Why should I have my tomcat neutered? He won’t have kittens… He will!
A tomcat can serve 40 queens (female cats) a year and he can smell and follow the scent of a female over 7 miles. This can happen at a very early age, before the owner has even noticed that he is mature, as young as 5 or 6 months old. In the course of such a honeymoon he can easily get lost; in the trance of his erotic pilgrimage he does not take note of his route and finds himself homeless when the romance is over. Unless his owner is persistent and lucky and finds him through advertising, Tom is doomed to live a life of misery. Nobody will adopt an unneutered tomcat or even tolerate him in the back garden because he fights other people’s pets, male and female, and marks houses and gardens with an intolerable scent.
Tail up, who is neutered?
Homeless and hungry, he will enter houses through the cat door in search of food, only to get shooed away. Fighting for his survival, he will soon look run-down and battered and his chances of finding a new home dwindle. “Mangy toms” are usually not mangy at all, they are often only neglected, undernourished and battle scarred. And now, the biggest threat of all is a newly discovered virus: the killer FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus), which is passed on during fights through biting, when the saliva of the infected cat enters the bloodstream of the other. No cat has been known to recover from it and unneutered tomcats are most likely to fall victim.
And what about “the girls”?
Did you know that one unspayed female cat can be responsible for 10,924 kittens over 6 years?
We assume a female cat, let’s call her Pandora, 1 year old in spring, starts breeding: although most cats have 3 and sometimes 4 litters a year, our calculation is based on the low rate of only 2 litters a year per mature female cat, with 4 kittens each time, 2 male and 2 female – and we do not take the death rate into account. If not spayed, the explosion pictured below can happen. Unfortunately, there are people who, for whatever reason, do not have their cat spayed and who place their unwanted kittens with like-minded people or irresponsibly in pet shops.
So next time you are tempted to let your cat have just one litter or hear someone insist it is kinder for the cat to give birth just once, remember – the “just one litter” can be the start of many, many litters. It only needs one of your cat’s great, great, great grandchildren to have Pandora’s fate…
LET’S KEEP PANDORA’S BOX FIRMLY SHUT!
©Elke de Vries – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor, 1999
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.
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
Some 25 years ago, when I first noticed feral cats and started helping them, a very experienced animal worker warned me: “…for feral cats there may not be a tomorrow!”. I have experienced the sad truth of these words many times and could not possibly forget them.
If this warning applies to adult feral cats which have to cope with the hazardous life of a homeless cat, then how much more does it concern young, helpless feral kittens when born in such places as skips, bonfire heaps, under floorboards, in storage rooms or simply under bushes in the open? There is a slim chance of survival, and even those kittens which are seemingly safely tucked away with their mother in a shed are at everybody’s mercy: dogs, foxes, tomcats and even cruel or ignorant humans may at any time discover and harm them. Their mother may for no obvious reason move them to a new hide-out, unknown to her concerned feeders. Raised in a damp corner kittens are especially prone to cat ‘flu, which if untreated can lead to eye infections and blindness, or to pneumonia and death.
If they are lucky enough to survive the first few weeks new dangers await them once they appear in the open. Kittens have been attacked by crows, magpies or foxes; because of their adventurous and curious nature, and their total lack of experience and judgement they have ended up in fishponds, underneath cars or inside their bonnets, inside industrial machinery, air vents, pipes, sewage systems, drainpipes, skips… all these are cases I have come across personally.
Should the kittens survive the first few weeks unharmed they will grow up fast – soon they become unhandleable and within months will begin to breed. A female can come into season as early as four months, only to produce yet more unfortunate feral cats. Unless the kittens are picked up while still very young and found homes as domestic pets, and unless the rest of the colony is neutered, we are facing a no-win situation.
To be sure the kittens are safe they have to be rescued as soon as they are noticed, and if they are very young preferably with their mother to rear them. In early years I was advised to take the kittens in and hand-rear them then trap the mother and have her neutered and returned. However, I have since developed a more satisfying method which is less time-consuming and also better and less stressful for kittens and mother cats. I rear them together in a special unit which enables me to attend safely to a frightened and potentially aggressive mother cat, and which is spacious enough for her needs but small enough to give her a feeling of privacy and safety, which helps her to relax.
The hospitalisation basket is 910 mm (36 in) long, 380 mm (15 in) wide and 355 mm (14 in) high. With the help of a division panel it can be divided into two sections and it therefore has two top openings that can be used separately: this enables the carer to attend to one section while the cat is securely confined in the other, without ever touching the cat. An additional life-up end door makes transfer from a trap, queen’s cage or other side-opening equipment possible. This door has to be securely tied with string to prevent a cat from lifting it up and escaping.
The queen’s cage has the same dimensions as the hospitalisation basket except for its length, 460 mm (18 in). The lift-up end door corresponds with that of the hospitalisation basket so that the two cages can easily be tied together to create extra space. It is also big enough to transport a mother cat and her kittens comfortably, and there would be space for a small litter tray.
These cages are available from MDC Exports Ltd Tel: 01582 655 600 Fax: 01582 613 013 www.mdcexports.com Note: although the cages are pictured outside, they must only be used indoors
Whenever possible we secure the mother cat first unless the kittens are in acute danger. As long as the kittens are very young and comparatively immobile, within reach and unable to escape, it is best to trap the mother before touching her kittens. Usually a mother cat will leave her nest for a short while to find food, and provided she is unsuspecting will readily walk into a trap which has been baited with very tempting food such as finely chopped cooked chicken or turkey. Any discussion about the best place to position the trap etc should take place out of the cat’s earshot behind a closed window, before ONE person goes out quietly to set the trap. If several people are in the garden, particularly if they are talking, it may be many hours before the cat appears, since she will be careful not to disclose where her kittens are.
The trap should be placed 3-5 metres (10-15 feet) away from the nest, with a trail of tiny pieces of food leading to the trap. On this occasion the automatic trap seems ideal, because it can be watched from a distance, for instance by a person hiding in the back of a room behind drawn curtains, or in a car, hiding the familiar outline of the human head behind a piece of cardboard with a peephole cut in it. THE TRAP MUST NEVER BE SET AND LEFT UNOBSERVED.
If other cats approach the trap a brief and silent appearance of a human in the garden will usually discourage them; if the mother is part of a nearby colony it is better to use a manually-operated trap so that the “unwanted” cats can eat their fill from the trap without springing it. After they are satisfied and have left, the mother cat will usually appear – possibly quite some time later – furtive and careful not to be seen.
Anxious members of the public have in the past picked up kittens before our arrival. It was then more difficult to trap the mother, who had scampered off in panic, and it sometimes took many hours, even days, before she went into the trap. A mother cat who was originally a pet and was not born feral, will usually return sooner. Whatever the situation, we persevere until she is caught. Under no circumstances must the kittens be returned to the nest once they have been picked up, as the mother will either abandon them or else most certainly move them to another hiding-place.
As soon as the mother is caught, the trap must be covered completely with a large sheet or blanket to calm her down and prevent her injuring herself in panic. The kittens may now be collected from the nest, and should be put in a separate warm box for the journey home, during which they must not be given to the mother as she may suffocate them in the trap/carrier.
Settling mother and kittens into their new home
At home the kittens are checked over, weighed and named and entered in a book with sex and colour code, the start of keeping individual records of treatments and procedures for each kitten; then they are immediately put in in a large box lined with paper in far end of the hospitalisation cage, which becomes the sleeping section. DO NOT USE SOFT BEDDING. All too many kittens have either slipped unnoticed behind and under the bedding or suffocated in the folds of sheets or blankets provided by well-meaning people. Crocheted blankets are death-traps. Kittens can easily become entangled in the mesh and have died of starvation or suffocation.
Without their mother, the kittens will cry and scramble about in the new box, moving in circles in search of the others’ scent. If the trap/carrier containing the mother is placed against the side opening of the hospitalisation cage she will soon see, smell and hear her kittens and will eagerly join them in the darkened section as soon as the adjacent sliding doors of the hospitalisation cage and trap/carrier are raised. Unless she attends to her kittens instantly, I lock her with them into the sleeping section with the help of the division panel and pull the cover over most of the cage. Contained like this for a while, the mother will soon stop panicking because there is nowhere to flee to, and if she is too frightened to take care of her kittens they will teach her: moving around hungrily they will soon find her nipples and start suckling, rekindling her maternal feelings. Usually it takes only minutes for a mother cat to settle, provided she is covered up and not disturbed by nosy humans. Nursing feral mother cats are not to be visited and gazed at by strangers, who seem unable to suppress irritating “Pussy, pussy, pssst, pssst…” noises which are meant to reassure the cat but only achieve the opposite for a feral cat.
In the first few weeks after rescue I only approach the cage when necessary and observe the cats from the far end if possible. Sometimes I lift the cover briefly to check on the kittens, but I do not raise the lid over the nest section under any circumstances, or attempt to touch or stroke the cat. Even a domestic cat, if she is nervous or defensive, can easily escape or attack and injure a person severely.
NEVER LEAVE THE CAGE until you have fastened all the doors (top doors, side opening or division panel). It takes only a second for a determined cat to escape from an insecurely fastened opening.
When kittens have to be handled…
It is quite easy to attend to the cage with the help of the division panel, which safely divides the nesting area off when we need to replace food or litter or clean the cage out. If I need to attend to the kittens while they are still nest-bound I will have to separate them from their mother. Initially I try to entice her into the other section with some nice food or, failing that, I may have to make her move over. Lifting the cover and looking at her closely usually does the trick; otherwise I gently push her with a wooden object (eg handle of a cooking spoon) through the cage, or I blow at her. Once she is closed in the other section I can exchange the paper bedding and check the kittens thoroughly, which is important when they are very young. If they are only a few days old and seem unsettled and continuously distressed when feeding, they need to be weighed regularly, to make sure they are all gaining weight. If not, I can help with bottle feeding: I offer the bottle to the whole litter and feed the kittens who take to it. If the fatter kittens accept it, there will be more mother’s milk for the weaker ones. Each time I let the mother return to her kittens as soon as possible.
Even if the mother is tame, I use the same caution when attending to her kittens. Although it may not be necessary to separate her from them, I can reach the kittens by using the second top opening and access them by lifting the division panel slightly. A contented, tame mother cat will usually not object to my handling her kittens and I can offer the bottle to all of them in turns while she is suckling the rest. Sturdier kittens may be taken out of the cage for a few minutes and bottle-fed separately, allowing the weaker ones to suckle on the mother without competition. In many cases this type of intervention has saved lives. Particularly in their early days, weaker kittens (those conceived towards the end of the 3-5 day mating period) rapidly fall behind the others, which now grow very fast. They become weaker and less able to reach the nipple, pushed away by their stronger siblings. Given up as “the runt”, they will rapidly fade and starve, but if fed and nurtured they will catch up and grow into normal-sized kittens. Quite a few “runts” in my care have later even overtaken the others.
As the kittens grow….
When the kittens are about 3 weeks old I remove the box from the nest so they can move around the entire pen. Now (if I haven’t already) I attach a queen’s cage to the end of the hospitalisation cage to create extra space. By 3-4 weeks the kittens are becoming increasingly interested in me and in the weaning food and kitten milk placed at the end of the cage farthest from the nest, and I handle them a lot, always making sure that the mother is safely separated.
