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Help! I’m feeding a stray… what next?

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If you are reading this article, chances are you’re feeding a stray or feral cat, or perhaps you are considering leaving a bowl out for a kitty you’ve seen prowling your property. Maybe he brazenly came on to your porch one day and just stayed there, or maybe he is shy, malnourished or looking sickly. Maybe she’s nursing a litter and you are already aware of their presence near your home. We all want what’s best for these little cats, regardless of their history or the circumstances they find themselves in. Nobody likes to see an animal go hungry. So, if you’ve begun feeding kitty regularly, maybe you’ve even given him a name… what happens next?
Hopefully you are feeding him an age appropriate cat food and never giving a kitten or cat milk. Thank you for caring! But…and there is unfortunately a big BUT here… regularly feeding a stray cat comes with obligations attached. The most important thing to think about is the consequences of your actions, for the cat, for the environment and for the future. If the cat looks healthy and well fed, it might be stray. A stray is a domesticated cat that is lost, abandoned or has voluntarily left their home due to a disruption or change in circumstances like a new baby or pet. If the cat is malnourished, skinny and looks sickly, it may be feral, meaning it was most likely born and reared on the streets without any human owner. Not every cat will require trapping. If you think you have a stray visiting your property, there are a couple of things you can do to find their owner. Advertise on the local SPCA noticeboard, Facebook, or community watch groups. Try to get a clear photograph or concise description, share to Lost and Found pages and any wardens in your area. Animal advocate groups will be happy to help.

You may feel you are doing the right thing by feeding a stray cat but are you ready to take on the responsibility and shoulder the burden, both financial and emotional? A cat that is fed in your garden will come back to your garden for as long as you continue to supply food. Feral cats are focused on two things: survival and procreation. If you feed a stray, you must be prepared to put their wellbeing first as they will soon begin to rely on you. Are you able to take part in the ‘capture, neuter and release’ program? Do you have the time and the money to help the cat in the long run?
A trip to the vets office will benefit any stray or feral cat greatly. The vet may find a microchip which could lead to the strays reunification with his family! During the appointment, kitty will be checked over for many common feline problems including worms, fleas and itchy and annoying ear mites. They may be vaccinated and given routine shots and medications. Feral cats will be ‘ear tipped’, a painless procedure which ensures observers can tell he has been ‘taken care of’ from a good distance and that he doesn’t need capturing at all. In the event a stray needs more serious medical help, is severely malnourished, diseased or dehydrated, it may require a stay in the vets until he is back to full strength

Feral cats should be spayed or neutered, depending on their sex. Coming into heat from as early as 6 months, female cats are capable of producing three litters a year which may result in up to 12 kittens a year. Spaying a single female cat will prevent this prolific procreation and result in less, but much healthier, feral cats living in our neighbourhoods. Our shelter is inundated with kittens all year around seeking families to rehome them and keeping the feral population numbers down is one of our goals at the SPCA. Spaying and neutering will reduce the amount of fighting between cats which is the main way disease is spread amongst the cat community.
Now we have discussed the many reasons to NOT feed a stray or feral cat, what happens next if you have chosen to continue feeding?
Animal traps are large cages with a spring loaded door which will close once the cat is inside. They are humane and simple to use. Some people may feel there is no logical way to capture a feral cat. They seem scrappy, angry and their claws are sharp. We have learned a couple of tips and tricks to make this necessary procedure easier on everyone. Firstly, have a chat with your local vet or SPCA about what you are planning, they may have a trap to loan you. Arrange an appointment. After you have observed the cat for a few days you will notice if he is exhibiting any obvious signs of disease like excessive drooling, lethargy, skin lesions or erratic behaviour. As some feline diseases are zoonotic (meaning they can be transferred to humans) it is best not to touch or attempt to trap a cat like this. Instead, seek advice from an animal control professional.

You can capture a feral kitty in a live trap baited with tasty cat food. Don’t have a cage? Use a pet carrier. This procedure is made easer if you feed the stray in the same place every day and slowly get him used to your presence while he eats. Some experts advocate withholding food for a few meals prior to trapping and using the same food you have been giving him ordinarily, this may make him a little hungrier and a little less suspicious. Under no circumstances should you try to pick the cat up, touch him or force him into the box, instead allow him to enter the carrier himself and begin eating before you sneak up to close the door securely. Prepare for some thrashing about as he realises he is caught and expect loud howling of displeasure. Ideally, your appointment with the vet would be shortly after trapping but if you must keep the stray in the cage for any period of time, choose a dark quiet room, rest the cage down and cover with a towel or blanket until it is time to take him to the car and onwards to the vet.
Having learned what happens next after you fed a stray or feral cat, and the obligations you take on, you may feel differently about leaving that bowl out tonight. Taking responsibility for the strays you feed is not only the humane, caring thing to do, it is an essential part of maintaining the balance in our back gardens and green spaces.
Thanks for caring!