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Spaying and Neutering Feral Cats

An Article by Dee Dreslough. This document is Public Domain. Please feel free to redistribute it however you see fit. Please remember to credit the author, though. :)

During my two years living in Middletown Connecticut, I had the pleasure of running a small neighborhood feral-cat spay/neuter catch and release program. On Burr Avenue, a resident who had long since moved away had several unfixed cats that had multiplied signficantly into a population of between 12-25 cats. The year we moved there, kittens were EVERYWHERE. A neighbor had managed to place 12 kittens, but was at wits end. Her own 4 female cats needed spaying and she couldn't afford the $150 per cat the local veterinary hospital was charging, but she didn't know about the local low cost spay and neuter organizations.

Overwhelmed with sympathy for both the cats and my neighbors, I started researching. I stumbled into Scott Panzer's Connecticut Cat Rescue Website and found out how to catch and release feral cats.

The basic plan for catching feral cats is this:

1. Acclimation: Set up a feeding zone where you reliably place food every day. This gets them used to your smell, gets them in good condition by helping them get enough food, and makes it predictable and easy to trap them. You may even get some of the cats to 'hand-tame', so you don't have to use Hav-A-Heart traps on them and can instead just place them in cat carriers.

Plus, it gives you time to observe and figure out just how many strays you're working with, and which ones are in the most trouble healthwise. Feed the cats every day as close to the same time as you can for between two and four months before your 'Roundup Day'.

Advise neighbors, who might complain that you're contributing to the cat problem, that you plan to catch and neuter/spay the cats, and this is part of the trapping procedure to help you catalog the feral cats in the neighborhood. When they find out what you're doing, they'll probably pitch in and help. I got around $300 in donations.

2. Preparation and Tools: Get as many Hav-A-Hart traps and cat carriers as you can. You can use rabbit or racoon sized traps, but they do make a specific 'Cat Sized' trap, and this is best. The rabbit trap is too small, and the racoon trap is so large the cats can sometimes run out before it's shut and locked. You can find traps at local feed stores or hardware stores like Agway. They're about $40, but you can often sell them afterward. Your local animal control officer may also have some traps to lend, as may local feral spay-neuter-release groups. Call around.

I did a colony in my neighborhood of about 15 adult cats in two roundups, and only used one trap, but it meant storing the cats in makeshift cages in my apartment for the two days it took to catch all the cats I could. Try to get a large carrier for every adult cat if you can, regardless of the traps. The spay/neuter clinic can transfer the really wild cats from the traps into carriers for you after the operation (while they're out). This will allow you to give them better recuperating space and time after the operation.

3. Make the Spay/Neuter Appointment: Locate a low cost spay and neuter place, and make appointments for as many cats as you can. I was able to catch six adults in my first try, so you can expect to do as well. It will be about $39 per cat usually, depending on where you are in the world, but for a group spay/neuter, they'll often give a bulk discount.

4. Notify your neighbors!!! I found putting a little flier in everyone's door a week before the roundup day worked well. I got many calls and donations from folks who wanted to help with the roundup. My neighbor Betty brough in as many cats as I caught that day, and she wasn't even using Hav-A-Hearts...she'd just let them walk into her giant cat carrier and shut the door on them.

Tell your neighbors to keep their pet cats indoors for the two days before the roundup. If they want their cats spayed and neutered, have them put their cats in their own carriers (well marked as PETS, not Ferals!). I drove some of my neighbors' cats to the spay-neuter van as a favor since I was already going with a carload of cats, but I needed to know which cats were theirs because I had my wild cats ear-tipped. Because you almost never catch all the strays in one day, Ear Tipping allows you to quickly know which cats have been fixed and vaccinated. Don't Ear-tip any pet that you expect to place in a home as a pet. It can reduce their attractiveness, which, unfortunately is a factor in adult cat adoptions. These tamer feral cats you probably know very well and can easily recognize anyway. It's the wild ones that you hardly see, that only emerge to eat from your feeding station that you have to track through ear-tipping.

5. Roundup Day! I started rounding up my cats two days before their appointment with the clinic.

Put the traps in a sheltered area near the feeding station and bait them with the smelliest yummiest cat food you can. I used canned Salmon, but I've been told if you can get mackerel, it works well too.