As I wrote this at the beginning of January 2001 I was caring for Coco and her litter of three 3-week-olds, the smallest of which was a typical “runt”. First thing every morning she loudly demanded her milk, and she had almost caught up in size with her brothers. It was an amazing experience to be at the command of this tiny fluffy personality who regularly insisted on being picked up and cuddled. Incidentally, Coco was trapped as a heavily pregnant, well-known “feral” cat, and gave birth 4 days later. A few days after the birth she had stopped cursing and snarling at me and had begun to purr: she was in fact an ex-domestic cat who reverted to her tame nature once she felt secure. This development was most surprising for her feeders but not to me – in the past 10 years 8 out of 10 of the mother cats I was asked to rescue with their kittens, and which behaved “wild” and were untouchable, revealed their domestic past in my care and were found new homes.
Coco is one of many “feral” cats who later reveal themselves to be ex-domestic pets: she is pictured here with her daughter Cookie in their new home in New Malden, Surrey
When the kittens are 5-6 weeks old and eating steadily, the mother is spayed and, if feral, ear-tipped and returned to her site. If she is tame, she and her kittens are moved to a bigger cage and the kittens are allowed to run around the room at intervals, because they need the exercise and have to become used to moving among people and to being picked up from the floor.
With the exception of a very few cats which simply had no milk at all, feral cats (as well as domestic ones) have always reared their kittens quite contentedly in the conditions described, provided the kittens were very young when rescued and the family left undisturbed. It is advantageous to place the hospitalisation cage in a raised position, for instance on top of another kitten cage; this makes attending to the cage easier and it is less frightening for the mother cat only to see the human from waist level, rather than feet and legs, which she has learned to avoid outside.
When I first tried this arrangement, I was worried that it would be too small for a mother cat and her litter. However, it is much roomier and more comfortable than the typical cramped, filthy hole that a cat forced to have her kittens outside will choose in her search for a safe den. In the hospitalisation cage, the feral mother soon learns that the unfamiliar noises and smells need not concern her, and that the only “danger” is me, leaving her plates of nice food several times a day. Within days, many mothers are so relaxed that they can be seen lying happily stretched out on the luxury of clean paper in the main part of the cage, taking a break from the kittens they are now confident are safe.
Procedure if kittens to be rescued are older
If we do not find the kittens until they are at least 4-5 weeks old or older, we raise them without their mother: it is easy to wean them now and they are just the right age for handling and intensive bonding with humans. If left with her much longer they will start imitating her shy attitude. As the mother’s milk production is reducing, her physical urge to nurse her kittens diminishes. At this stage she is therefore less likely to settle with her kittens in captivity. To spare the feral mother stress, as soon as we have secured the kittens we trap her so she can be spayed and returned after being assessed thoroughly just in case she is actually a shy domestic cat who is behaving as if feral because of her recent wild lifestyle and in defence of her kittens. In that case we reunite her with her kittens until all can be found homes when they are old enough.
Some trapping advice if the kittens are older
A litter of kittens at large is defenceless and may come to harm: therefore, if the kittens are 4-5 weeks or older and already moving around, for safety reasons they must be trapped first (the opposite approach to the procedure for a mother with young kittens). If under 10 weeks old the kittens may not yet eat without the mother’s command, and even 3-month olds are still dependent on various signals from her, telling them to come out of their hiding-places and follow her to the food, walking very closely to her body and only eating under her supervision. She watches them play and calls them back when she suspects danger – she uses a very low guttural sound taken from the growling register that has a hypnotic effect on the kittens which forces them to stop and freeze where she wants them to stay while she goes away for a time. If the mother is trapped first the kittens may search for her, and in doing so they may lose one another, wander off and go to sleep in a wet, unsuitable place where they may die of exposure. If they think they are abandoned they will most probably cry and give themselves away to predators. Once the kittens are safe it is important to trap the mother for spaying as soon as possible, since she may quickly become reconciled to the loss of her litter, come into heat and disappear to start the cycle again.
Logically we use the manual trap for the kittens, as we do in any situation when a group of cats is present. If the mother or any other cat enters the trap first, we let her eat and wait for the kittens to take their turn. The following sequence, which may be confusing for the novice trapper, is very common: at first the mother cat appears alone and eats at leisure. Then she leaves the trap and disappears, whereupon the desperate trapper thinks this is the end of the venture and goes home. Here a great opportunity has been missed: on her way out of the trap the mother almost always thoroughly sniffs the wooden frame at the entrance of the trap before she walks away (maybe she would not trust the trap if it smelt of other animals, so it is vital that the trap is thoroughly cleaned immediately before use). This is an indication that the kittens are not far away and that she intends to bring them to the food. However, often she disappears for a while in order to nurse her kittens first, before reappearing with them and nudging them with her nose into the trap. Sometimes she may return immediately, or she may even call them from the trap as soon as she has finished eating herself. The kittens may then enter the trap either as a group or one by one. Gentle closure of the trap is essential so that the remaining cats outside are not frightened away. Once we are sure that all the kittens are safely caught, the mother should be trapped as soon as possible afterwards, because she may leave the area which she had chosen to raise her litter, probably not to be seen again until she next gives birth. If there are no other cats about, an automatic trap can now be used, since the cat may be wary of the wooden trap with which she has seen her kittens trapped. A different-looking trap, put in a different area of the yard and baited with different-smelling food, has often helped to trap a nervous cat.
Trappers have frequently argued with me that the mother cat must always be trapped first otherwise “one might never get her”. Sorry, but I have always succeeded. These same trappers have also sometimes admitted losses of kittens which disappeared when the mother was away and were never found after, proclaiming that “three out of four was quite good”. I am unable to accept this level of risk and find it quite unnecessary. I also find it easier to trap a forewarned mother cat (provided the trapper is more intelligent than the cat!) than to trap kittens without their mother. An early experience taught me a lesson: the ex-domestic mother of four three-month-old kittens had to be taken in urgently because she was poorly with pneumonia. Three kittens were trapped immediately before they realised their mother had gone, but the last kitten cried day and night and could not be trapped; it was too distressed to be interested in food. After two days we decided we had to return the mother cat briefly: the kitten ran up to her and, now comforted, went eagerly to eat in the trap. It was extremely fortunate that the “deserted” kitten was in the comparative safety of an underground garage where it was watched over by the residents and unlikely to be lost. Had it been at large in a garden or park area we might never have seen it again.
Elke de Vries © Cat Action Trust 1977
What are feral cats?
They are the offspring of lost or abandoned domestic cats living wild, often in colonies; because they have not been handled they are wary of people. Domestic and feral cats are the same species of cat, and it follows that domestic cats can have either domestic or feral kittens, depending on their lifestyle. A single lost or abandoned domestic cat that gives birth to feral kittens is practically always the start of a feral cat colony.
Can feral cats have domestic offspring?
Paradoxically, the answer is yes. If the kittens of a feral cat are raised in a domestic household like Snowball, pictured here, they will be no different from domestic kittens born to a domestic mother because they will be used to humans and their activities, as well as to being handled. This applies to handreared kittens as well as to kittens which a feral cat may have brought into a house, and to kittens which are raised in a hospitalisation pen by their feral mother.
When helping with a feral cat colony we fieldworkers are often introduced to the pet of the house, a smart, shiny, friendly and confident cat with a collar who, we are told, was taken from a litter in the garden either because he was so poorly or so pretty. Seeing the difference between the good life of this well-groomed pet and that of his feral siblings in the garden makes us sad that not all of them were taken in and found homes.
Can feral kittens become domesticated?
Kittens of 4-5 weeks of age who have not seen people may spit and struggle at first, but if handled a lot they will soon calm down and enjoy being held. Six- to seven-week olds will have learned to run away from the big monster, Man, and will need trapping, confinement in a playpen and intensive handling in order to overcome their fear of people. If let loose in a room immediately they will just continue running away and probably never become completely tame.
Kittens over 8 weeks old grow wild fast and need more time for adjustment. Unfortunately people often do not contact us until kittens have become big and unmanageable. They will then take a long time to tame and will be difficult to home as nervous adults.
Are feral kittens easy to house-train?
Both domestic and feral kittens take naturally to a cat litter-tray, provided it is available in the kitten’s living space and is kept clean. Feral kittens have already used earth outside and easily accept cat litter, a similar substance, provided the tray is close enough to their hiding hole.
(Note: cat owners often create problems when they try to force their new cat to use the garden by removing the tray all together, and then complain that the cat has become dirty in the house. A cat will only gradually begin to use the garden as it feels secure outside; until then a litter-tray must be available at all times until the cat no longer chooses to use it.)
C an domestic kittens become feral?
If not rescued fast an abandoned kitten will soon start to use the instincts of survival inherited from the wild cat. It will hide away, live rough and breed. The same applies to adult cats, especially unneutered toms, which often join feral cat colonies and are eventually indistinguishable in their behaviour from their feral cousins. Once caught and brought in they may start purring and disclose their domestic origin. These cats can often be rehabilitated and found homes.
Not all feral cats are truly feral!
A lost or abandoned pet cat forced to fend for itself outside may behave like a feral cat in order to survive. Because of their behaviour they may be indistinguishable from “true” feral cats while outside, but once trapped and brought indoors they often revert to their original tame habits. This process can take minutes, hours, days or even weeks, depending on how long it takes the cat to get over its fear and learn to trust humans again. Once such a cat is confident that it is safe and that humans mean it no harm, it will be friendly and affectionate again.
Can adult feral cats find homes?
When people are asked why they want to adopt a cat the most common answer is that they want an affectionate and cuddly companion. Adult feral cats don’t come into this category, or at least not in the short term. Many people are able successfully to coax an adult feral cat into the house, gradually gain its trust and confidence and finally turn it into a loving pet. This is a wonderful achievement and reward for an animal lover who takes a cat in for its own sake. Such a late transformation is only possible because of the cat’s innate intelligence and affection.
The very thin line between feral and domestic becomes obvious when a domestic cat panics and temporarily “goes wild”. Many cat owners have had the embarrassing experience of their otherwise perfectly behaved domestic pet attacking the vet.
Even tiny domestic as well as feral kittens reveal their wild origin: when their sense of hearing starts operating at the age of 3-4 days they are scared of sounds and hiss for a little while; later, at 10-14 days, when they start to see they even try to hit out. This reflex soon stops.
At the end of the day, all cats are originally wild animals which, thanks to their intelligence and adaptability, have allowed humans to domesticate them.
© Cat Action Trust 1977
Here we list some of the many dangers that your cat may face inside the home.
Never leave a running or full bath unattended. Cats have been drowned or scalded in hot water.
Toilet lids ought to be kept down. Cats who drink from toilet bowls regularly – as noticed by their paw marks – are in danger of drowning. I have read of a cat who slipped in and was unable to turn around or climb backwards. A plumber had to dismantle the toilet to remove the body.
