How to Properly Feed a Colony of Feral Cats

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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.

15 thoughts on “How to Properly Feed a Colony of Feral Cats”

  1. thanks for making my property a place for you to hoard your unwanted cats. you need to become a responsible pet owner and feed them on your property, keep them in your yard and on a leash. t n r is only an excuse to hoard unwanted cats. most feeders only feed them without even trying to trap them to be spayed or neuter. laws need to be put in place, like having to be licensed, vaccinations proof, leash laws and not allowed to roam. anyone who allows their pet to roam, really doesn’t care about them much. and certainly don’t respect their neighbors or their property. t n r people are only making the problem with unwanted cats worse. my cat is loved and does not roam and is very happy except when she senses one of your unwanted cats. please be a responsible pet owner and quit trying think you are such a great person by polluting neighborhoods with your unwanted cats.

  2. WE LIVE N THE WOODS AWAY FROM NEIGHBORS AND TRAFFIC . WE HAVE A FERAL COLONY OF ABOUT 40 CATS. NONE OF THE CATS CAN BE TOUCHED THEY ALWAYS RUN AWAY WHEN WE GO OUT THE DOOR. FEED THEM TWICE A DAY WET FOOD MIXED WITH DRY. THEY KEEP BREEDING AND WE HAVE BABY KITTENS EVERY WHERE THE MALES FIGHT AND GET INJURED BUT WE HAVE NO WAY OF CAPTURING THEM. ANY SUGGESTIONS? I LOVE EACH ONE OF THEM BUT FEAR FOR THEIR HEALTH AND SAFETy WE HAVE NO LOCAL SERVICE THAT WILL HELP.

    1. Contact the local humane society or a local vet or rescue and find out where to get feral cat neutered in your area. You can catch them the same way other people do. Get a live trap and bait it with tuna. Once you catch a cat, have it neutered, get it basic shots and release it back into the colony. Then there is a non breeding animal holding a place in the food chain. Lots of times there isn’t a local agency to help.

    2. I just read your post. Did you find a way to get the feral cat colony you take care of fixed thru one of the tnr programs?

  3. I sort of run my own little TNR here at home, financing it myself because it is such a journey to the cities where they offer help. So far I have managed to tame and home 4 young ones and still have several more I need to get trapped and fixed.

    I confess, one kitten I fell so in love with when I scooped him up a day before Christmas, last year that I ended up keeping, and he has turned into one of the best house cats I have ever had. Now he is one of the most spoiled pampered pets anyone could have to pleasure to have.

  4. I feed a small colony consisting of one neutered male cat, one not neutered, and one spayed very young female, which was done a couple months ago. Two weeks ago another small Calico female which was obviously pregnant was trapped and taken to the clinic for spaying. She was too close to having the litter so they kept her there until she had the kittens. Turns out she did not have milk and did not want to nurse them, so she was able to be returned to me after almost two weeks. (The kittens are being fostered for adoption) The problem is that since she has been back the other female cat is being aggressive to her, chasing after her whenever she comes to eat or even if she just sees her. The Calico is very docile and scarred to come out to eat. I worry about her. Is she being rejected from the colony?

    1. belvoir admin

      Hi there,
      Thanks for caring for these cats and for reaching out. Maybe you can contact the shelter where she was spayed and see if they can provide more insight into this cat — ex. personality.
      More on feral cats:
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/feral-cat-rescue-tips-on-fundraising-and-vet-care
      These pieces are about indoor cats but might help!
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-behavior-problems-tips-cats-aggressive-aggression
      https://www.catster.com/cat-food/what-to-do-when-your-cat-wont-eat
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-health-food-8-things-wont-eat
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/senior-cat-health-care-wont-eat-poor-appetite

  5. Can feral cats turn into house cats? I feel so bad for the cat and its baby kittens living outside in the cold next to a creek.

    1. Hi Monica, It really depends. We suggest contacting your local shelter and Googling local TNR programs. It is likely that the kittens are young and able to be put up for adoption, while the mom can be TNR’ed even if she can’t be adopted out. Thank you for caring!

    2. We have often seen feral cats turn into house cats once they have been TNR’d, aka “fixed” and given regular food and care. Even those relocated to barns as mousers end up on beds inside the house instead! Kittens 8 weeks of age and younger are taken into foster with even greater success. Patience is the key and let them come to you. Good luck!

    3. Yes.u can tame a feral cat I did 3 of them but it takes awhile about a yr.keep it on ur house.it will get used to u and will learn to trust u.

    4. yes…many can. especially kittens. You will need to confine them to a small space until they get use to you… I use my bathroom, which is large enough for a small litter box etc & has hiding places. they will warm up to you & you can slowly introduce them to the rest of the house.

  6. Thank you this was a really helpful article! My husband and I have been involved with colony cats for several years now and you have summarised best course actions so nicely here!

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