The Community Cat Survival Guide: How to Help Stray and Feral Cats

Ever wanted to help the homeless cats in your neighborhood? Here's how.
By: Jen Bryant
Feral cats outside

According to The Humane Society of the United States, there are an estimated 30 to 40 million stray and feral cats living in North America alone. These felines commonly make their homes in urban settings such as apartment complexes and restaurant parking lots. Some are stray cats, lost or abandoned former pets that are used to human contact. Others were born in the wild. Also known as community cats, these felines are feral and un-socialized to humans.

Strays often struggle to adapt to living on their own. Because they were once socialized to humans, many stray cats are adoptable. Stray cats are likely to seek human contact, though they may be skittish or fearful initially. Unlike strays, feral cats are used to surviving on their own.

“Community cats are perfectly fine living outdoors,” says Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, a global cat advocacy organization based in Bethesda, Maryland. “They don’t need to be rescued from the outdoors any more than squirrels, otters or deer do.”

Feral cats often form colonies, where multiple cats live together in one territory, usually near a reliable food source. They can’t be adopted as pets. Community cats face grim odds in traditional animal shelters.

“Most of the time, if you take a feral cat to the humane society, it will be euthanized,” says Dr. Laura Miller, of NOMAD Inc., a spay and neuter clinic in Ohio. Instead, Miller recommends trap-neuter-return (TNR), a method of humane population control in which community cats are spayed or neutered and then returned to their turf. As part of the process, the tip of the cat’s ear is surgically altered to show that it has been sterilized.

Ericka Goering, director of marketing and communications for the Kansas Humane Society, agrees that TNR is the best approach for feral cats.

“TNR stabilizes the cat population while allowing the cats to live independent lives,” Goering says. “This allows them to live healthier lives by limiting the stresses of mating and pregnancy, making them less susceptible to disease.” Goering adds that TNR can also cut down on some of the “nuisance behaviors” associated with feral cats, like fighting, roaming and yowling.

Although community cats are skilled at living outside, they can use a little help to make it through the winter and other weather-related events. Extreme cold can make it difficult for cats to find enough food and water to survive, says Cecilia Ocampo-Solis, community cats coordinator at PAWS Chicago. Additionally, she says that without access to shelter, extreme temperatures can cause frostbite, hypothermia, and even death.

Feral cats eating

Fortunately, there are a few easy steps that concerned animal lovers can take to protect the most vulnerable cats in their neighborhoods:

Feeding Stray and Feral Cats

Reliable access to food and water is vital for free-roaming cats, especially in cold weather, when providing fresh food and water can help outdoor cats survive in harsh temperatures.

“Having little to no access to water or food is a year-round concern, but it is larger in the winter,” Ocampo-Solis says. “Cats need extra energy to keep warm, so having food and water is extremely important.”

Ideally, outdoor feeding areas should be protected from the elements.

“Some caretakers may leave food and water out for cats, but it freezes within a matter of minutes in extreme cold,” Ocampo-Solis says.

She suggests placing bowls in an enclosed area to help protect the cats and their food from wind while they eat. In addition to keeping cats dry, enclosed feeding areas also prevent food from getting covered in rain or snow and protect fresh water from debris.

In cold weather, water should be checked often and replaced if frozen. Goering recommends using bowls that are deep rather than wide, since water takes longer to freeze in deep bowls.

“Heated water bowls, available at most pet and livestock stores, are a great way to provide water when temperatures dip below freezing,” she adds.

During the winter months, community cats need more nutrients to maintain a healthy weight and malnutrition can become an issue, says Christi Layten, a certified veterinary technician at Animal Medical Center of Wyoming. While canned food can help outdoor cats gain much-needed pounds, wet food can freeze, so it’s best to provide dry food daily, says Goering.

“Food can be costly, depending on what brand and how many cats you are feeding,” says Ocampo-Solis. She recommends a set feeding schedule to avoid letting food go to waste—this also cuts down on expenses and helps community cats learn to depend on their caregivers.