We all know of fatal accidents in washing machines and tumble dryers. Unfortunately cats are attracted by open holes, warmth and laundry baskets. The doors and lids should be kept shut when not in use and the animal kept well out of the way when the machines are filled. Only recently we were asked for help finding a lost cat. It emerged the cat had been shut inside the owner’s tumble dryer for almost two days. Fortunately the cat was OK. Also, if you believe your cat is missing do please check the house thoroughly, including all rooms, cellars, attics and cupboards.
Hot cooking rings can burn paws. Tempted by the cooking smells even an ‘obedient’ cat might forget its good manners and jump on the kitchen surface and walk across the stove. Do not leave unattended.
Toys on string can cause accidents; ‘cat-dancers’ and even the very short string which attaches balls to scratching posts can act like a noose around the paw cutting off the circulation.
Needles and thread and tinsel are obviously also dangerous. Burning candles and open flames must not be left unattended.
Medicines and toxic chemicals such as disinfectant, bleach and antifreeze must be kept locked way.
House plants may provoke cats and especially kittens to play and nibble. The poisonous ones have to be removed well out of the reach of pets. The most common ones are True Ivies, Philodendron, False Jerusalem Cherry (with typical small bright arrange and yellow fruit), Dieffenbachia (commonly with heart shaped while speckled leaves), Elephant Ears, Poinsettia. Oleander, Parlour Palms and Chinese Money Plants.
We also received this letter illustrating another potential danger…..
Deadly Panic – A Letter with a Warning….
The other day – and I think this is a warning to owners of playful cats – I was undoing my shopping from plastic bags and Susie, being so inquisitive, started to play with one and she rushed out of the kitchen with her head caught in the handle. She flew up the stairs, crashed into the wall at the top, dislodging a picture, and ran into my bedroom. I found, sometime afterwards, that she had crashed into the sun blinds. She finally ended up in the airing cupboard still with the bag round her neck. She was so frightened. I managed to get the bag off, but it was not easy to get her out of the cupboard so I left her. Eventually, in her own time, she came out. Poor dear, she was so frightened. I’m glad to say she seems none the worse for her ordeal, but it has taught me not to let her play with a plastic bag again. A lesson to us all.
Mollie R, London
A reply from CAT77 – We are grateful for the above letter because it demonstrates that being caught in a plastic carrier bag can have a terrifying effect on a cat – quite in contrast to the comic effect it could look like to us. Being caught by an object that it cannot escape from and petrified by the rustling noise of the plastic, cats get into a state of utter panic. If there is no human being present to free it, as luckily, there was in Susie’s case, the cat could strangle itself in its frenzy, should the bag be caught on something.
This must have happened to a feral kitten which we found not long ago, strangled by a plastic handle, tightly twisted around its neck that had become caught on a piece of barbed wire on the ground. In its extreme panic the kitten must have rolled around on the ground to free itself, tightening the noose. Since this tragic find I make sure that no handles are ever exposed and all bags, whether full or empty are stored safely unless the handles are cut through.
We hope that this list of warnings is welcome and will help prolong your cat’s life. Every cat is a unique and irreplaceable little personality which we sometimes take for granted and only fully appreciate when it’s too late. Although cats often get themselves into trouble through no fault of the owner, we must still do our best to protect them and caution is better than complacency. I have so often heard upset people say that they did not realise the danger their cat was in…
We have tried to cover all the dangers which we have come across. However, please let us know of any others you have discovered.
Elke de Vries
If your cat is missing at dinner-time, your most natural and sensible reaction will be to wait a while. He might have had a snack elsewhere, or be otherwise engaged in the neighbourhood. If he has still not returned at bedtime, look for him in the house first, checking every corner and drawer before starting a search in the street. Shine a torch into bushes and hedges: if he has come to harm and crawled into hiding, it will probably be too late to save his life if he is not discovered until next day. If he is not found, then the catflap must be left open day and night until he returns.
If the cat is still missing next morning, there is reason for concern. You should immediately telephone all local vets and animal hospitals with a detailed description, in case he is brought in or reported found. Next, leave plenty of food outside both the front and back doors, taking care to replace it immediately if eaten by other cats. This is especially important if the cat is new to the house or not used to being outside: the smell of food may attract him back. In addition, leave an item carrying your scent (ideally an old shoe) outside both doors, to help him to identify his house.
There are a number of things that may have happened to the cat:
He may have got onto the street through his own front door or through a window, or via a neighbouring house. Remember that cats can squeeze through gaps as narrow as 2″ high (even, in the case of Honeypot, a 4-month kitten, a gap of 1″).
He may have been snooping around in another house and become locked in, remaining undiscovered for some time. Especially during the holiday season, you should check any houses that show no lights at night. Calling at the window late at night may result in the appearance of a little face, or the call of a faint little voice from inside. It may be necessary to gain access to an empty house: the police are often helpful in such situations.
Your cat could be locked into a shed, garage, coal bunker, derelict house, building site or even a vacant flat.
Open floorboards offer tempting but treacherous hiding places. Partly for safety reasons, builders will often not co-operate and will maintain that there is no cat inside: they would otherwise have heard it! This is a misconception: whereas some cats will protest loudly when they find themselves trapped, others will not make a sound for fear of discovery. Their inbred wild instincts take over, and they lose their normal trust in people in this frightening situation. In such cases, we sign a declaration of indemnity if required, and then search the place painstakingly, peering down beneath the floorboards and shining a torch to the end of each joist in search of clues like paw prints in the dust or the gleam of eyes. Although builders will insist that there is no passage under the floor between rooms, gaps left for copper piping have proved large enough for cats to squeeze through.
The cat may have been stolen, or simply carried away by children and been unable to find his way home when they tired of their game.
“The cat must have deliberately crawled away to die…”: this is a very commonly used explanation for the disappearance of an elderly or sick cat, and in my opinion is a misinterpretation of what really happens. As long as a cat is not in pain and can walk, he will continue his habitual round through neighbouring gardens, checking on his territory.
Finally, and sadly, foxes can sometimes attack or kill cats.
However, you need to think positively and start an extensive search for your missing cat.
First, put large waterproof notices on trees and lamp-posts, starting near your home and in the streets parallel to yours, widening the area to streets further away as time goes on. Renew these notices if necessary, so that people know that the cat is still missing. The words LOST, CAT and its COLOUR, as well as your telephone number should be in 2-3″ high letters so that people can read them from cars and take the number down as they drive past. DO NOT give your address! People in the past who have done this have had a number of similar-coloured cats dumped on their doorstep – especially by well-meaning children – and so even more cats have ended up misplaced.
Put notes through letterboxes asking people to leave their sheds and outhouses open for a while, so that a trapped cat can escape. A shy cat will often hide behind stored articles and will not come out immediately if it hears strange people. In my experience few people will go out of their way to help find a missing cat, so the owner should press for permission to check sheds and gardens personally. We have had cases where cats became trapped between fences or between a fence and a shed: one had a fatal outcome, the body being found 2 months later.
Post on Social Media and also register on lost and found sites such as Animal Search UK. Is there someone nearby who is known for feeding strays? If so, ask if they have seen your cat.
Although lost cats are usually found less than 200 yards away, you will need to enlarge your radius of searching and leafletting before long. Lost cats may move on fast in search of food.
Equipped with a cat-basket, food dish and torch, continue nightly searches. It is vital to do this completely silently, wearing soft shoes. A lost cat will run away when it hears people approaching or talking, and will refuse to respond out of fear – which will increase the longer he has been lost. As your search should be made late at night, remember to call in a low voice – cats can hear far better than people. It is important to stand totally still in one spot for many minutes, calling at intervals and listening for an answer. In almost all cases in which we have been involved, we have managed to hear the cat and recover it. Usually he was just a few streets away. In two cases we shuffled our soles along the pavement on the way home and were delighted when the cat returned a few hours later. We had no idea where he had been, but he may well have heard us calling and been too shy to respond; however, once all was quiet he checked the spot where we had been and followed our scent home. On several occasions we have managed to attract a very shy ex-feral cat with the help of a tape-recording made in his home at feeding-time, with the sounds of a tin-opener, rattling biscuits, begging cats and familiar human voices – in one case, the sound of a child’s music practice!
Fortunately, lost cats often end up in the gardens of kind people who recognise their plight and start feeding. Once they see your notices and contact you, it is only a matter of time and patience to entice the cat into a basket or trap.
Cats can squeeze into the smallest places. In one case a couple moved and left two cats behind. Luckily a neighbour noticed them appearing at an upper window and began pushing food under a gap in the door, but neither the RSPCA nor the police could find any trace of the cats in the house. By chance we met a concerned policeman, and went to see the feeder. By a process of elimination we concluded that they were hiding behind a wooden kitchen unit and tested the theory by sprinkling the floor and inside of the cupboard with flour. Next morning footprints confirmed their hiding place, and we were able to trap the cats, have them treated for poisoning, and rehome them.
The search for a lost cat can become tiring and disheartening, but you must not give up! Unfortunately people often stop looking for their lost cat too soon. Many times I have been asked for a new kitten only a few days after a cat has gone missing: “He must be miles away… Somebody must have taken him… He’ll be all right, he’s a survivor”. Such comments show an unwillingness to persevere and a lack of affection and loyalty. More anxious owners keep asking: “Do you think I shall get him back?”. The answer is quite simple: only if you do not give up! If you stop looking, your cat really will be lost and may end up as a stray. If you persevere you may well get your cat back – or at least find a valid explanation for his disappearance.
WHAT CAN I DO TO PREVENT MY CAT BECOMING LOST?
Keeping the cat off the street as much as possible, and, in particular, keeping him locked indoors at night will reduce the chance considerably. At night cats will venture further and will encounter more dangers.
Microchips and collars with an address/’phone number are a great help in returning a lost cat to his owner. Collars can be dangerous, but fortunately it is now possible to buy totally safe cat collars with a special plastic section that will come apart if the cat is caught up or tries to free itself. Keep your pet’s Microchip information UP TO DATE. A lost cat can be scanned for free by a vet, vet nurse or rescue agency, the microchip number identified and the owner contacted via the registry.
© Elke de Vries, CAT 1977 Fieldwork Advisor,
The only difference between domestic and feral kittens is FEAR
We have established that domestic and feral cats are the same species, and indeed there can even be both domestic and feral cats in the same cat family. An abandoned cat will give birth to kittens which will grow up feral unless they are rescued soon after birth; otherwise, this is the start of a feral cat colony. It follows that the difference between domestic and feral cats is the direct result of their lifestyle and upbringing.
[See article: Feral or Domestic? That is the Question]
Whereas domestic cats are born and raised in the security of a human environment and used to being handled by people, feral kittens are born “in the wild” and hidden away by the mother. If unnoticed for several weeks they will develop their inherent wild instincts, regardless of whether the mother cat is feral or domestic. Once exposed to the outside world they will react aggressively or elusively towards anything unfamiliar – including humans. To become domesticated they have to be tamed, to be taught to live with humans without fear and finally to trust people to the extent that they can be handled as pets.
Question: how long does it take to tame a feral kitten?
Answer: this appears to depend on the following factors:
The kitten’s age at the time of rescue
Its previous experiences and traumas
Time available, intelligence and commitment of the “tamer” (fosterer)
The kitten’s inherent personality – the siblings of a litter usually show varying degrees of tameness when they are first rescued. This often changes during the course of adjustment; the shyest often overtakes the others and becomes the most affectionate. It is hard to say whether this is the result of the extra attention that it inevitably receives or inherited temperament and disposition that only manifests itself when the kitten has calmed down.
