Cat Care & Advice

Neutering is the answer to the feral cat problem

Today, controlling the feral cat population through neutering has become the accepted method of dealing with the feral cat problem in the UK, thanks to the hard work and persistence of individuals and small charities like ours that pioneered this approach in the late 1970s.

Animal lovers who came across feral cats and their often sickly kittens felt compelled to take the kittens home, rehabilitate them and find them homes. It was quite obvious that the adults had to be neutered in order to prevent a recurrence of the misery. These poor cats, who are so similar to our own pets, had been abandoned and were uncared-for through no fault of their own, and the thought of killing them – as practised by pest-control firms and inhumane individuals – seemed quite unacceptable to compassionate people. Neutering was the obvious solution, and since it is humane it soon became popular with the public, who had become hesitant to approach charities for help for fear that they might put the cats down. Consequently, because of delay in getting help, colonies had expanded beyond the resources of people trying to feed and care for them.

Neutering entirely changed the colony: no more wailing and fighting tomcats, no more pregnant cats, no more sick and dying kittens. Instead the cats were healthy and flourished, and though they did not breed they would defend their territory from strangers. This meant the colony did not increase in size, and their feeders were relieved. Neutering thus proved to have a permanent effect, and to be cost-effective compared to the services of pest-control firms which were called at regular intervals as new cats appeared and rapidly multiplied to form a fresh colony.

Our leaflet A GREAT LEAP FORWARD FROM PEST CONTROL TO BIRTH CONTROL helped us to fight and win on behalf of the cats when managers of hospitals, factories etc wanted to have their feral cat colonies destroyed. The leaflet is very rarely needed nowadays, but is still available from our Head Office.

Trapping and neutering

Feeders of feral cats are often concerned – if not deeply worried – when awaiting our trapping visit. We hand them our leaflets and a newsletter and reassure them that the cats will not be put down (unless they have an untreatable and fatal illness) but instead will be neutered and brought back; and that we will find good homes for the kittens. We also promise that our trapping technique causes minimal distress to the cats, if any at all. We establish at the outset that the trapping must be left entirely to us and that the feeders must on no account take the initiative or act on impulse at any stage. There have been occasions when people have assured us that a cat was “quite tame” because it could be stroked when feeding. Against our repeated warnings the passionately keen “helper” has seized the cat and attempted to put it in a basket. A struggle has then occurred with our desperate shouts to “let go!” ignored until the cat has emerged the winner and the feeder usually ended up in Casualty in need of stitches and an anti-tetanus injection.

However, the feeder does play in important part in trapping: it is his/her responsibility to stop feeding the night (or day) before trapping and to inform others before the big event. They then need to be present to point the cats out and explain their histories and relationships, if known.

Trapping procedure

To reassure onlookers we explain the trapping process in detail beforehand. With the help of food the cat is enticed into a box (cat trap) and the door is closed when it has settled down to eat. If an automatic trap is used the trigger is operated when the cat steps on a pedal close to the food. If we are dealing with a group of cats that appear together at feeding time we use a manually operated trap so that we can select which cats to trap first. (Cats who have watched others being trapped may become wary and will avoid the trap for a long time.) Pregnant females have priority, followed by other mature females, and kittens because they are vulnerable. Should a tomcat enter the manual trap first while the females are watching, we wait until he has eaten and walked away in order to trap him at a later date. The females can now be trapped because they have not been warned off. A useful tip when tackling a large group of cats is to start at least two hours before feeding time. The cats are not congregating yet but they are somewhere in the area and will be passing by the trap by chance one by one. In this way we have in the past been able to trap an entire colony with one or two visits, whereas those who find manual trapping too slow and resort to automatic traps have been plagued by trap-shy cats who have continued to have many litters until finally caught – kittens which would not have been born had the trapper been methodical and patient. Using a manual trap we can take advantage of the vital second to shut the trap swiftly and quietly, which could be the very moment when a watching cat is distracted and looks away.

Whichever trap is used, one important rule applies: never leave a trap out of sight. A cat who struggles in an automatic trap can come to serious harm, either by its own actions or even from a human. Gruesomely, many years ago we heard of a case where a trapped cat was burned to death by vandals. The cat you have gone to so much trouble to trap may also be released by an uninformed interfering person who feels pity for the struggling animal or wants to “save” it.

By keeping the trap under constant observation we are able to cover it the moment the cat is caught. This has an instant calming effect on the cat because it gives it a sense of security. Using the corresponding, closely fitting side doors the cat is then persuaded into a transfer basket, which is also immediately covered. The cat is kept in a quiet cool place until it is taken to the vet.

At the vet’s

The transfer basket contains a built-in restraining partition which the vet can activate from outside to push the cat up against the wire. From this position he can safely inject the cat from outside the basket to sedate it. Under anaesthetic the cat is neutered and thoroughly checked over. It may need treatment for parasites or need dental treatment – a once in a lifetime chance for a feral cat. If necessary the blood can be tested at this point. To mark the cat as having been neutered (to avoid unnecessary retrapping and a possible unneeded operation) a small section of the tip of the left ear is removed, as recommended by UFAW (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare). see A veterinary view on ear-tipping.

Returning to the site

The cat is given dissolvable stitches following the operation and, if we have dealt with a simple spay or castration, it can be released after 24 hours, a timespan accepted by our vets as adequate for recovery. A longer recovery time might cause more stress than comfort to a feral cat and is usually unnecessary.

Is it fair to put feral cats back?

As cats of the same domestic species as our own treasured pets, we wish they could all live safely in good homes. But it is difficult to home adult feral cats in households because they do not immediately like to be handled and it may take years before they become affectionate.

As long as they receive daily food and adequate shelter feral cats can cope: they need us to provide these essentials rather than our affection. They are used to this lifestyle because they were born and raised in that environment and they are happiest amongst their feline friends and relations.

In an ideal world no feral cats would be born, but as things are, there will continue to be feral cats as long as there are irresponsible and cruel people who abandon their cats or allow them to breed unchecked.

© Elke de Vries – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor

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