It’s easy to think of our cats as solitary felines. Sometimes they are standoffish. Sometimes they are snuggly. For many human companions, cats may rarely seem to crave the companionship of others. However, cat colonies exist, and not all feral cats can be domesticated. Let’s dive into the world of cat colonies to find out how we can better understand their lives as well as when and how to intervene.
Our domestic kitties are remarkably adaptable. They can live like kings and queens in the luxury of swanky, high-rise New York lofts, surrounded by plush beds, fed gourmet food, and given Pinot Meow (colored water) infused with locally sourced, organic catnip. Or they live the street life, fending for themselves in dumpsters, fighting for territory, and narrowly escaping abuses and death traps set by humans to clear their neighborhoods of strays.
What do cat colonies really mean, and how are they structured? What can we do to ensure the health of our neighborhoods, wild cats, and our domestic outdoor cats? This and more are answered so we can be humane community stewards and alley cat allies.
Also, called community cats, feral cats number in the tens of millions. Any cat who was born in the wild or who was abandoned and had to turn wild in order to survive is called a community cat.
Even though their numbers are high, only 50% of kittens born in the wild survive. Most die of diseases and parasites in their first year. Those who do survive have to endure weather extremes beyond simple cold nights and hot days. They endure storms, lack of shelter, and lack of resources, like not having access to water on hot days. Community cats are always facing starvation, infection, and attacks from other cats, other animals, and humans.
Most humans use old, ineffective methods for population control such as setting traps, leaving poison, capture and kill methods, and relocation. Unfortunately, traps and poison often injure and kill countless other animals. Capture and kill methods only address those cats that are caught, and never solve the bigger problem of breeding and disease among the cats that remain or move back into the area once the territory is open.
Luckily, there are effective methods to manage cat colonies.
Cat Colony Allies
In an ideal world, these cats would all become domesticated and would be adopted to wonderful forever homes. While stray cats are often friendly with humans and may find a good home with an understanding guardian, feral cats, those who were born and raised in the wild, are often unable to adapt to domestic life. And of course, there just aren’t enough homes for all the wild and stray cats out there.
Instead, volunteers will often take on the demanding, but rewarding role of managing a local cat colony. This type of involvement ensures the colony sees minimal growth and remains mostly free from disease, particularly outbreaks that can spread into the rest of the community, potentially affecting other wild animals and domestic pets.
It takes a special kind of person to take on this role. They need to be committed to owning the responsibility which will include working with local veterinarians to provide free medical services, local shelters to domesticate and home any kitten litters, and working with neighbors and community members to minimize any interruption to neighborhoods in order to help protect the cats and their neighbors.
Cat Colony Management: Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)
Cats tend to resort to communal living around reliable food sources. One of the best ways to establish a cat colony located away from neighborhoods, particularly those with neighborhoods with high populations of humans who will be bothered or bother the cats, is to create a food source. Not every alley cat ally gets to choose the location, but if it is possible, work with local rescues, animal control authorities, and other volunteers to find the right location.
If a colony is already established, it’s the job of the human guardian to stabilize the population. While working with medical professionals, allies will regularly trap wild cats, take them to get spayed or neutered, and then return them to the colony. During their stay, which is typically a few hours to a few days, they’ll also do any additional treatments that may be warranted. The most common treatments are vaccinations, particularly for rabies, deworming, ringworm treatments, and anything else specific to the cat or the risks associated with the area. For example, ticks may be common in some regions, so applying an anti-tick formula can help provide relief for the cat as well as limit the spread of common blood-borne pathogens carried by ticks.
A colony caretaker will also ensure there is some kind of shelter for the cats during inclement weather to help keep them from sheltering in and under cars. They will regularly fundraise and leave food for the cats to help ensure starvation and malnutrition are kept to a minimum. And they’ll make sure there is always a clean water source nearby.
All of this may sound daunting, but it has been well documented that colonies with a volunteer caretaker who manages basic needs and establishes routine TNR activities are less costly and more humane than the alternatives. TNR is an effective means of stabilizing stray and feral cat communities. It also reduces cat communities over time and is a significant factor in the reduction and elimination of spraying, excessive noise making, and fights.
How to Help
For those who want to be a cat colony caretaker, the answer is in the partnerships and fundraising efforts the person is willing to commit to. For those who aren’t able to take on that role, but want to be involved, there are plenty of opportunities!
- We can all offer to assist local colony caretakers with simple tasks. Sometimes, just being available to drive a trapped cat to the vet and back to the colony caretaker’s residence or office for postoperative care, is a huge help.
- Many local shelters and animal welfare groups will hold TNR workshops and will have a list of needs for people who want to offer some assistance.
- Become a reliable foster home for kittens born in the wild. They often require nursing and socialization in order to be adopted out. For those who can offer this service, there is always a need for quality, skilled, and understanding foster homes.
- Become a community liaison. Many times there are neighborhoods who complain about cat colonies and want to implement the less effective and less humane, but more emotional responses, such as poison, trapping, killing, and relocating cats. These cats need a unified voice to speak to the safety and effectiveness of TNR, and to listen to the concerns of neighbors to work with them on their specific demands or interest.
- Donate supplies and resources. TNR and colony caretaking is a big job. It requires manpower and money. Many people may choose to donate money, help with fundraisers, build relationships with those who have services and resources to provide or donate goods. For example, Vet Organics has a variety of wallet-friendly, all-natural cat health products that would be the perfect donation for cats in need of basic medical care. For example,
- EcoMange is a fast, effective remedy for most skin infections that are common to outdoor living, particularly when malnutrition is a real risk.
- EcoEars delivers fast relief for cats with painful ear infections. It’s all-natural and is specially formulated to be hard on infections and easy on delicate cat ears.
- EcoSpot offers relief from the most common skin infections. It is perfect for hot spots on cats and even helps to prevent future symptoms like painful irritation and severe itching.
We all love our cat and canine companions, but for the animal lovers out there, particularly the cat lovers, there’s even more we can do than spoil the loved ones we keep under our roof. We can reach out and help those who never found a forever home, and probably never will. Let us know how you decide to help, no matter how large or small, by commenting on our blog or commenting on social and tagging us. We would love to hear from alley cat allies, cat colony caretakers, stray cat sympathizers, and other volunteers or resource providers.
- “Cat Colony at Risk: Gaining Community Support for TNR,” Best Friends Animal Society: Save Them All
- “Community Cat Care,” Alley Cat Allies
- “How to help your neighborhood's feral felines: tips for keeping neighborhood cats safe,” The Humane Society of the United States