THE AGE OF A KITTEN AT THE TIME OF RESCUE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR
If rescued newborn or up to 4 weeks of age feral kittens are practically as tame as their domestic born relatives. Both may spit faintly at anything unfamiliar but they can be easily held and handled. After that an undetected kitten may grow “wild” fast (even a 4-week-old can already back away from a rescuing hand or disappear into foliage or through holes in fences etc., but it is not able to run faster than a human).
A 5-week-old kitten can be quite elusive but if held closely, kept warm and cuddled intensively it usually calms down within a few days, provided it has not been chased during its rescue. Taming is made much more difficult when the kitten’s first impression of a human was a “monster” charging after it causing fear and panic which it will need time to forget. If a kitten does act aggressively it is very important to hold it as soon as possible. This is best done by picking it up from behind or lightly scruffing it and holding it close to your chest which usually calms the kitten down very quickly.
Unless they are found in an enclosed space in a safe corner where they can be instantly and swiftly picked up, feral kittens should be coaxed into a kitten trap baited with food rather than chased around. (If there is more than one animal to be trapped only a manual trap is safe, as one kitten eating can trigger an automatic trap door, which can hurt or even kill others on their way in). Kittens of around 6 to 7 weeks old grow big and wild fast and therefore need to be handled as soon and as intensively as possible. I have found it most useful with kittens of this age to try to hold and cuddle them the very night I bring them home if at all possible. At this stage they may still be acting passively because they are utterly surprised and I use this frozen attitude to handle them before they regain their determination and defend themselves. For extra comfort and to discourage it from struggling I wrap it loosely in some woollen material and hold it against my chest. Gentle stroking from behind with my thumb up the forehead and down between the ears is especially soothing and effective (possibly as it reminds the kitten of being woken and washed by its mother). One the kitten is totally relaxed in my arms it can start little investigative walks on my lap, extending to the surface of the settee or bed, while I keep stroking it with my hands to reassure it and also to control it should it suddenly leap out of reach. We still follow it closely in the same way as it takes its first steps on the ground so that it cannot disappear into corners. After each short excursion the kitten is returned to the pen.
Kittens over 8 weeks of age are usually too fierce to be handled straight away and if they are 9 to 10 weeks or older a step-by-step taming programme will be required, unless previous feeders have gained their confidence on site by handling and stroking them. This is more likely when the mother cat is ex-domestic because she will bring them closer to humans and is more relaxed when she sees her kittens being approached.
The taming course needs to start at the earliest opportunity and even if very young feral kittens are taken in and reared with their mother, they need to be separated from her for short periods of time to be handled once they are 3 to 4 weeks old.
A playpen provides adequate living space for a litter of kittens
It is essential that newly rescued kittens be confined in a kitten pen. (see MDC, www.mdcexports.com) If a feral kitten is old enough to walk or crawl it will most certainly disappear behind or inside furniture. Frightened of humans it will squeeze itself into the most unsuitable tiny spaces where it will remain shivering with fear. People only familiar with the reactions of domestic cats may follow it around making comforting noises but this will only result in scaring the frightened creature even more. Even tiny kittens should be kept in a playpen, hospitalisation or queen’s cage, or just a spacious cat basket, so that the optimal regular feeding, warmth and litter training can be controlled. A very young kitten out of reach behind furniture can become dehydrated within hours and its life can be at stake.
If allowed to hide away, the kitten will continue its feral lifestyle and will not settle. Contrary to the belief of some people who would rather let the kitten have its freedom (assuming it will eventually come to them as a tame pet), the kitten will not learn fast enough, will not get used to being handled and will grow into a semi-feral cat which to its owner’s disappointment will not act like a pet.
STEP BY STEP TAMING
During its taming (or learning) process the kitten has to deal with three major problems
1. The new human environment with its smells, noises and activities –
Even an initially frantic kitten will soon recognise that its playpen is a safe zone from which it can observe all the activities in the room without being directly affected and will calm down quickly.
2. Humans approaching it –
If the cage is placed at floor level in a busy area of the room the kitten will get used to seeing humans at their full “threatening” height
3. Being touched and held –
Within the safe confines of the playpen, with the kitten within easy reach, it is easier for the tamer to acclimatise the kitten to being touched and handled. Not being able to run away, the kitten will soon lose the impulse to do so.
Before we dive into step-by-step taming one important warning:
NEVER TEASE A CAT WITH YOUR HANDS!
Some people think that we tame a cat by playing with it using our hands. They imitate the cat’s fast frisky movements in front of the cat’s face and feet, provoking the cat to lash out, scratch and bite, unaware that playing, for a cat, is also part of the process of learning to hunt and kill. A woman from Ealing came to choose two kittens and immediately started to tease them in this way and tap their faces playfully. Within seconds they retaliated and scratched and bit her fiercely – something that these two kittens had never done before. I rushed to stop her and explain why she must not tease a cat with her hands. Surprised she admitted she had always “played” with her previous cat in this manner, thinking it needed this type of “fun” and now wondered if she had in fact caused it to become an aggressive cat.
HAND FEEDING IS THE KEY TO WINNING A KITTEN’S TRUST
If the kittens are badly under-nourished or frantically scared and flying around the cage, we give them a few days to recover before we start the real work. Do not be tempted to release the kitten thinking you are doing it a favour.
We may even decide to place the cage in a quiet corner or in a raised position initially, which is also easier for the fosterer to observe and attend to feeding, cleaning etc.
From day one of our taming course, and for many more to come, the kitten will receive ALL its food from our fingers and only water is available between meals “for free”. We start by holding a large lump of food very still in front of the kitten, hoping it will smell it and start eating immediately. Instead, the kitten may be scared and back away or even lash out and hit the food out of our hand. In that case we make a small trail – one or two small pieces placed on the ground near the hungry kitten – leading to our hand resting flat and motionless on the ground. Usually kittens sniff their way along to the hand and eat from it within one or two minutes, otherwise we repeat. Soon we can hold the food lump in front of its face; other kittens in the pen will imitate the braver kitten and come to eat as well. In that case, use very large chunks otherwise your fingers may be eaten as well! When the kittens have lost interest we take all the food away until we start again later. The kittens very soon become used to our hands and start licking the fingers clean. After a few days they will come to the entrance of the cage to be fed and when their tails go up we know we are making progress.
At this stage we can introduce the next step. We only start feeding the meal as usual from our fingers and as the kitten continues its meal from the plate we stroke it very briefly down its side with the outside of our “dirty” feeding fingers. The kitten will look round alarmed only to find the familiar hand, which it will sniff and recognise, and reassured it will continue eating from the plate. This action has to be repeated many times and whenever the kitten shows surprise we show it our fingers in the food offering position, always very slowly to give it time to sniff and think. The kitten may begin to purr at this stage, however, be warned – this does not mean that it is now tame like a domestic cat, where purring indicates affection and readiness to be picked up.
A feral kitten still has a long way to go, and purring may only indicate contentment, when its tummy fills up for instance.
With or without food we use this gesture for many weeks or months to come whenever we approach the kitten in its cage, because it provokes a positive reflex in the kitten. Expecting food it raises its tail and is willing to be stroked and in time it may butt against the hand expecting to be touched, a sign of confidence in the feeder. Yet, even after many months, we still start every stroking session showing the “holding” fingers first, to keep this reflex alive and wisely teach this link to the new owner once the kitten goes to a home.
When the kitten has become tame enough to be released in to the room, this gesture – especially when holding some Coley or other tasty tit-bit – will be indispensable when wanting to attract the kitten to the feeder.
LIFTING AND HOLDING THE KITTEN
Once the kitten enjoys being stroked we gradually teach it to be lifted up. This involves touching it under the stomach and chest, a sensation that the kitten has to learn to accept gradually. While eating distracts the kitten we can stroke it with one hand firmly over its back and rest the other underneath for as long as the kitten will tolerate it. If the kitten frets we stop and start again later being careful to avoid any gripping or tickling effect.
The next step is to gently place a hand under the chest and lift it so the front feet slightly lose the feel of the ground. This needs to be repeated several times and gradually the height increased until the kitten is used to it. At that stage we place the other hand under its back legs and very briefly hold the kitten in both hands just a few inches high inside the pen. We always place it back on the ground on all fours and comfort it by stroking before its reaction of surprise turns to panic. Still inside the pen we gradually pick the kitten up higher during the next few days to get it used to feeling safe and still in our hands. Eventually we lift it out of the pen for a short moment and immediately rest it against our chest for warmth and comfort, stroking gently from behind over its head and back. The kitten’s head should be facing the open cage door so it can be put back at the slightest sign of nervousness. Trying to win over the kitten by holding onto it by force is not only bound to be unsuccessful, and possibly harmful, but totally against the spirit of our teaching which aims at gaining the kitten’s understanding and confidence – the basis of all bonding.
RELEASING THE KITTEN INTO THE ROOM
When the kitten has become tame and handleable it can finally be let out of the cage. This can be done in stages and initially when the kitten is hungry!
At first it should be kept in one room to overcome any initial nervousness. Make sure all the doors and windows are firmly shut (a kitten can squeeze through an inch gap and it can tamper with levers and prise windows open).
This must be the same room that the kitten has seen from its playpen. In order to maintain the bond between kitten and feeder we only allow the kitten to be loose in the room for limited periods of time. We can begin by feeding the kitten on the open cage door while we are stroking it as usual and then putting the food just in front of the cage. It is most important that we do not follow the kitten around or chase it as it explores the room, as this will only make it run away from us. Instead we tempt it to come to us with treats and toys; tasty food held out with the familiar feeding gesture or a toy trailed past us or onto our laps. It can be helpful to keep a small plate of attractively smelling food next to your knees to encourage the kitten to approach you. We only try to touch the kitten from the side or from behind unless it approaches us with its tail up expecting to be cuddled. During these sessions we keep a dish of food in the open playpen to entice it back inside later for another handling session.
IN ITS NEW HOME
Unless the kitten has been rescued very young and has become as tame as any domestic born kitten we take it to its new home with its playpen, its own little house where it feels safe and can be handled immediately. We teach the new owner all the tricks of the trade, including a short period of hand feeding to settle the kitten in fast. We encourage the owner to say the kitten’s name when feeding to get it used to being called, which is helpful later when the kitten is released into the room and also very much later when it goes outside.
Intelligent people understand the benefits of this approach and enjoy the challenge and the sense of achievement when the kitten has bonded with them.
The end result!
THE TIME FACTOR
Taming feral kittens is a race against time because people want to adopt kittens as young as possible. They prefer a nervous seven-week-old to a tame four month old. If the kitten is not rescued until it is ten to twelve weeks old the taming can take several weeks, if not months. Only two months later it will need neutering and if a home is not found soon after it is not regarded as a kitten any longer. There is only a slim possibility of finding homes for these youngsters and this is especially hard during the summer, with an abundance of even younger kittens, so we wait for the chance during the winter months, hoping for those rare, unselfish animal lovers to come and choose a kitten that needs special love and patience….people who seem to be like gold dust.
