Who Are Community Cats?
Though there are differences between stray and feral cats, the two can be difficult to tell apart. Stray cats may have been abandoned by an owner when they moved or tossed from their homes due to any number of circumstances. These cats are usually friendly, though they may be afraid of strangers initially. According to The Humane Society of the United States, stray cats will typically eat food in your presence when you offer it to them. The ASPCA states that dirty and disheveled cats are most likely strays. Recently abandoned kitties may have difficulty finding food or may be driven away from food and shelter by local feral kitties. The recently abandoned cat may stop grooming himself because he is so stressed.
Feral cats are unsocialized cats. They are afraid of humans and likely won't eat any food you've provided them until you walk away. You may be helping a feral cat if he or she refuses to approach you even after you've been feeding him or her for several days. Feral cats often live in groups called colonies, but if food is scarce, ferals may travel on their own. Colonies typically defend and occupy a specific territory where food and shelter are available. Some common places colonies reside include near restaurants or dumpsters, in barns or abandoned buildings, and under porches.
How You Can Help Community Cats
Whether you're trying to help a stray or a feral cat, there are several things you can do to make their lives better.
TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return): Help control community cat overpopulation by getting involved in local TNR efforts. TNR involves trapping feral cats, having them vaccinated and spayed or neutered at a veterinary clinic, and returning them to their territory. If you believe you've found a stray cat, you may be able to get her into a carrier and to a veterinarian easily. There they can check for a microchip as well as spay or neuter the kitty. Any medical issues or injuries can also be dealt with at this time. If the cat doesn't have a microchip, you might want to contact local shelters to see if they will help the stray cat find a new home.
For feral cats, you'll need to set traps, which can be tricky because many ferals learn how to avoid them. You can find an organization that helps feral cats in your area here. A feral that has already been spayed or neutered will have an ear tip or notch - a small piece of one ear will be missing.
Educate Others: There's a lot of misinformation about community cats out there. Print out some educational materials or order some of Alley Cat Allies' brochures to hand out. Alley Cat Allies offers a wealth of information about community cats. If your local library or bookstores allow it, leave some informational materials there for people to pick up. I find out about a lot of interesting events and programs through the brochures people leave at our local library and Tattered Cover bookstore.
If you have the knowledge and/or experience, hold a Community Cats or TNR workshop to educate others in your community about outdoor kitties. Be sure to compile a list of local organizations that help feral cats and vet clinics that offer spay and neuter surgeries to these cats.
Provide Food: If you know of a feral cat colony, provide it with some food. Try to feed the colony at the same time and place everyday so they know where to come to get nourishment.
Hold a Supply Drive: If you actively take care of a feral colony, hold a food and supply drive. This will not only help you save on food costs for the colony, but it's the perfect opportunity to educate others in your neighborhood about outdoor cats. If you don't know of any feral cat colonies, donate the food and supplies you collect to an organization that helps community cats.
Provide Shelters: Build shelters for feral kitties in your neighborhood. The Humane Society of the United States offers instructions on how to make a simple cat shelter here.
Alternatively, leave your garage door open about 6-8 inches so that community cats can come inside during particularly cold nights. My dad used to put blankets in boxes for the outdoor kitties that lived near us. We have some friends in the Cat Blogosphere who have built nice heated cat houses for their community cats. Any shelter - simple or fancy - will be much appreciated by feral cats on cold nights.
Donate: Make a donation to Alley Cat Allies or to a local organization that helps community kitties.
Feral cats deserve our love and care. I hope these ideas have inspired you to do something for your neighborhood felines!