flies and bees, with ants circling the rim.

This bowl of kibble mixed with wet food drew flies and bees, with ants circling the rim, after a few hours.

Leftover kibble also draws birds. This is not good for those who worry about the bird population falling prey to feral cats. Felines will quickly realize that their leftovers will draw a tasty dessert to them. Feral cats get enough bad press and demands to eradicate them, so pick up everything before you leave.

When maintaining a feeding site, be courteous to the humans around

Avoid flimsy paper, plastic, foam, and aluminum food containers that blow away in the wind. Feed at the same time every day. The animals will be waiting for you, and it will be easy to keep track of who is new, who is ill or injured, and who might still need fixing. With an accurate headcount, you can avoid wasting food.

A colony will take 15 to 20 minutes to eat, so stick around to enjoy the show, and always pick up after yourself and the cats. This includes any trash left by humans. You can, however, leave a bowl of water, which is especially important in the dry season.

Find a sheltered area for feeding and be as inconspicuous as possible with your equipment. The trash container in some of these photos made a perfect shelter from the rain, as I was able to slip the dishes underneath it to the waiting cats on stormy days.

Megan Sorbara, founder of Naples Cat Alliance, says, “We make sure our feeding spots are well hidden and use dishes that blend in with the scenery. … The spot must be easy to access for humans and cats but hidden enough that it doesn’t draw attention.”

Three bowls of food and water left behind at a feeding site by inconsiderate feeders. The small black plastic one in the upper left is the only one that sort of blends in, at least before it blows away.

Here are three bowls of food and water left behind by feeders. The small black one in the upper left is the only one that blends in, at least until it blows away.

Encourage any homeowners and businesses nearby to help. Explain how the cats are a good thing, keeping the rodent population down. Enlist their help in setting up a food bank. By engaging the locals, you might find new advocates and feeders.

“Tell them you are providing a community service,” Holton says. “Tell them about the ‘vacuum effect’ — if the cats are trapped and killed within a short time, other cats will move in. Better to have a stable, controlled, and vaccinated cat population than new unvaccinated cats moving in.”

Following TNR, this female returns daily for food.

Following trap-neuter-return, this female returns daily for food.

Occasionally you’ll need to move a feeding site to a spot nearby. Moving bowls is never a problem because the cats will follow the food. If you need to move dishes a long distance, do it in stages until the new location is established. Felines are such creatures of habit that they’ll soon gather at the new station at the same time every day.

Don’t be surprised if some of them come out of their feral shell after a time and start head-butting you. Enjoy this earned trust and use it to the cats’ advantage by keeping up with flea treatments.

Former feral waits with relaxed eyes for me to hand over his dinner and a bit of fresh catnip.

A former feral waits with relaxed eyes for me to hand over his dinner and a bit of fresh catnip.

Thanks to all of you who champion the unwanted shadow cats. You are my unsung heroes.

All photos by Marci Kladnik.

About the author: Marci Kladnik, her four rescue cats, and one rescue dog live in a small town with no stoplights or mail delivery. A retired graphic designer and technical writer, she turned her talents to championing feral cats in 2007. Involved in TNR and feral rescue, she sat on the board of directors of Catalyst for Cats from 2007-2013 while trapping and fostering local feral cats and kittens. Her award-winning biweekly cat column ran for seven years in three newspapers. She is an award-winning photographer, and president of the Cat Writers’ Association. Past columns appear on www.catalystforcats.org.