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT !
It is not only important that each stage which leads to handling the kitten is repeated countless times before the next one can be attempted, but also much later, when the kitten has become practically tame, the sequence: SNIFF – TOUCH – STROKE – LIFT – HOLD should be repeated whenever you approach the cage as the basis of every interaction because it gives the kitten a sense of security and establishes a positive attitude to us humans.
©Elke de Vries 2002 – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor
I have written this article to give basic advice to people unexpectedly faced with tiny motherless, frail kittens with no idea of how to deal with the situation. I have lost count of the number of people in the past who have rung me in despair, either because they did not know what to do, or because they had improvised and things had gone tragically wrong: “…had we only known all this…”. One so quickly grows fond of these little creatures, and it is traumatic to lose them after all one’s efforts. However, handrearing is really quite simple, once you know how.
A newborn kitten is entirely dependent on its mother. The queen provides three vital requirements:
3. Stimulation of the bowel and bladder, and general hygiene.
The human substitute has to provide all of these to enable the kittens to survive. I will cover each in turn.
I’ll illustrate this with the procedure followed in a typical rescue case. Five two-day-old kittens were found in a puddle on a building site. Three were already dead, but the others, though very cold, wet and seemingly lifeless, were still breathing. Their umbilical cords were still attached and therefore a warm bath was out of the question (in any case, bathing is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS for kittens, and must be avoided under any circumstances). The priority was to get the two survivors dry and warm, so they were first rubbed thoroughly with a rough towel to stimulate the circulation. Next, a hot water bottle was prepared, wrapped in a thick layer of newspaper, placed inside an old woollen sweater and the whole laid in a box. This arrangement will maintain a suitable temperature for 2-4 hours. The kittens, now dry, were placed on top and covered with a loosely-crocheted blanket to create a perfect warm capsule, with about 2″ of the box left uncovered.
Simply putting kittens “by the fire”, as many well-meaning people do, is not good enough: the warmth has to be skin-close to imitate the mother’s body, which is normally folded right round the kittens. A queen will never deliberately leave her young kittens for more than a few moments. If you are worried that the kittens might overheat, add a further layer of newspaper over the hot water bottle, and place a folded towel in the box beside the covered hot-water bottle. Even very young kittens will instinctively crawl to an area with the right temperature.
Cold kittens are too weak to suckle and swallow, and they are unable to digest properly, so only when the kittens have started to warm up do I prepare their food.
If you are taken by surprise with no pet shop or vet nearby, an eye dropper, or a cotton bud covered with muslin or cotton lawn from which the kitten can suck, will do to give a little improvised liquid food. Evaporated milk diluted with three parts of boiled, cooled water is suitable in emergency; even glucose water (1 teaspoon of glucose powder per cup of boiled water) will serve, but only as the first feed and if the kitten is desperately hungry (however, for a very weak kitten, this is the best mixture to use for the first feed). Cat food manufacturers advise us that the lactose-reduced “cat milk” sold in cartons is NOT SUITABLE for bottle-feeding kittens.
The prepared feed should be slightly below blood temperature: a drop placed on the back of the hand should feel neither warm nor cold.
The first sips should be given drop by drop to be sure everything is swallowed – you may need to stimulate swallowing by gently stroking the throat after each drop. After the first few drops a kitten will usually get an appetite and start suckling actively, but failing that you should continue with the drop method. It is essential to take things slowly and carefully, as if any food – even the smallest amount – gets into the lungs, infection and death will inevitably follow.
As soon as you can, get a proper feeder and teats, and a scientifically formulated milk substitute.
Which drinking bottle is the best?
The CATAC Standard Feeder is safe, but it is not easy for people with narrow fingers to use: I find it better to use a syringe fitted with a CATAC teat (designed especially for kittens). Start with a 1 ml syringe, using bigger ones as the kitten grows and is able to suckle harder. The hole in the teat should be just big enough to allow drops of milk to appear slowly at the end of the teat without added pressure. Ideally the kitten should suck so that the plunger moves down the barrel of the syringe without any pressure from your hand, but you may occasionally need to use the GENTLEST POSSIBLE pressure until the kitten gets the idea. Replace the syringe as soon as the plunger starts to stick – this may be necessary daily. If milk appears at the sides of the kitten’s mouth or – even worse – bubbles from the nose, then the flow is far too fast and the kitten is in serious trouble. Stop instantly, hold the kitten with the head slightly below the rest of the body, and tap its back gently with two fingers to stop it choking. Occasionally a very hungry kitten will “fight” the bottle in its anxiety and desperation: in this case gently steady its head with your fingers and guide the teat into the mouth.
Choice of food and time- table
CIMICAT is a milk powder specially formulated for kittens, and available from vets and some pet shops. It may be necessary to use a baby whisk to get a smooth mixture when making up the feed. Although CIMICAT is usually ideal and produces strong, healthy kittens, it may be too rich for some and cause diarrhoea. If this happens, switch to Lactol, which is less rich. If the kitten gets diarrhoea, the next two feeds should be rice water (drained from well-cooked white rice) to soothe the stomach, followed by a third feed of a mixture of equal quantities of Lactol and rice water, before going back to a pure milk feed to which one drop per day of Abidec Baby Vitamins may be added. This simple remedy, adapted from a method used for human babies, has effected miraculous cures, even with tiny kittens.
Patience and discipline are needed to handrear a kitten successfully, and this includes keeping the bedding and feeding equipment meticulously clean to avoid infection.
As with human babies, food must be given at short, regular intervals. The following guide has proved successful.
Days 1-21 For the first 7 days, pure milk feeds every 2-21/2 hours, day and night, intervals increasing to 21/2-3 hours (day and night) for days 7-21. Newborn kittens may take as little as 1 ml per feed, but the appetite increases rapidly. The amount taken at each feed depends entirely on the kitten’s appetite: stop feeding when the kitten stops suckling actively, and NEVER force it to take food. CIMICAT comes complete with instructions and a feeding chart, but in my experience the suggested quantities per feed are a minimum. Use the chart as a rough guide only and feed according to appetite.
Days 21-28 Feeds every 3 hours: an occasional interval of 31/2 hours is possible when enriched feeds are given – this longer interval may be most convenient in the middle of the night, to allow the nurse a little more sleep. (NOTE: it is important during the first 3 weeks that kittens are not left for too long an interval, not only because they need food, but also because a kitten may wet itself, get cold and become ill). In preparation for weaning, three of the milk feeds daily can now be enriched with approximately 1 level teaspoon per kitten of powdered baby rice stirred into the warm milk (for kittens over 31/2 weeks chicken flavoured powdered food, for babies from 3 months, may be added instead): enriched feeds should be alternated with pure milk feeds. If the kitten rejects pure milk feeds after having sampled the tastier mixture, a small amount of cereal can be added to every bottle. Some kittens just under 3 weeks old may no longer be satisfied with pure milk and will still be hungry after a milk feed. If this happens, put a small amount of cereal in future feeds.
Day 28 onwards at about age 4 weeks you can start teaching the kittens to eat. This is very easy using a scientifically formulated, tinned weaning food (available from vets and some pet shops, but not sold in supermarkets). Initially this should be liquidised with plenty of the enriched feed and given using a teaspoon. Wetting the little mouth with a small amount on the finger always does the trick: as a reflex action the kitten will lick its lips and will readily continue lapping from the spoon held against its mouth. Gradually lower the spoon to the plate until the kitten is eating directly from the plate. NEVER “dip its nose in”: how would you like to start dinner by having your face pushed into the soup and inhaling it through your nose? If the kitten is not ready to start weaning (it will turn its face away or shake its head when offered the weaning food), wait one or 2 days before trying again.
The 3 enriched daytime meals should now consist of this mixture, alternating with milk feeds. Some kittens like to continue to bottle-feed for a considerable time: you should allow this, but also encourage them to eat by themselves by leaving small bowls of food, boiled water and milk feed in the pen at all times, with a larger meal prepared last thing at night. The kittens will usually be eating within 2 or 3 days, allowing their by now exhausted human nurse a longer break at night. By 6 weeks of age the weaning food can be mixed with or replaced by tinned kitten food, together with liquidised or very finely chopped chicken breast. All food should be nicely moist and mushy, and palatable vitamin tablets (obtained from your vet) should be added.
Food should be available at all times and 5 times each 24 hours anything left uneaten should be replaced with a freshly prepared meal.
At 8 weeks offer 4 freshly prepared meals daily (including the night meal); at 12 weeks 3 meals. Up to 12 weeks I include at least one meal daily of freshly cooked chicken or fish, and when asked whether that is not rather extravagant, point out that even using every trick in the book and all possible care we can never take the place of a mother cat. We should at least try our very best: after all, a good start can save a lot of trouble later.
3) TOILET FUNCTION
A mother cat washes her kittens’ bottoms before and after each feed. Her tongue stimulates the bowel and bladder to evacuate. This action of the mother must be mimicked by gentle stroking of the area using cotton wool dampened with warm, previously boiled water. KITTENS THAT ARE NOT STIMULATED TO DEFECATE WEANED WILL DIE.When the kittens start eating solid food at about 4 weeks, they happily take to using a litter tray, which should be left in the pen near the kittens from now onwards and kept scrupulously clean. Natural grey fuller’s earth litter should be used, which is harmless if the kittens nibble it. Cats are naturally clean, and no further “training” is necessary.
Even a very experienced kitten nurse will encounter situations when a vet is needed. As well as serious diseases like cat ‘flu (“gungy” eyes and/or sneezing and coughing), complications as simple as worms MUST be treated by a vet and NOT with “over the counter” products available from shops.
Kittens can be born with these. The larvae of the roundworm pass through the mother’s uterus and into the liver of the unborn kitten: from there they migrate into the lungs and wriggle up the windpipe to the back of the throat, where they are swallowed and pass into the kitten’s stomach. A kitten as young as one day old may have symptoms indicating roundworms: listlessness, loss of appetite (food may be refused), slimy, runny motions (sometimes containing blood), and a bloated stomach. Generally, it will be obviously unwell, often whimpering and moving around in discomfort. A vet must be consulted and the kitten treated IMMEDIATELY.
Tapeworm segments look like cucumber pips or rice grains and may be found hanging from the anus: they may sometimes be in chains. Tapeworms fasten themselves onto the intestine and can kill – undiagnosed kittens as young as 5 weeks have died from them. IF THE KITTEN SEEMS UNWELL, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN EVIDENCE OF WORMS, CONSULT A VET IMMEDIATELY. The vet can treat the kitten with an injection, but infestation may recur if the kitten is not kept free from fleas.
These must be combed from the fur using a very fine-toothed comb (a “nit-comb”, available from pharmacists); combing must be done regularly and repeatedly. NO CHEMICALS (FLEA-SPRAYS, POWDERS, DROPS ETC) SHOULD BE USED ON KITTENS WITHOUT VETERINARY ADVICE – THEY COULD BE FATAL. Fleas eat tapeworm larvae and can re-infest the kitten.
