by Kathryn Hunt
Stray and feral cats are a fact of life in an urban neighbourhood. Colonies of feral cats live in backyards and lots all across the city—most famously, in a colony on Parliament Hill. (The Parliament Hill colony is no longer in existence.)
Strays and wild cats are often trapped and turned in to animal shelters, where they may be euthanized if not adopted. And it can be a harsh and short life for these animals, with cold winters, predators and disease killing off many.
So what can be done to control the wild cat population, curb the spread of diseases, and help the animals have a better quality of life?
According to the Ottawa Humane Society (OHS), “While some believe that euthanasia of all feral cats is the most humane and quickest solution, studies have shown that, unless the vast majority of cats in the colony are removed, which is very difficult to do, other stray cats will simply fill the void that has been created in the colony.”
The OHS supports a feral cat management program that has met with wide success and approval within the international humane movement. In essence, the program involves trapping feral cats, testing them for disease, vaccinating and sterilizing them, and then releasing them back to their colonies.
Marna Nightingale, Lorayne Katz and their household in the Rochester and Somerset area have taken on the feral cat colony in their neighbourhood.
They discovered that the area connecting the backyards of about six houses on their block was home to a number of feral and stray cats. First, they started putting food out for the cats. Eventually, they started to trap and neuter them.
Their veterinarian donates the time and cost of vaccination and sterilization, while Katz and Nightingale cover long-term pain medication and microchipping, so they can keep track of the cats and, with luck, have them returned to the colony if they are caught and taken to a shelter, rather than being euthanized.
If the cats can be socialized, then they try to get them adopted, usually through their network of friends. If a cat is to be adopted, the treatments, sterilization and vaccination must be paid for. If the cat is to be released, the vet donates the work.
Kittens and strays that once had a human family are easier to resocialize. An adult feral cat is extremely unlikely ever to be adoptable.
There have been adoption success stories. Katz and Nightingale have collections of photos on their phones of cats from their colony who have found new homes. In one case, they trapped a stray male, neutered and chipped him, and released him back into the colony. Later, a vet in Vanier called them and asked if he was theirs. It turned out that the man who had found him wanted to keep him. They agreed and the cat was adopted into a new home.
They can also often catch kittens within a critical window for socialization.
Kittens can be tamed in a window of time between weaning and about six months. After that they become too wary of humans (according to the OHS, kittens that have had no human contact by six to eight weeks old can be difficult to socialize). Katz says she runs a “kitten finishing school” in her house, taking older kittens in and working intensively with them to get them used to humans.
In the case of females, pregnancy can also make them untameable.
“A female cat that has been pregnant is incurably feral,” says Nightingale. “The ones we trap and release cannot be adopted. They can’t be brought into a home; they probably wouldn’t even be successful as barn cats. There is no better option for them and for their quality of life than to be fixed and released into the colony.”
She also points out that most unspayed female cats will eventually die as a result of pregnancy. “All female cats, if they get pregnant often enough, will develop a reproductive infection and die a painful death.” The best way to ensure quality of life for both male and female cats is sterilization.
Vets often have an amount in their budget for free procedures, Nightingale adds.
“I have a friend who’s a vet in Texas, and a couple of other friends who are vets, so I can tell you that industry standard among most vets will allow them to do $10,000 a year for free. Vets donate a lot. Which is why we don’t want to push it with our vet.”
A staff member at one Ottawa veterinary clinic, who asked to be anonymous, said that, if the clinic has a good relationship with the client and knows them well, they can arrange to do trap and release, but it’s on a case-by-case basis. “Obviously, we can’t afford to have everyone coming in for free procedures, since we do this by donation.”
She said that they support trap and release but for regular spaying and neutering, there are other options.
The City of Ottawa runs a revenue-neutral spay/neuter clinic in Nepean. In fact, until January 31, they are having a promotion for male cats in which Ottawa residents who are on financial assistance or live in subsidized housing can get grants to neuter their male cats.
Katz and Nightingale also stress the importance of having pets spayed or neutered. They are reasonably certain that the father of the last few generations of kittens in their colony is someone’s pet, as there are no intact males left in the feral colony. Pet owners can be less likely to neuter a male, as they may never have to deal with the kittens.
But one litter of kittens can cause a feral colony’s population to expand again, even if it had been under control before.
The goal is to create a stable colony, say Nightingale and Katz.
“There is an endgame. We’re not just throwing money down a hole in the backyard here,” says Nightingale.
Feral colonies are usually made up of a group of female cats, who are all related, with a few males allowed to remain on the outskirts.
“When you have all the females fixed, the colony will stop growing, no more cats will be accepted. Eventually, as time passes, the animals age and die, and the colony vanishes.”
That’s the long-term goal for the Rochester colony. Eventually, Nightingale, Katz and their household would like to see their colony remain at a fixed number of animals until they all naturally die off.
But it’s a long project and requires a lot of time and money. The OHS stresses that simply feeding and sheltering stray and feral cats can lead to population growth; they need the medical attention provided by a trap and release program. And those expenses mount up. Katz and Nightingale say they spend about $100 per cat, plus ongoing food and litter costs.
The neighbours help when they can but the expenses of medical care and food fall on one household.
“If people wish to help fund the Rochester colony, we’re not too proud to beg. This is an expensive undertaking, and it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work before we get the colony stabilized,” Nightingale says. They would also like to be able to provide better winter shelters as well as medical care.
They have set up a PayPal account (via firstname.lastname@example.org) where friends and neighbours can donate to help defray the costs of managing the Rochester colony.
“The reason I look after a feral colony is that this is doing my part to make sure there are fewer unwanted, unhealthy cats in my little corner of the world,” said Katz. For her, it’s about giving as good a quality of life as she can to cats that would otherwise be destroyed, while also helping to keep the population in check.
Those interested in caring for a feral colony in their neighbourhood can talk to their vet about trap and release options, or contact the OHS at email@example.com and ask about their Trap, Test, Vaccinate, Neuter and Return program.