What does it take to care for (feral) community cats? What can you expect and what kind of resources does it require? There is no one answer to this as it depends very much on the situation. However, since people have asked me these questions, I will share my personal experiences of what it means to be a community cat caretaker to me.
My history of feeding ferals
It started out with very few cats. I put out a plate of leftover cat food at night and Little Poul, Tommy and sometimes Bozzy would come by. Fast forward to 1,5 years later where I saw Bozzy climb into the roof of the neighbours barn. I had found "the nest" where many kittens were born over the years and more would come. By discovering the nest I also discovered more adult cats and got them neutered. However Bozzy and a few other cats were already pregnant. The 3 of them had several litters before I could TNR (trap neuter return) them. And so suddenly there was 20 cats as fall set in.
So what does it take to care for 20 community cats?
TNR - trap neuter return
First and foremost I have to say that taking care of community cats or just one feral cat, means having them fixed. It will make their lives better in so many ways: less roaming, less fighting, no strain on the body having litters, no stress caring for kittens, less risk of certain diseases. They will live longer better lives after being desexed and you won't suddenly have a huge (inbred) colony to feed. Neutering feral cats means doing trap neuter return and this is a whole other chapter. I will write about this another time, but please know that this is a crucial step in responsible community cat caretaking.
Food glorious food
Feeding 20 cats takes a lot of food! They can really chow down and during winter they eat even more. I've got two food dispensers and several bowls of dry food that I fill up every day. At night, when there's most activity by the feeding station, I also put out bowls of wet food.
I've been lucky to receive generous donations of cat food for my community cats. It's primarily from local organisations working with cats, but a few followers have donated as
well. Even my vet has given me food. But of course I have also bought a bunch myself. All this food takes up a lot of room and so my home have become more messy since I started caring for our local feral friends.
Providing all this food takes either a big network of supporters and good cooperation with local cat organisations who has food to give or a lot of money (most likely a combination). So a little effort is necessary to constantly have food enough in stock.
I actually have two separate feeding stations. One is primarily for my number one girl Little Poul. Little Poul doesn't seem to be a part of the cat colony and doesn't eat at the big feeding station near the nest. Instead she waits for me closer to our house every night and I feed her in her own little shelter. Sometimes Tommy will be waiting for me there too and I know some of the community cats pops by during the night. Since this station is closer to our house, there's only food out at night. Otherwise the neighbour dog will just eat it.
We're renting our place, so we don't own the land we live on and we don't have our own garden. The area is also a place of business, so my feeding stations have to be discrete. I have been granted permission to put out small shelters, that I use as feeding stations. I also use a big plastic box that offers a more open eating area.
I've received funds to get some of it, but I've paid for most of it myself. If you are going to feed community cats, you'll need some sort of cover to protect the food. There are lots of ways to do this, depending on the area and your possibilities and abbilities to build.
Feeding is never enough to keep a cat happy. It needs shelter as well to survive the outdoor life. My situation is special because the cats I feed actually live on the neighbours ground. They have access to a barn with straw, where they can take shelter. So no matter what type of shelter I put up, then don't use them to overnight, because they have an even better offer. As a feral cat caretaker you should make sure they have somewhere to keep dry and warm. You can easily make a cat shelter yourself.
Community Cat Caretaker necessities
A few other things have proven useful in taking care of these community cats. I got a lot of food bowls as it's really annoying running out. I found some stackable bowls that takes up less space in my cupboards.
More caretaker stuff I acquired
- Food dispensers
- Water dispenser
- Big containers for dry food
- Small containers to transport dry food to the feeding station
- Head torch
- Rubber boots
- A brush to keep the shelters clean
- Cat statues for decoration (totally unnecessary, but nice)
It's by no means required to have a wildlife camera to take care of community cats. However in my situation I find it to be a very crucial tool to get information and be a better caretaker. The majority of cats I feed are feral, which means they don't really show themselves to humans. They run away whenever they see me. So to know who is out there and how many, I need a wildlife camera.
It allows me to keep an eye on them. Who is coming by? When are they coming? Who is eating? Is anyone limping or pregnant? Are there any intruders to worry about? Are there new cats on the scene who needs to be TNR'ed?
So personally I've spent a lot of money on cameras, rechargeable batteries and memory cards. But it's been worth the money and I would recommend it to any colony cat caretaker who can afford it. I love keeping track of my TNR cats.
Time and energy
Keeping a feeding station for 20 cats and personally serving one of them every night takes some time and energy of course. I start every day collecting the many bowls put out the night before. Then I fill up the dispensers and big bowl with dry food and water and sometimes this takes me two runs. I don't clean the dispensers every day, but around once a week depending on the situation. The big feeding station is about 100 m from my apartment.
Whether you care for one cat or a whole colony, it's a big responsibility. Once you start feeding the cats depends on you for showing up and filling their bowl and cleaning the straw in their shelter. This is every day, 365 days a year in all kinds of weather. You gotta get out there even if you are sick or hung over. During the dark winter months I don't always feel like going out in the cold, but I do it every night anyway.
When you go away on vacation you need someone to look after your feral cats just like you would with any other pet. Sometimes I'm going out in the weekends and I usually get a neighbour to feed Little Poul (the rest always have access to food). So there's some work finding and instructing temps when needed. I was hospitalised this summer in the middle of my TNR work and got others to take care of my colony for me. So a network for this is important too, cause you never know if you can care for them all the time. It's a long time commitment to care for community cats as they can live to see the age of 7 or more.
To sum up
How many resources you need to be a community cat caretaker depends of the amount of cats. But it also depends on where the feeding station is located, if you have someone to help you, if you have a car and so forth. We all have different recourses; Some are handy and can build a lot of stuff for no money and some will know people who can help them in one way or another.
But whether you feed a single cat in your own back yard or a bunch of them on the harbour, you should expect to put a lot of time and energy into it. I hope that this post gave you a general idea of the dedication it takes to be a community cat caretaker.
What may start as an innocent bowl of food on your doorstep, might end up in a colony of 20 community cats depending on you. Trust me - I know 😉