What, Where & How to Feed Your Ferals
Feeding the cats is one of a caretaker's most important tasks. The great majority of feral cats do not subsist on their own like wildlife, but depend on people to survive. Food is in many ways their strongest connection to us and through feeding, a caretaker can maintain the cats' health and better manage the colony and relations with neighbors. What food is provided, where it's put out and how common issues are solved will help determine how well the cats do. For more on winter care, see stop freezing water and feral cat winter shelter.
What kind of food?
At Neighborhood Cats, we advise caretakers to provide the best food they can comfortably afford. We believe this recognizes the value of good nutrition while also respecting a caretaker's budget. If you're feeding only a few cats in your backyard and can afford a high quality canned food, then that's what's best. But if you're providing for two dozen cats behind the shopping center and large bags of dry food need to be the staple diet, then that's doing an excellent job as well. One way to improve nutrition while saving costs is to educate yourself about cat nutrition in general and learn about things like raw food, vitamins and supplements. We recommend The Natural Cat by Anitra Frazier, one of our directors and a pioneer of holistic cat care, as a guide to natural food, cat behavior and do-it-yourself remedies for common feline ailments.
When evaluating the quality of a food, in general the wet food of a brand will be more nutritious than that same brand's dry food. This is because some nutritive value is lost during the baking process to make dry food. Also as a general rule, cat food with more whole meat is better than food with more grains or by-products. Regarding expense, we've found the best-priced online retailer is Chewy.com while Costco offers great value as a brick-and-mortar outlet. Costco sells 20 lb. bags of Kirkland dry cat food, its own proprietary brand. Many caretakers believe the Kirkland bags offer one of the best values available, being a good balance between cost and quality of ingredients. Another way to save some money is to get to know your local pet store, one that's not part of a national chain. They often have damaged or recently expired food which they may be willing to donate once they get to know you and the work you're doing on behalf of the cats.
Vitamins & Supplements
One of the best vitamins to give feral cats is Vitamin C, especially during cold winters and times of stress, like trapping. Read Vitamin C to the Rescue by Anitra Frazier to learn about its many health benefits and how to administer. Another helpful supplement for caretakers is D-mannose, a cranberry extract used for preventing and treating urinary tract issues. The article, D-mannose and preventing urinary tract disease, includes advice from Dr. Michael Dym, DVM, a leading holistic veterinarian.
It's always better if possible to feed the cats in some type of covered structure rather than simply putting food or dishes on the ground. A feeding station protects the food and the cats from poor weather, hides the food from passersby and helps keep the site clean. A simple station can be made from a Rubbermaid storage bin. Using a box cutter or utility knife, cut out a wide doorway in the long side of the bin (photo, top) or two smaller doorways in the shorter sides (photo, bottom). There needs to be either a wide doorway in front or two on the sides so one cat can't go in and keep the rest out. A station can also be made by resting a 30 gallon trash can on its side and securing it in place with rocks or other heavy objects. Pre-made wooden feeding stations can also be ordered from FeralVilla.
Gravity feeders and automatic waterers can be placed inside the stations when needed. Le Bistro and Petmate manufacture a variety of different sized models - retailers can be found by searching Amazon or Google.
The ideal location of a feeding station is a spot the caretaker can easily access but is hidden or inaccessible to the public. With feral cats, the more privacy, the better. Blend the station in with its surroundings, like placing it behind a pile of rocks in an open field or under a large board in an alley. Try to also place the feeding station near the cats' shelters so they won't have far to travel in inclement weather. Even if you can't put out any kind of structure and must place dishes or pans on the ground, follow the same principle of "out of sight, out of mind" as much as possible.
Common Feeding Issues
Wildlife - If you're in an area where wildlife is common, you'll need to adjust your feeding habits to avoid attracting other animals to the colony site. Most wildlife is nocturnal, so feed during daylight hours and don't leave any food out overnight. Keep in mind also that cats are very habitual creatures and will quickly learn to show up at the same time every day and eat within a small period, like half an hour. Use this to your advantage if wildlife is an issue during the daytime by training the cats to come at a certain time and removing all food when they're done. If you can't limit the availablity of cat food and your problem wildlife are raccoons, opossum or other animals who can climb but can't jump vertically, consider building a raccoon-proof feeding station (plans courtesy of Forgotten Felines of Forsyth).
Pigeons - Like most birds, pigeons sleep at night so if these bold creatures are helping themselves to your cats' dishes during the day, one way to thwart them is by feeding at night. That assumes you're in an area with no nocturnal wildlife, like raccoons or skunks. If feeding at night is not an option, then try using a feeding station with pigeon flaps over the doors (photo). Cut a heavy piece of plastic in strips, leaving a one inch border on top, then attach above the doorway with duct tape. While pigeons are not normally hesitant to walk into an open feeding station, they are often deterred by the plastic strips - which don't bother the cats at all.
Ants, slugs and flies - Ants won't cross water so create a moat by filling a tray with 1/2 inch of water, then place the food bowl in the middle of the tray. There are also ant-proof bowls for sale, using the same idea. Another trick to keep ants away, as well as slugs, is to make a circle around the feeding station or bowls with chalk, the kind used to mark lines on athletic fields. Or crush some soft Crayola sidewalk chalk into powder. The chalk feels smooth to human hands but is made up of sharp little objects which ants and slugs won't cross over. Instead of chalk, you can use diatomaceous earth which is also sharp on a microscopic level - just make sure you use food grade. Copper tape too, will stop slugs in their tracks. Flies are tougher. They're most attracted to wet food on hot days, so limit the amount of time this food is left out in hot temperatures or use dry food instead. Training the cats to eat during a certain window of time daily and then removing all food will minimize flies. Also, flies are inactive at night, so you can avoid them entirely if the cats can be fed after sundown. If you want to get fancy, stop flies from getting on the food by using a food bowl with a lid that automatically opens and closes when a cat comes and goes - see the automatic kitty pet feeder by Uzo1.
Cleanliness - One of the most frequently heard complaints about feral cats is the mess created when people feed without regard to the environment or the sensitivities of local residents or businesses. Leaving behind loose plates, empty cans, paper towels and plastic spoons, or dumping large amounts of cat food on the ground and leaving the excess, are all going to create hostility towards the cats and their feeders. On the other hand, considerate caretakers who leave the colony site clean, including picking up other people's trash, will engender good relations and be more welcome. For the cats' sake, be sure to clean up!