The traps catch the wilder cats. Leave the wilder cats IN the traps. If they get loose, they'll run all over your house to escape. They'll literally climb the walls. (I found this out recapturing several wild cats...they pee when they're scared, and you need oven mitts or welders gloves to handle them without them biting through to the bone!) If you're very careful, you can sometimes transfer the wild cats to a carrier, but be sure not to try to do this alone. Use a blanket to block off every exit from the trap and the carrier, and have assistants standing on either side, wearing heavy gloves or oven mitts, holding their hands over any holes between the trap and the carrier. Carefully lift the exit door on the Hav-A-Heart trap and shoo the wild cat into the carrier. Quickly shut the door to the carrier while retracting the trap. You may want to practice this before you try it with a cat in the trap just so you're sure you have your form down. I used my tame male cat Eli as a test subject for this procedure, too.

If, for some reason, a wild cat gets loose in your house, here's what to do to trap it again. Put on the heaviest jeans and clothes you can. I put on three pairs of pants myself (longjohns, sweats and loose jeans) and a heavy winter coat (I use a leather coat). Wear oven mitts or heavy leather gloves. Welders' gloves work best if you can get them. Wear eye protection too. You can get goggles for $5 at the local hardware store. Take a blanket and corner the cat. You'll probably need some help to do this. Toss the blanket over the cat, and do your best to bundle it up in the blanket. You can then unfold the blanket into the carrier and often the cat will go right in.

Rabies IS a real threat, so take EVERY precaution. If a cat does bite you, you need to have it destroyed to find out if it is rabid OR you can have it put under observation for two weeks to a month depending on your state code. You can get rabies vacinnations, but you'll need to start getting them 6 months before the roundup day for them to have taken effect by roundup day. And, rabies shots take three rounds, at about $75 to $150 each before you have your first immunity. They're only 80% effective, too. The best medicine is just not to get bitten. If none of the cats in your neighborhood is actively showing signs of rabies, you probably are in a rabies free area. A cat really has to be showing signs of being sick to transmit the disease, but it's a horrid disease, so again - take every precaution.

If you can't recatch the wild cat, you can leave the door to your house open and shoo it out and hope it goes into the trap again.

If you can hand-catch the tamer cats, you can put them in carriers in your house for temporary housing. Some tame cats will go into the traps to get the bait, and those you can just transfer to cages.

4. Spaying Day! Drop them off at the spay/neuter place in the morning. If you have wild cats still in the traps, be sure to bring carriers for those cats for the staffers to transfer them to after the operation. Pick up the cats in the afternoon. My low cost spay and neuter group has a drop off time between 8am and 9am and a pickup between 4pm and 6pm.

It's advisable to wait until the next day (24 hours or so) to re-release them, but some folks just can't have a house full of angry cats. If you have to, you can wait a few hours to let them rest, and then release them back onto the street and hope for the best. I was advised to do this at one of my roundups, but luckily, I didn't have to.

If you're a nervous nellie, like I was, who knows her local strays well ( and wants to give them the red carpet treatment), you can keep them inside for a day or two of observation and feeding. I even did this with the really wild ones. I was fortunate enough to live in an apartment with an unfinished attic that was perfect for my makeshift cages. I used 5$ rubbermaid tubs and wire mesh 'Hardware cloth' and duct tape to make fairly large tub/cages for them to recuperate in. I'd open the trap end and shoo the cat into the cage, and then add food, water and close it up.

I lined the cages with towels that I could slip out to remove feces and urine, and using heavily gloved hands and arms, I was able to slide fresh towels back in to give the cats somewhere else to poop.

For my last batch of cats, I even just let them rome the attic and then opened up all the doors and shooed them out when they had had a day of recuperation. They were smart enough to know what a litter box was, and appreciated the feeling of being loose. But, I know most folks don't have this kind of setup.

Taming Feral Kittens: (Coming Soon!)

Kittens - If they're under 6 weeks, or even under 3 months old, with some careful handling you can tame them and often get them adopted. This is probably the most rewarding part of working with feral colonies.

The trick to working with kittens is this: If you can give up the first litter you tame, you have what it takes to work with ferals. The first is the hardest. (I almost ended up with 6 cats, but I did manage to give them up when the time came. Every litter has been easier and easier after that.)