These look like “walking dandruff”. The tiny white eggs are just visible and are firmly attached to the tips of the hairs. Lice can make a cat anaemic to the point of death, and must be dealt with immediately. Your vet will advise you on treatment. Because the eggs of lice are waterproof, a bath WILL NOT have any effect: in any case bathing a kitten is VERY DANGEROUS, and it may die of shock or contract pneumonia.
Care of the umbilical cord
The umbilical cord must be allowed to dry up and drop off naturally, and under no circumstances should it be removed. However, if the cord is very long it can become wound round a limb, cutting off the circulation: one kitten lost a paw this way. A kitten may also step on a very long cord, causing a hernia or even opening the stomach at the navel, which would be fatal. If the cord is still wet and very long you can carefully cut it yourself with very clean scissors, leaving it about 1″ long. Do not pull on the cord because the stomach must not open. If necessary the sore end of the cord can then be squeezed shut with two fingers for a few minutes to stop bleeding. If you notice seeping around the navel area seek veterinary help IMMEDIATELY: if there is a delay before you can get to the surgery, as an emergency measure soak a cotton wool ball in boiled salt water, squeeze it almost dry and hold it GENTLY over the navel until the bleeding stops. Do NOT rub or wash the area, and see the vet as soon as possible.
When bottle-feeding rescued feral kittens I have often been asked “Are they going to be wild?”. Quite the contrary: because of the continuous close physical contact with humans from an early age, handreared kittens turn out especially loving and affectionate. REMEMBER: feral and domestic cats are the same breed, and it is only the absence of contact with humans that destines a kitten to become a feral cat.
© Elke de Vries, CAT 1977 Fieldwork Adviser, 1999
(If you are handrearing kittens and need specific advice or reassurance, please email us and our fieldwork advisor will do her best to help you).
Ear-tipping involves removing about 1 cm of tissue from the left ear of feral cats at the time of neutering.
Done under the anaesthetic the process is painless. The procedure means that a neutered cat can be spotted from a distance. Thus a cat can be spared the trauma of a second trapping for neutering, as well as the risk of unnecessary anaesthetic.
Anaesthetic risk is higher in an unfit or very frightened cat: one cannot check heart or lung functions or open the mouth to check for anaemia before anaesthetising a feral cat, so fewer anaesthetics justifies ear-tipping.
In a female cat we cannot tell at all whether neutering has been carried out once the fur has regrown, so an ear tip prevents the need to open the abdomen and stitch up muscle and skin layers for a second time.
It can require a larger incision to find a small stump of uterus to prove, beyond doubt, that a cat has spayed than to spay initially, when the uterus can be found without difficulty in most cases.
Ear-tipping does not count as an unnecessary mutilation, in my view, because it prevents more suffering than it causes, and aesthetically the affected ear is no less attractive than a lot of the shredded ears that have been damaged by cats themselves in fights.
© Katie Whitcomb, BVSc, MRCVS Veterinary Surgeon
When a new cat appears in the garden, some cat-lovers immediately offer it some food; but is this always the right thing to do? If the cat is lost or abandoned it may be a lifesaver, but otherwise it may only cause problems for the cat and its real owner.
The cat might be on a specially medicated diet and ordinary cat food (and even more the popular dish of milk, which is bad for most cats) can compromise its health. The cat might be greedy and receiving extra meals may cause obesity. If the cat is new to the area and exploring its new neighbourhood, whilst not totally familiar with the outside of its new home, food offers may stop it from returning home altogether and we are then dealing with a lost cat. This can also happen to “holiday cats”, which are in the care of a friendly neighbour with keys to the house. The cat misses the usual attention of its owners, gets bored and seeking human company it may venture further than usual with potentially disastrous circumstances. The cat, having found a feeder elsewhere does not go home anymore and the neighbour finds the food untouched and stops feeding – a pet has become homeless. Every year, particularly during the summer holidays we receive requests from people to “collect a stray” which they have started feeding, unaware that they may have caused the problem in the first place. I suggest they reduce the feeding to only one meal to encourage the cat to go home. Meanwhile the cat should be scanned for a microchip, the number of which is stored on a central national register containing the cat’s home address. Failing that the neighbourhood should be informed about this cat in notes on trees and through letter boxes, at least until the holidays are over.
A very sad story twenty years ago warned me against removing new cats. A man and his two children came to me to choose a new kitten. All three, and soon all four of us, were in floods of tears. Their nine-month-old beautiful and affectionate neutered tomcat had been left in the care of a neighbour for two weeks. He had soon disappeared and when the family made enquiries on their return they found out that Tom had ventured only ten houses away where he had previously never been seen. Two elderly people assumed he was lost and started feeding him. A few days later they realised they had acquired a cat and unwilling to adopt him, they had him collected by a charity which was not opposed to killing for expediency. Because he wore a collar he was kept for a few days, in case the owner turned up, then he was put down.
Who was to blame for this tragedy? Practically everybody involved; the cat should have had an address attached to his collar, the neighbour should have advertised when he went missing (or looked for him), the ladies should not have fed him or at least asked around for his owners and finally the charity should have left notices realising that such a well groomed, well fed cat was not really a stray.
How can you tell if a cat is lost or not? Lost cats are usually desperate and hungry and will eat anything; to test them I offer some food of moderate quality, which will be ignored by a spoilt cat, which has had its meal at home. If a cat hangs about I use a scanner, if it is a kitten I take it in instantly for safety reasons and make extensive enquiries in the area. Young kittens do not survive for long without regular feeding and cannot be left to fend for themselves.
Then, there are feral cats. They look less fat and less shiny, unless they are adopted, and they usually behave in a shy and furtive manner and show fast reflexes when scared; unless they are used to the feeder they shoot off when a door opens, although they are hoping for a meal. To suggest, “do not feed them and they will go away” is cruel and neither helps the cats nor the people. It is a myth that feral cats are self-reliant. They are natural hunters but there is not enough wildlife to sustain them in our towns and cities (and who would want them to kill our songbirds out of necessity? – it is bad enough we lose so many to Magpies). Feral cats need at least one meal a day in order to remain healthy, this includes “working” cats in factories, hospitals etc. Most cats have one or two regular feeders and may also receive scraps from people who prefer to put out their leftovers for them rather than waste it. Provided this food it not spicy and has no bones which can cause injury (and death) it can add to a good and varied diet. Fresh water must always be available. For us animal workers it is important that feral cats are “attached” to certain gardens so that we know them all and have every single one neutered.
© Elke de Vries – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor
It happened only through chance that Buttercup and Marigold were saved through a mishap which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I went to a back garden in Southall intending to trap the three last cats of a colony yet to be neutered. As if under a spell, the cats kept a considerable distance from the trap. After three hours of waiting in vain, the kind, elderly lady who cherished these cats admitted that she had not kept her promise to stop feeding but had given them “only a little” that morning. The situation was so absurd that I came to the conclusion there must be a deeper purpose for this failure. Maybe some other cats needed my attention instead today.
Was there an industrial site near here? Indeed there was, the gate only fifty yards away.
I went and enquired about cats. Yes, there was a mother cat with kittens “down there”. Two laughing workmen pointed out an inch wide gap in the asphalt of a driving ramp. I thought they must be joking but when they pulled a steel roller away a cat jumped out, a beautiful tortoiseshell and white (or rather tortoiseshell and grime!). Below, in a tiny, filthy space only just within reach, were her four ginger kittens, two days old I was told. Mother kept an eye on us at a safe distance. One workman helped me fetch the trap, the other kept vigil at the ramp. Mother was caught within minutes with the help of cooked chicken. But when I reached down to lift up a kitten I made an horrific discovery: all four kittens were strung together by their umbilical cords. Two were obviously dead because they were cold, stiff and very dusty. They must have suffocated underneath their mother, being unable to move. Careful not to pull on the navels, I cut the dried umbilical cords of all four kittens at an inch length. The two surviving kittens were covered with dust and grime and their little faces with black crusts. The little pink mouths were wide open crying in distress. Their navels appeared severely infected and I rushed them to the vet for antibiotic treatment which needed to be continued.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH HELPING A CAT?
Two tantalising weeks followed. Their stomachs could have opened any time being bloodshot and sore; stitching up would have been impossible because the skin was too delicate. Unbearable, the thought of losing them, especially after the workmen told me had I only come yesterday when they were all still alive! If only someone had contacted us about this cat in the first place! I learned that ‘tortie’ (now known as Tiger Lily) had had many litters before, some of them born in a place worse than this: in a deep, dusty hole underneath a building. Nobody knew what had happened to any of the kittens. Did they ever emerge alive? Did any survive? Nobody was interested. Oh yes, they quite liked the cat, yet nobody had put a stop to this chain of disasters by at least having her spayed or taking her home. This time she had tried to force her way into the office and had been rejected. What is wrong with helping a cat?
Once at home with me, Tiger Lily relaxed immediately. Why is she not on the photo? Tiger Lily cannot be allowed to move freely outside the playpen because she has a ferocious attitude towards other cats in defence of her kittens. Having had this little family for two months, I think we have been very lucky to survive and lucky will be the people who will adopt these beautiful cats.
And the cats indirectly responsible for all this in the garden in Southall? I decided to leave a dummy trap and gave instructions to put all the food inside for the next two weeks. When I came back to trap I was assured that the cats were really hungry. Yet they did not go near the trap until they thought I had gone. I discreetly joined the little lady watching television, with the magic string at the ready through the kitchen curtains. One cat was caught during “Blockbusters”, one during “Countdown”, and the third waited for the 6 o’clock news. ©Elke de Vries – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor, 1999
You would think that your back garden is a natural and secure place for your cats to enjoy, but unfortunately this is not always so. The most obvious dangers in the garden are poisonous plants but because the cat’s metabolism is different from humans, plants that are poisonous to people are not always poisonous to cats and vice versa.
Some of the garden plants poisonous to cats are:
Ivies (Hedera spp), Cherry Laurel (Prunus Laurocerasus), Mistletoe, Rhododendron, Azaleas, Euphorbias, Oleander.
This list is not exhaustive, but one must also apply a sense of proportion. Even if you uproot all possible harmful plants in your garden a cat could still wander into a neighbour’s garden and find them growing there. Some plants smell and taste repulsive to cats and most cats retain many of their wild instincts, therefore they know which plants are edible. However, when a cat leads a more enclosed life and does not have the choice of plants to eat it is less likely to differentiate between good and bad ones.
Therefore caution should be taken in cat runs and gardens that are fenced in. Extra care should be taken with kittens who, like all small creatures, are inquisitive and playfully have a nibble at anything. Also, because of their smaller body weight they are more susceptible to poisons.
Similarly care should be taken inside the house especially with kittens and housebound cats. Dieffenbachia (also known as the Dumb Cane plant, commonly speckled with white) is an extremely poisonous plant.
The most popular indoor plants that are poisonous to cats are:
Poinsettias, Lilies, Oleanders, Philodendron, Solanum Capiscastrum (false Jerusalem Cherry), Elephant Ears (Caladium spp), and Parlour Palms.
It is best to keep all houseplants out of reach of your cats or in a room they do not have access to, until you are sure they will not be tempted. Try to keep a pot of “cat grass” available for cats that cannot go outside; you can buy kits and seeds in pet shops.
