Managing a Feral Cat Colony

Basic steps

So you’ve decided you want to help the colony of feral cats in your neighborhood. What do you do? In our experience, the process of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) offers the greatest chance of success both for you and the cats. TNR involves trapping the cats in a colony, getting them spay/neutered, vaccinated for rabies where appropriate and marked for identification, then returning the ferals to their territory. A caretaker provides food and shelter and monitors for any newcomers or other problems.

At its essence, TNR is not about rescuing cats, it's about population control and permanently reducing the number of feral cats in an area. It's not about getting a wonderful cat a great home, it's about lowering stray intake and euthanasia rates, reducing costs for animal control, and creating better, less hostile environments for the cats. In addition, spay/neuter of the cats eliminates common nuisance behaviors such as yowling and foul odor, and vaccinating them for rabies also provides a public health benefit.

If you want to undertake a TNR project and care for a managed colony, here's an outline of the basic steps to take:

1.  Educate Yourself

First thing you should do is learn all you can about TNR.  The Neighborhood Cats TNR Handbook and instructional video, How to Perform a Mass Trapping, are available from The Humane Society of the United States as part of their CD/DVD set, Effectively Managing Feral Cats.  You can also read through the How To section of this website to learn the basics.

If you live in the New York City area, we recommend you attend one of our three-hour training workshops on feral cat colony management (see NYC Workshops for upcoming dates). In the workshop, we cover everything you’ll need to know about how to manage your colony and implement TNR.  NYC residents who attend gain access to an array of no-cost services as well, including spay/neuter and equipment rental. 

If you’re interested in practicing TNR on a large scale, you can order the guide, Implementing a Community Trap-Neuter-Return Program, authored by Bryan Kortis and published by The Humane Society of the United States.

2. Build Good Community Relations
In tackling your feral cat colony it is of paramount importance that you build good community relations. Unless the cats live in some remote setting, you must take their human neighbors into account and try to build positive, harmonious relations. A supportive, cooperative community will make your work considerably easier, while a hostile or uninvolved one will make it far more difficult.

3. Set Up Feeding Stations and Shelters
There are many benefits to beginning to manage the colony as soon as possible. Start by setting up a feeding station. By arranging a regular feeding schedule, you will train the cats to show up at a certain place at a certain time, and you’ll be able to withhold food and get them hungry when you want. This will make trapping much easier. Improving the cats’ nutrition by improving the quality of their food will better prepare them for the stress of trapping and neutering. Adequate shelter also promotes their health and assists in locating them.

4. Secure an adequate holding space for trapping and neutering

Depending on the size of the colony, trapping all the cats may take two or three days. A space is needed to hold the cats as the colony is being trapped, and for them to recover in for at least 48 hours following surgery. While they are confined, the cats remain in their traps – the traps are cleaned and the cats fed preferably twice a day. To learn how to do this safely, read “Caring for Cats Held in Traps.”

It’s best to keep them in a secure holding space, protected from the elements and heated in cold weather. It could be a basement, a garage, an extra room, or a terrace using a tarpaulin, tent or lean-to. One word of warning, during warmer seasons fleas can be a concern in indoor holding spaces. To minimize the risk of infestation, keep the traps covered with light cloths and either flea bomb or vacuum thoroughly afterwards.

5. Decide what to do with kittens and friendly adults

It is important to decide what to do with kittens and friendly adults before you start trapping when you still have time to prepare. Ideally, adoptable cats and kittens will be removed from the colony and placed in good homes. Decide before you catch them who is going to do the fostering and how you’ll go about adopting them. You can, for example, work with a traditional rescue group. If fostering or adopting resources are simply not available, don’t let that stop you from getting the cats neutered and halting the reproduction cycle. You’ll have accomplished a great deal of good by that alone.

6. Arrange for spay/neuter

You’ll need to find a clinic or individual veterinarian, preferably one who will give you a discount off the regular rates, and set a date to spay/neuter the cats. Check with your local animal shelter or humane society to see if there are any low cost spay/neuter resources available in your area. Whether you bring the cats to a larger organization or an individual veterinarian, carefully follow their procedures and treat them with the utmost consideration as you and your colleagues will need their ongoing support. For spay/neuter resources in New York City and surrounding areas, go to Free Spay/Neuter Services in NYC or Low Cost Spay/Neuter in NYC, Surrounding Areas & NJ.

7. Trapping
Trapping is the last step. Too often, well-meaning people trap first and think about what to do with the cats later. That’s a recipe for disaster (we know, we’ve tried it!) To ensure the long-term success of your project, and to minimize the problems you will need to deal with, you should ensure that everything else is in place before you put the tuna into the first trap. This is true whether you’re trapping one cat at a time, or the entire colony.

A few days after being released, the cats will return to their usual routines and you to yours. Although caring for feral cats is an ongoing effort, and the dangers they face are ever present, there is a strong sense of satisfaction in knowing you’ve prevented a great deal of suffering and have given the cats a better chance to live in a way that suits them and is acceptable to your community.