Okay. So you've successfully trapped 18 cats, neutered them all, eartipped them for identification, and returned them to the alley behind your house. Great! You have prolonged their lives and definitely improved their health. So now what? Although a lot of caring for a colony is just common sense, here are a few tips to make your life as a caretaker a little easier.
The amount of food needed by the cats depends upon the weather, other sources of food and the size of the individual cats. You can expect an adult feral cat to eat roughly 5.5 oz. of wet (canned) cat food and 2 ounces of dry food. Some cats will eat considerably more food, others less. Monitor the amount of food the cats leave behind to determine the proper portion. If the food is all gone in 15 minutes, you may want to put out a little more. If there's still food remaining after an hour on a consistent basis, try putting out a little less.
In winter you may want to provide more dry food, as the wet food, if not eaten quickly, will freeze. And remember that while most cats clearly enjoy canned food, you can feed a colony on dry food alone. Remember to always keep the feeding station neat and clean. This is vital, not only for the health of the cats, but also for community relations. Remove uneaten food - do not allow food to sit out overnight, as it could attract other wildlife.
Keep the food dishes in one space to facilitate clean up and to provide a neater appearance. Your neighbors and the cats will appreciate your efforts!
Automatic feeders can help keep a feeding station orderly. Some have a flap that the cats must push open to get to the food, making it less vulnerable to the elements and some birds. These feeders also help if you cannot get to the colony every day; however, they do make cats harder to trap, as they are not fed at a regular time. A good example is Nasco Farm and Ranch's pest free dog food feeder. Call 1-800-558-9595 for ordering information.
To protect the food from birds and the weather, it's advisable to find a sheltered spot, or build a canopy to cover the food. Suitable feeding stations can easily be fashioned by someone with basic carpentry skills or made out of large plastic tubs or trashcans, cut to permit access by the cats.
For a simple, protected feeding station, try attaching a domed plastic garbage can lid to three or four wooden posts. Place the food and water underneath. Location of the feeding stations is also important. They should not be put too close to the cats sleeping spots (shelters), or too near the place where they eliminate.
OBTAINING FOOD FOR THE CATS
You may want to call your local humane society or human food bank to see if they ever have a surplus of cat food that they are willing to give you. You can ask at the local market and pet supply store to see if they'll make broken packages or dented cans available to you. You can also try asking local vet clinics, as they may have surplus or just-out-of-date premium pet foods that they are willing to donate. Another idea is to advertise a cat food drive in the local paper. Your office, local church, civic, or youth group might be willing to help out with such a drive. The local market may be willing to allow you to put out an attractive bin requesting pet food donations. While many of these suggestions will work better if you're part of an organized group, some may still be workable for an individual.
WATER / BUGS
Keeping water clean and plentiful can be difficult at times. In the winter, freezing can be a problem. There are electrically powered heated water bowls on the market; unfortunately, these only work if you feed close to an outlet. Otherwise, try keeping the water in the sun. There is also a product on the market called Solar Sipper, which claims to help to prevent the water from freezing. However, this only works at temperatures of 30 degrees F or higher and must be kept in the sun. Check water frequently during winter months. If you notice that the cats are not using the water you provide, you might want to try moving it a short distance from their food, because cats sometimes prefer this arrangement.
Cut down on bugs by keeping your feeding areas clean, especially in hot, humid weather. Removing feeding dishes completely in between feedings can also help. You can also cut back, or cut out completely, the amount of wet food that you feed because dry food tends to attract fewer bugs. Just be sure that you add more dry food to compensate. Feeding stations that are slightly elevated off the ground and surrounded with a line of diatomaceous earth, available from some natural food stores and environmentally conscious pet-care supply companies, can also help. Be sure to use food-grade diato-maceous earth without any chemical additives. The diatom dust will need to be reapplied after rainstorms, but it effectively keeps crawling insects away from the food.
A less expensive solution involves applying cooking oil to the outside of the food bowl. Bugs and ants will not walk on oil. Another solution includes placing the food bowls on a tray or cookie sheet with a 1" high lip, and filling the tray with a layer of water. The cats can reach over the water to get the food, but crawling bugs cannot cross it. Ten inch plastic plant pot trays also work well. They are available in a camouflaged shade of green and the lip for the plant pot holds the food bowl to prevent it from sliding. Besides being durable and inexpensive, the two inch deep trays can hold enough water to be used as a water source for the cats as well.
Some colonies have already found shelter for themselves - in a shed or under a building where they are safely permitted to reside. If not, you should consider building it for them. Contact Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycatallies.org) for building plans for a wooden shelter. There is also a video, available on the website for $8, that demonstrates how to build an inexpensive shelter. Make sure that the door is big enough only for cats. Also make sure that the shelter is waterproof (and windproof for colder climates) and elevated off the ground. The space beneath the shelters should be blocked from draft. Use straw or hay for bedding, not blankets or carpeting because these can hold moisture. Scrap lumber for building feral cat houses may be obtained from building supply stores or contractors at very modest costs; some might even be willing to donate them. Putting ads in the paper requesting used dog houses for feral cats will usually net several shelters, free of charge, that can often be made suitable for cats with minor improvements (usually insulation needs to be added and the door needs to be made smaller).
Consider having the veterinarian apply a long lasting topical flea control product that is safe for cats, such as Advantage, when the cats are anaesthetized for sterilization. There are also oral flea medications (such as Program) that can be added to the food once a month, but for feral cats monitoring the dosage can be difficult. Bedding in the shelters should be changed twice a year. At that time the floor surface of the shelter can be sprayed or dusted with a catsafe flea control product. Diatomaceous earth can also be sprinkled beneath the straw/hay to deter fleas. There are also sprays that contain a flea growth inhibitor that is harmless to the cats (once dry), but prevents flea eggs from maturing.
To prevent cats from using neighbors' gardens or other unacceptable spots to eliminate, you should consider supplying litter for them. Although you cannot use conventional litter outside because of weather, sand is a good, inexpensive alternative. You might want to build a simple wooden frame to keep all the sand in one area. Another idea is to build a covered area to keep conventional litter boxes dry. Make sure to clean any litter that you put out on a regular basis. Be sure that the litter area is in a quiet, sheltered space. The cats will reject it if it's too busy, or too near their feeding or sleeping spots.
You'll want to keep an eye on the cats for general good health. Some common indicators of health problems are: changes in behavior or eating habits, dull eyes or coat, discharge from nose or eyes, or listlessness. If you feel that a feral is ill, you might want to re-trap him and take him to your vet for a check-up. Call your vet first and describe the symptoms. Try to work out a plan with your vet to provide you with deworming medicine or antibiotics to medicate your colony cats for minor health problems. Setting up a plan with your vet before a health problem strikes will make any situation that occurs much easier to handle. Make sure to keep all of your colony's health records handy for future reference. Use the Feral Cat Colony Tracking System, available from ACA.
Tell your neighbors who you are and what you are doing. It helps to provide written information from Alley Cat Allies or another recognized organization to lend credibility to your efforts and for them to refer to if they have questions. It's also advisable to provide your phone number, so they can contact you if there is a problem with your colony. If, for example, one of the cats is bothering them on their property, or one of the cats is ill, you can intervene to solve the problem. Request ACA's fact sheet, "Community Benefits of Feral Cats" for more ideas. Often, once people know what you are doing and how it benefits the neighborhood, they become more tolerant of the cats and might even want to help. Be sure to make it clear that you are not bringing cats into the neighborhood, but rather humanely managing an existing situation.