Another danger to animals in the garden are garden chemicals; slug pellets and creosote are particularly harmful to cats and all wildlife. Always read instructions on packets and try to use chemicals that state they are non-toxic to pets, or better still garden organically!
People have been told to check bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs, but it is not unknown for our workers to find feral kittens inside bonfires too. So make sure you check that no animal has set up home by lifting the whole pile off the ground immediately before lighting that match. Ponds (and, if you are lucky swimming pools) with sheer sides can be dangerous to cats and other animals as once that are in they cannot climb back out. This can be overcome by placing a plank of wood at the edge so an animal can use it as a ramp. An artificial island made from big stones in the middle of the water would also enable the cat to jump out. Another idea is to submerge a large planted pot, filled with gravel near to the edge of the pond, as recommended by the late Geoff Hamilton, the TV gardener.
It goes without saying that if one of your animals shows signs of poisoning take them to a vet immediately. If you know the possible cause take the chemical packaging or some of the plant with you. Try to make your garden a safe haven for all its four legged and two winged inhabitants and visitors. For more detailed lists of dangerous plants see: Plants and Your Cat
© Annette Freema
Moving house is supposed to be one of life’s great traumatic experiences. So, what’s it like for a cat?
Cats are known to be home loving with a strong sense for warmth, physical comfort and territorial security. Don’t forget, your cat is a domesticated version of an originally wild species. That says it all, your cat will just be another member of your family likely to be confused an upset.
The strenuous job of packing? No problem. He will enjoy helping you with the china… lots of paper to play with and boxes to sit in. It is important that your cat is kept in the night before and confined in his basket in an already emptied room before the actual move begins. Many a cat has disappeared with the arrival of the removal van. Better still, board your cat overnight at a cattery or local Vet. Once the actual move starts your cat may turn into a bundle of misery, howling in his travelling basket. Pay no attention; confinement is absolutely necessary. The AA in their leaflet About Driving and Animals say: “During a journey a cat should be confined in a proper carrying cage or basket – a cardboard box is not suitable”. I was told of one extremely friendly and relaxed cat, which was used to travelling loose in a vehicle, until one day, for no obvious reason he went literally wild and flew around the car. The driver lost control and had to stop abruptly. Unthinkable if it had happened on a motorway. In a similar case a cat went berserk and flew into the drivers face, forcing him to open the car and let the cat out to save his own skin.
I learned this lesson many years ago through soppy Sammy my landlady’s cat, the first ever cat in my care. I carried Sammy on my shoulder to the car. Since he practically lived on my shoulder, I assumed he would feel safe up there. The very moment we crossed the pavement the only horse in Fulham came trotting past the house and sent Sammy flying up a nearby tree. This was the day I discovered a cat in panic is stronger and quicker than your hands. Even cats on harnesses have been known to struggle free never to return – including some with lead and harness attached!
Back to the furniture van with a howling cat (in a basket) inside. We arrive at the new house and start offloading. This is the moment when the most common mistake is made; the cat’s protests have become unbearable and we want to release him as soon as possible. This must not happen until it has been decided which is the most suitable room for the cat to live in at first. Preferably it will be an upstairs room that can be furnished beforehand so the door and windows can be kept closed. It must not have any open floorboards and any chimney must be blocked using a black refuse bag stuffed with crushed newspaper forced up the flue. Any removal men must be instructed NOT to enter this room. If there is a lock use it!
After a litter tray has been established and still with the door and windows firmly closed the cat can be allowed out of the basket and start living in this room. When he is relaxed, the moving is finished and any building or decorating completed he can be allowed to investigate the rest of the house.
During this time of confinement to the house the litter tray is indispensable. Even later, when the cat has started going outside the tray must be kept until it is not used anymore. Some cats take weeks to become confident enough about the outside to use the garden for the toilet. After all, other cats already own it. Removing the indoor tray abruptly does NOT encourage the cat; it only makes it unhappy and confused and can cause the start of a dirty habit. Placing a little of the cat’s own dirty litter on a flowerbed can offer some encouragement.
Cats that are let outside too soon after the move are prone to disappear. It is wrong to assume that a cat thinks and acts like a human. Reflexes, not reflections, largely rule a cat’s behaviour. No matter how loving and affectionate your cat is normally, starting life in a new place creates a crisis situation and the cat may be reduced to employing its instincts of survival and disappear. Therefore, the first step into the outside world should be delayed until the cat is totally confident about the whole house and sees it as its home.
When that day arrives, the cat should be allowed to go out voluntarily and in its own time. You should check that the fences around the garden are intact. If there are any gaps repairs should be made before the cat is let out. The back door should be wide open so he can fly back in to safety should the local Tom show his face over the garden wall. Every inch of the new garden will have to be sniffed and analysed until all the four-legged visitors to the garden have been registered. The use of a cat door should be delayed for many weeks, especially if there wasn’t one in the old house. The magnetic cat doors can be very complicated and the magnets can often drop off leaving the cat locked out. Identifying your cat as being owned is very important since new cats to a neighbourhood can often be mistaken for strays. If your cat tolerates a collar, a tag with your address and phone number is a good idea. In any case it is advisable to have your cat micro-chipped, (remember to update the details on the database if you do move).
What if the worst happens and your cat disappears despite all precautions?
FIRST THING: Check and DOUBLE CHECK the house. If you know what door was responsible open it wide and call form the inside.
2. Put food out, both at the front and back of the house. Replace it if other cats eat it.
3. Put notices up as soon as possible, starting near the house then spreading to streets further away. Put notes through letterboxes asking people to open up sheds, garages, coalbunkers etc. If you cat is micro-chipped specify this on the notices so someone knows to take the cat straight to a Vet if found.
4. Ring local vets and animal clinics in case your cat has been brought in injured. Contact local cat rescue organisations.
5. Put one of your old shoes outside the house. The cat will recognise your smell, (sorry – nothing personal).
6. Go out and search. Where to start? In panic a dog runs miles but a cat usually stays close and hides. A lost cat is usually nearby and in trouble. Two cats of mine got nailed under floorboards for 17 days. The builders unaware and insisting angrily there were no cats in the building. Out of fear the cats did not make a sound.
Very late at night stop and call. If you listen carefully and it is dead silent you may hear a faint miaow.
A USEFUL TRICK…………………
Record a familiar noise such as activities in the kitchen at dinnertime like opening cans, cutting meat, rattling biscuits and your voices. Record the voices of any other cats you own. If you do this when they are hungry and begging for food they are more likely to “speak” at this time. You can play the tape from your car stereo late at night. A very low volume will not disturb your neighbours but a cat will still hear it. A carrying basket and a plate of food should be with you at all times.
7. Local Vets may know of kind people in the area who feed stray cats and it is worthwhile contacting them. Your cat may have joined their buffet.
8. Investigate if anyone in the neighbourhood has recently gone on holiday or moved out. Have an empty house opened up and search for your cat yourself. A stranger might cause it to stay hidden.
Unfortunately, sometimes people give up looking for their cat too soon. Many times I get calls from people asking for a new kitten only days after their cat went missing. “He must be miles away” or “Somebody must have taken him” or “He’ll be alright, he’s a survivor”. These comments show the unwillingness of the owner to persevere and a lack of concern and loyalty. More loving people often ask, “Do you think I will ever get him back?” The answer is quite simply yes, if you never give up. If you stop looking then your cat really will be lost and might end up a stray, probably leading a short and miserable life. If you persevere you will get your cat back or at least a valid explanation for its disappearance.
For good advice on travelling by car with your cat please see:
© Elke de Vries 2001 – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor
Acquire two polystyrene salmon boxes from the fishmarket: 2 pieces are needed for an IGLOO with roof, as pictured below. Scrub with soap, rinse and let dry.
The made up IGLOO will measure 30 inches long by 15 inches deep by 16 inches high. Use a sharp kitchen knife for cutting.
1. Cut all round edges off the open rim of both pieces, so that they can be fitted as top and bottom.
2. Cut round holes where you want them, top and bottom matching. A hole on the side is advisable as an additional escape route for areas with foxes.
3.Tie the two pieces together tightly at all four corners, using the present airholes. Use plastic or garden string which does not rot or stretch.
4.Cut suitable size slices from from left over pieces to force into the holes at all 8 corners.
5.If available, reinforce with waterproof tape around the middle, an additional help to stop the pieces from moving apart. Sold by packaging firms (not essential).
6.The IGLOO has one shortcoming: it is very light and blows around unless it is weighted down with bricks; window boxes, flowerpots with earth, etc are also useful. Wherever possible tie to fences, trees, shrubs and even tie up when used in a closed shed. Should it fall over forward the cat could be trapped inside. An additional hole in the short end helps prevent this happening.
7.Do not use any bedding, as it would only attract moisture and spoil the dry and warming effect of the polystyrene. Extra roof protection is not needed if the corner holes are blocked.
The IGLOO can be lifted off the ground on bricks or upturned plant pots.
These two rescued kittens and their four brothers and sisters were born in a garden in early Spring. Their mother, an abandonded domestic cat, was spayed by our charity and all found good homes. If left to breed, the mother could have had another two or more litters that year, a total of 12-18 kittens of her own; her female offspring would have started to breed themselves after they reached the age of six months.
Did you know that one unspayed abandoned cat can be responsible for a colony of 20-30 feral cats in one year? Let’s stop this from happening!
CAT ACTION TRUST 1977 was founded to help feral cats and kittens. We are a Registered Charity run entirely by volunteers and opposed to killling for convenience. Our policy of homing kittens and tame cats, and neutering adult cats (which are often returned to their site) is successful because it is humane, and cost effective because it is long-lasting. [Caring for a feral mother cat and her kittens]
Feral cats need humans who careIt is a myth that feral cats can take care of themselves. Although they are natural hunters, feral cats rely on humans to supply food, shelter and the neutering service, just like their domestic relatives. Cats which scrounge a meagre existence from hunting and scavenging will be undernourished and sickly, but they will still breed and, in spite of high kitten mortality, the colony will continue to grow.
Feral cats need at least one good meal every day in order to remain healthy. This also applies to the so called “working” cats kept on farms and in factories, hospitals etc to catch rats and mice. Most feral cats living in gardens have one or two committed feeders and may also receive scraps from people who prefer to put out their left-over food for them rather than waste it. Provided this food is not too spicy, it can add to a good and varied diet. Fresh water must always be available.
Bones – both fish and fowl – can get stuck in a cat’s mouth, throat or abdomen and can kill. We have had to catch feral cats just in order to carry out life-saving operations to remove these bones. All bones must be removed from food left out for cats.
Cats which huddle together in damp, draughty corners of garages and sheds are prone to colds, cat flu, eye and lung infections which may lead to blindness and death. CAT ACTION TRUST 1977 has a simple and effective solution to this problem. THE IGLOO is easily made up from two polystyrene salmon boxes and provides ideal cat shelter all year round – see leaflet.
If left unchecked a feral cat colony quickly grows out of all proportion to the resources available and this over-population means many cats die of starvation or disease, in fights or through accidents. Neutering is therefore of paramount importance to control the numbers of feral cats. Neutered females will be healthier because their bodies have stopped producing kittens, and neutered males will stop yowling, spraying, fighting and transmitting viral cat diseases through biting. For the same reasons we recommend that domestic pets are also neutered.
