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The modern cat caretaker

Tips for taking your colony care to a higher level

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2016

Krista Rakovan, an HSUS staffer and volunteer colony caretaker in Maryland, puts fresh straw in a cat shelter in preparation for winter.Part of a managed colony in Montgomery County, Md., these sterilized ferals live in a commercial district but maintain a low profile. Their feeding stations and shelters are located in wooded areas behind businesses and parking lots.

After 12 years of feeding community cats, Connie Markwood has mastered the morning prep routine. Standing by her kitchen sink, she opens can after can of Friskies and dumps the contents into a large mixing bowl. It’s cold and raining outside, so she pops the bowl into the microwave, commenting that the cats will appreciate a hot meal.

She fills three gallon-size milk jugs with water, pulls on a pair of polka-dotted muck boots, and lets her elderly dog out for a pee break while she loads her car.

Over the next hour, she drives to six locations near her Montgomery County, Md., home. At each stop, her appearance magically conjures cats from patches of woods that border businesses and parking lots. They cluster near feeding stations while Markwood calls out their names and refills their food and water bowls.

Most of the cats are middle-aged or older and stockily built. A few, like Evil—an elderly black short-hair who lives by an auto repair shop—have surpassed the pleasingly plump stage.

“He lives to eat,” Markwood says, looking both exasperated and fond as he waddles by.

Markwood had recently retired from the police force when she first spied stray cats living behind a local post office. She’d never had a pet cat, and had always thought of herself as a “dog person,” but she couldn’t bear to think of any animal going hungry. So she started leaving food wherever she spied free-roaming cats—behind a supermarket, a Pizza Hut, a laundromat and other businesses.

She learned about trap-neuter-return (TNR) from volunteers with the D.C.-based nonprofit Metro Ferals, and through trial-and-error and advice from other cat lovers, she learned tips for smart caretaking that would increase the health and safety of her cat colonies.

There used to be more than 100 cats among the colonies and “kittens everywhere,” Markwood says. Now there are 45, all bearing the left ear tip that marks them as a sterilized community cat in a managed colony.

With daily feedings, medical care as needed and insulated shelters, these free-roaming, unowned cats appear healthy and content with their outdoor homes. And they aren’t unusual. As TNR has become more widespread, more community cats are living longer lives under the watchful eyes of conscientious animal lovers like Markwood.

If you’re feeding community cats and want to take your caregiving to a higher level, start with the basics, advises Markwood. That means, first and foremost, TNR. Once you’ve completed that vital first step, follow these tips from community cat experts.

Daily Roll Call: After spay/neuter, monitoring is the most important part of the caretaker role, says veterinarian Susan Krebsbach, founder of Dane County Feral Friends in Wisconsin. Even if you can’t get close to the cats, you can often detect behavioral changes, like decreased food consumption, and physical changes, such as a swollen jaw or a limp. And monitoring will help you identify newcomers who need to be sterilized.

To make monitoring easier, follow a consistent meal schedule and set up a central feeding station. This will help ensure that the cats show up in the same place at the same time that you’re there. Markwood and her fellow caregivers also pair meal times with the sound of a dog-training clicker, teaching the cats to come running at the sound.

Documented Progress: Basic record keeping will allow you to keep track of the cats and their medical histories. “It doesn’t have to be a fancy spreadsheet or computer software,” says Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for The HSUS. “It can be handwritten notes.” Include descriptions of the cats with their approximate ages and markings, their medical history and any health or behavioral changes you notice. If one of your cats ends up in a shelter, your records will help prove that the animal is part of your colony so you can return her there.

Record keeping also “goes to the wider effort to show TNR is working,” Lisnik says. “You can show over time: ‘I started out with 30 cats, and now I’m down to 15 over the past six years.’”

Dishing It Out: When it comes to feeding, high-quality dry kibble alone is fine, says Krebsbach, adding that if a cat has teeth problems, you’ll want to supplement his diet with canned food.

Fresh water is vital, especially in the colder months. There are water containers you can fill once a week, but Krebsbach doesn’t recommend them. “When you have stagnant water, bacteria can grow and grow. I always feel more comfortable providing fresh water every day.”

Keep in mind that how you feed is as important as what you feed. Only put out as much as the cats will eat in one feeding, and remove any leftovers, says Kayla Christiano, campaign manager for Alley Cat Allies, a national feral cat organization based in Bethesda, Md. “By practicing good caregiving practices, like keeping the cats discreet and keeping feeding and shelter areas clean, you’re protecting these cats from any issues arising in the community,” she says.

A Team Approach: Don’t be a one-person caretaking show, advises Markwood. By recruiting other animal lovers, you can ensure that the cats will be cared for even when you aren’t available.

Not long after she started feeding community cats, Markwood placed ads on a local pet website to find other volunteers. Today, with seven other people sharing the work and expense of looking after the cats, Markwood only has to spend about six hours a week on colony care.

Professional Partnerships: While the cats may live their entire lives with no health problems, you should have a plan for what to do if one of your charges is injured or falls ill. Start by identifying a local veterinarian who is willing to treat community cats, including ferals, at a discount.

Once you have found the right vet, make sure that you maintain a good relationship, says Susan Richmond, executive director of Neighborhood Cats in New York City. “Don’t make an appointment for one cat and show up with five. Be reliable, respect their schedules, respect their limits and pay your bills. … That’s the way you’re going to have a sustained relationship with a doctor that’s going to want to work with you.”

Between the Ideal and the Feasible: Of course, feral cats don’t always cooperate with your efforts to provide them with ongoing health care. While some cats can be trapped repeatedly and some may grow more trusting over time, others will become more skilled at avoiding traps.

Lisnik recommends that caretakers make a good-faith effort to adhere to local or state laws on rabies vaccines. “You’re really never going to get public health officials to exempt feral colonies from those requirements,” she says. “Rabies is very serious disease, and we want to help stamp it out as much as we can.”

Most healthy cats can handle a certain level of internal and external parasites, but if the cats need intervention, check out the websites of feral cat organizations for advice on deworming colonies, using natural flea repellents or administering medicines to cats who can’t be handled.

“It boils down to you do the best that you can to help these animals,” says Krebsbach. “As a veterinarian, if they’re showing a limp or a bad hair coat or something like that, I would want to examine them. But if you’re not able to trap them and you’re not able to touch them, you do the best you can.”

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About the Author

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of the Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.