Layten says that food expenses can also be reduced by making sure feral cats are sterilized. “The more TNR you do, the less expenses you have,” she says. Local clinics such as the one Layten works for often offer TNR services for feral cats at a discounted cost.

Over time, community cats grow to depend on their caregivers for food. If inclement weather is forecasted that would make getting out to feed the cats difficult, Alley Cat Allies recommends setting out extra food to tide cats over until their caregiver can safely return.

Feral cats with water

Providing Shelter for Stray and Feral Cats

A good shelter can make all the difference in an outdoor cat’s survival and they can be constructed from easy-to-obtain materials.

“Most colony caretakers that I know have created shelters for their kitties,” says Miller. These shelters can prevent cats from freezing to death in extreme cold.

Robinson recommends creating a sturdy, durable shelter out of a large plastic storage container. Simply cut a hole in the container that’s big enough for cats to access and fill with straw (available at outdoor and farm supply stores), then replace the lid. The plastic material will keep the shelter cozy and dry when exposed to rain and snow, and cats can burrow into the straw to retain their body heat. She says not to use hay, as it doesn’t repel moisture like straw does. For added warmth, the interior can be lined with Styrofoam.

The straw in shelters should be checked periodically and replaced if damp or dirty. Caregivers should also remove snow accumulation from shelter entrances to make sure that they are accessible and clear heavy snow off of shelter lids to prevent collapse. If possible, place shelters in locations that are away from drafts and not immediately visible to others.

While some community cats will huddle together in shelters for warmth, “some cats won’t go in with other cats,” says Layten. If this is the case, she recommends creating additional shelters to make sure no cats are left out in the cold.

In extreme weather, additional reinforcements can be made to help cats stay cozy. Heating pads designed especially for use with pets can also be purchased online, says Robinson. These should only be used in dry areas, such as garages or sheds, and manufacturer safety instructions should be followed.

“Thankfully, feral shelters are sturdy so the caregiver won’t have to continuously worry about the cost,” says Ocampo-Solis. Shelters made from rubber containers can be wiped clean, and they don’t have to be replaced very often. Ready-made outdoor cat houses are also available online. These are more expensive than DIY options, but many are sturdy enough to last for years.

Feral cat shelter

Keeping Stray and Feral Cats Safe

Cars are an attractive danger to community cats in chilly climates, says Goering. Seeking warmth, some cats climb under car hoods to get close to the engine or curl up inside of wheel wells, which can be fatal. Goering recommends that you check under your car, tap the hood, and honk the horn before starting your car in cold weather to send any furry lurkers running.

In addition, avoid using antifreeze or salt as deicers, Robinson says. Traditional formulas contain chemicals that are harmful to sensitive paw pads and can be fatal if ingested; alternatives can be found at pet supply stores. Cats are attracted to antifreeze, which smells sweet to them, so be sure to store antifreeze safely and monitor vehicles for leaks.

Feral cat with ear tip

Additional Resources for Community Cats

Taking care of stray and feral cats is an easy way to make a difference for the felines in your neighborhood – and caregivers benefit from the connection, too.

“Community cats and caregivers form a special type of bond—a different kind of relationship than one would form with a household cat,” Robinson says.

In addition to this guide, there are many resources available online for potential community cat caregivers. Local animal advocacy groups and rescue organizations can be helpful to caregivers as well. “There are a lot of people out there dedicated to feral cats,” Miller says.

Additional resources include:

  • Alley Cat Allieshas a Feral Friends Network, which is a great place for finding resources in your area and connecting with others looking to make a difference. The site also has information on all aspects of community cat caregiving.
  • Best Friends Animal Networkoffers community education and tips for caregivers.
  • The ASPCAhas a feral and community cat guide that provides webinars, TNR info, cat colony management tips, and more.
  • The Humane Society of the United States has a helpful video guide to feral cat colony management.
  • Ready to start a feral cat program of your own? Maddie’s Fund has a step-by-step guide to get you started.

Images via Alley Cat Allies