So that feral cats which have been neutered can be easily recognised, UFAW (the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare) recommend an ‘ear-tip’. This is the painless removal of a small section of the tip of the left ear and is performed under anaesthetic by a vet. [See our article – A veterinary view on ear-tipping]
Please help us with our campaign
Irresponsible people are adding to the feral cat population when they fail to neuter their cats,and then cruelly abandon them. To improve the situation we need your help to spread the neutering message. Our leaflet ‘Why we have our cats neutered’, will help you to convince others.
If you know of a homeless or feral cat, please make sure it is neutered as soon as possible, and before it produces kittens. In either case charities like ours will help with trapping and costs.
If you hear of a litter of kittens please find help urgently. Some people watch kittens playing for several weeks before they approach us for help and by then the kittens are big and running wild, hard to tame and we are less likely to be able to take them in and find them permanent homes.
Our Charity, which is funded entirely by donations, subscriptions, legacies and bequests, urgently needs your help.
How to provide safety, health and happiness for your new pet.
We often hear people say: “cats can take care of themselves…” or “cats have nine lives…”. Having homed cats and kittens for over 20 years, and met many people who have told me the often tragic story of their previous pet, I think that such remarks show a rather superficial if not irresponsible attitude. All too many cats have had very short lives, ended by accidents that could have been avoided.
Travelling with a cat
A safe journey is the start of the kitten’s new life. Although the kitten may have been delivered to its new home, it is nevertheless essential that it has its own safe travelling basket made from wire or plastic – waiting for future trips to the vet. In such confinement the cat may turn into a howling bundle of misery, but pay no attention – and please DO NOT open the basket during the trip to comfort it. TheAA, in their leaflet Driving with Animals, say of cats in cars: “During a journey a cat should be confined in a proper carrying basket or cage – a cardboard box is not suitable.I witnessed myself two separate cases when friendly domestic cats had clawed and bitten their way out of cardboard cat carriers within minutes, and I heard of another with a tragic ending – the owner took her kitten, wrapped in a towel in her arms, to the vet by taxi: as they arrived the kitten struggled free and was killed by a car in front of her eyes. Another cat was used to travelling loose in the car, but one day went literally wild – for no obvious reason – and flew at the driver’s face, who lost control and had to stop abruptly. Unthinkable if this had happened on a motorway. An additional warning from the AA: do not leave cats in parked cars in hot weather without ventilation, and always park in the shade. I recommend that animals should not be left unattended in cars at all.
Settling in the new home
It is impossible to predict how a cat will behave on arrival: it can range from positively curious to apprehensive, fearful and upset, or even panicky: at the worst, aggressive if approached. Any of these reactions can apply for any cat or kitten, domestic or ex-feral, because all derive from the same wild ancestor, the African wild cat, and their original wild “pedigree” will surface when provoked. We therefore always advise starting the cat off in one closed room provided with food and littertray for several days, or even weeks if necessary. Ideally this should be the living room, so that cat and people can get used to each other faster.
On arrival, we let the cat look out of its basket for a while to get used to the new sights, smells and noises. Since I always deliver the animal myself, I use this time to check the place for hidden dangers like open floorboards, which are often concealed inside cupboards, behind kitchen units or in cubbyholes. These need to be covered securely before the cat is let out of the basket. Cats have travelled under floorboards from room to room via gaps in the joists and been unable to find their way back. In these cases we took the “service board” out, a short loose plank usually situated centrally under the carpeting in the hall. We then left the board open until the cat had found its way out.
Apart from losing a new cat or kitten from the house all together, there is only one possibility worse than a cat under the floorboards: a cat up the chimney. To prevent this, either close the fireplace with a tightly fitted, solid piece of wood or hardboard or – much easier – stuff the flue entrance with a large black refuse sack stuffed with crumpled newspaper and secured firmly to cover the irresistible hole. This is not all: windows and doors need to be checked (1/2″ is enough space for a kitten or cat to attempt an escape) and the catflap must not only be locked but also secured with strong tape. One cat, intrigued by the smell of freedom and fresh air, tampered with the lock and nearly escaped within 5 minutes of arrival.
After all these precautions we return to the cat waiting in its basket. To calm it I stroke it for a while inside the basket; the new owner can join in gradually, then I hold it until it is relaxed, then hand it over to be cuddled by its new people. This way a bond is established between cat and owner before the cat starts exploring the room. If it is very nervous we make sure the littertray is near its hiding-place; I scratch in the clean litter to indicate its position to the cat. Cats are naturally clean and easily take to the littertray provided it is within reach. In a few cases where a domestic kitten had been denied proper catlitter and trained to go on paper we have initially added a good amount of shredded newspaper to the catlitter, which could then be slowly reduced.
On rare occasions a cat will feel instantly at ease and relaxed enough to follow its new people around. Many others, however, because of their previous hazardous lives as strays, have learned to make themselves “invisible” in order to survive; they will often sleep in hiding-places for many months. If we home an ex-feral cat or kitten we sometimes recommend borrowing a kitten pen from us for the first few days in order to prevent it hiding away in a place of its choice where it cannot see people or be stroked. The playpen is a “hideout” with a purpose: the kitten feels secure but learns to socialise at the same time, and the owner feels accepted and finds enjoyment in stroking and cuddling the new pet. This way the phase of panic and fear is cut short and the desired bond is formed faster. (Kitten pens have also been found to be a great help when introducing a kitten or cat to a new home with dogs or resident territorial cats.)
Once let out of its playpen the kitten should remain in the same room until it is fully confident and will come to its new owner; it can then be introduced to other rooms gradually. During this time the littertray should stay in its original place while a second one is put in the spot finally intended for it – usually near the back door of the kitchen or conservatory. By gradually reducing the amount of catlitter in the first littertray to a minimum, then to paper only, we encourage the kitten to choose the tray in the second and final location. During this period of confinement to the house the littertray is indispensable, but even after the cat has started going outside it must always be kept ready for use during the night. Some cats take weeks to become confident enough to use the garden for their toilet – after all, it is already “owned” by other cats. Removing the indoor tray abruptly does not encourage the cat: it only makes it unhappy and confused and may cause the start of a dirty habit. Placing a little of the cat’s own dirty litter on the flowerbed may help to give it the idea.
When can the new kitten be let into the garden?
When it is fully settled in its new home and comfortable with the inhabitants, and provided it has had its full course of vaccinations. Cat ‘flu, feline infectious enteritis and feline leukaemia are lethal viruses, and responsible cat owners will have their cats vaccinated and boostered regularly. If the kitten is already over 3 months old at the time of adoption, it would be advisable not to let it out before it is neutered. Some female kittens can come into season as early as 4 months old! If adopted during autumn or winter, the kitten should be kept inside until the milder weather.
On a warm day the kitten can finally be let out through the back door – never the front – possibly at a weekend when the owner is at home all day. While the kitten explores the outside inch by inch the door must be kept wide open so that it can rush back inside when it feels insecure. It is advisable to allow it many short outings under strict supervision, so that it does not venture too far too soon. Never allow it to stay outside when you have to go out.
A young kitten can push a catflap open long before it is ready to understand it and use it properly. Any catflap must therefore be kept locked until the kitten is ready to go out; meanwhile other resident cats will need to be let in and out by hand. Once the kitten is allowed out, at 3 months or more, the catflap can be tied open or removed temporarily so that the kitten uses both the open door and the “hole in the door”.
A harness is not recommended: it is against a cat’s nature to be led along – it needs to explore the outside in its own time. I have met people who have lost their cats while on a harness: startled by a sudden noise or movement, the cats either slipped the harness or pulled free and ran off with harness and lead still attached.
The great outdoors
The garden should be as safe as possible, and gaps in the fence repaired before the kitten is let out.
Fishponds can be deathtraps, especially paved ones without at least one sloping side. Large pots filled with earth and containing water plants can be submerged near the edge of the pond, their surface just below the water. These will act as steps for cats, hedgehogs or other small animals to escape. A covering of pondweed is particularly dangerous, as the cat can mistake it for a solid surface.
Almost every cat owner has in his time lost a cat to a traffic accident, and cats need to be discouraged from going near the street. Even a “streetwise” cat will run across the road if it sees a bird even when a car is close: cats act on reflex, not reflection. (In the same way, a cat that can sit safely in an open window or balance on a balcony ledge will jump after a passing insect in response to its instincts, no matter how high up it is.) At night cats do not recognise approaching headlights as a danger; drivers also tend to speed at night when roads are clear and may not even see the cat until it is too late. Cat thieves may operate at night; foxes, who have been observed to kill and devour cats even in daylight, are even more courageous in the dark. Kittens should not be let out until they are at least 8 months old if there are foxes in the area, and even then they should be supervised. Other cats can be a real danger to our pets: unneutered tomcats, whether domestic or feral, will fight and bite at all times but especially at night. They will attack neutered or unneutered cats of either sex, and may pass on the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). This “feline AIDS” is not transmissable to humans, but can be passed from the saliva of an infected cat into the bloodstream of a healthy one. Owners should not let their female cats come into season as they will attract tomcats from long distances. An infected tom will endanger neighbour’s pets, and may infect not only their mate but the unborn kittens. Even if confined indoors, the scent of a female in season will still attract tomcats.
Dangers in the house
Never leave a running or full bath unattended. Cats have been drowned, or scalded by hot water. Toilet lids should be kept down. Cats who drink from toilet bowls regularly – given away by pawprints – are in danger of drowning. I have read of one that fell in and was unable to turn round or climb backwards – a plumber had to dismantle the toilet to remove the body. We all know of fatal accidents in washing machines and tumble dryers. Unfortunately cats are attracted by open holes, warmth and laundry baskets. Doors and lids should be kept shut when the machines are not in use, and the cat kept well out of the way when they are being filled. Hot cooking rings can burn paws. Tempted by cooking smells even an “obedient” cat may forget its manners and jump on to the worktop to stroll across the stove. A spare pot filled with cold water should be kept ready to cover the hob when the hot saucepan has been removed.
Toys with string or elastic attached can cause accidents – “cat-dancers” or balls attached by string to scratching posts can act as a noose around a paw, cutting off the circulation. Needles and thread and tinsel are dangerous – once a cat gets them into the mouth it cannot spit them out because of the backward-facing spines on the tongue, and it is forced to swallow them. Burning candles and open fires must never be left unattended. Medicines and toxic chemicals such as disinfectant, bleach and antifreeze must be kept locked away. House plants and flower arrangements provoke cats and especially kittens to play and nibble. Many are poisonous to cats; the most common are true ivies, philodendron, false Jerusalem cherry, Dieffenbachia, Elephant Ear, poinsettia, oleander, parlour palms and Chinese money plants. Cats have gone into kidney failure after nibbling lilies.
We hope this list of warnings will help to prolong your cat’s life. Every cat is a unique and irreplaceable little personality which we sometimes take for granted and fail to appreciate until it is too late. Although cats often get themselves into trouble through no fault of the owner, we must still do our best to protect them – caution is better than complacency. I have so often heard grieving owners say that they did not realise the danger their cat was in…
© Elke de Vries, CAT 1977 Fieldwork Adviser, 1999