Happy Friday, y’all! I have mentioned the phrase cat caretaker throughout my previous posts and I figured I should expand on that for cat colony newbies. What is a cat caretaker? What is involved? Are you a cat caretaker? Should you become one?
In this post:
- What is a cat caretaker?
- Difference between owner and caretaker
- Caretaker Responsibility
- Abandoned Community Cats are Heartbreaking
- To Repeat Myself
I do want to make one thing clear: If you start feeding feral or free-roaming cats, then you are going to be taking responsibility for these cats. If you are not committed to seeing this through, do NOT feed them. Let them continue moving on to find a stable colony with a caretaker who is committed to them and their well-being.
When you feed a hungry cat, you are making a promise to that cat.
I never want to discourage anyone from trying to do their best to help the community cats, feral or not. But I want people to take this responsibility as seriously as you do any other project that you take on.
What is a Cat Caretaker?
A cat caretaker is someone who is caring for cats. To use a literal definition. This is usually someone who is caring for cats that they do not own. This could be someone who is simply caring for someone else’s pet or if we’re discussing outdoor cat colonies, a cat caretaker is someone who provides food and care to a colony of cats. (Also called a cat colony caretaker or a feral cat caretaker or you can call yourself a colony manager if you wish.)
I am a cat caretaker. I care for cats who are residents of a horse training center. I am also a cat owner because I have two cats of my own. I am also a cat fosterer because I care for cats temporarily until I can find good indoor homes for them. You could also call people who foster cats and kittens a cat caretaker because they do not own the cats they’re caring for.
The Difference Between Owner and Caretaker
These are not legal definitions. Cat ownership can legally mean different things in different parts of the country.
This one is murky and will depend on where you live because some areas have weird ownership laws. Be sure to check out your local laws regarding feeding feral and stray cats. It does not stop people from feeding cats, no matter what the law says, but I’ve heard of laws where if you feed a cat more than a certain number of days, you are considered the owner.
A cat owner is someone who owns a cat. Obviously. They are supposed to provide food, care, veterinary care, shelter, and love. If they move, the cat moves with them. If hardship strikes and they can no longer keep the cat because they are homeless, or something worse, it is their responsibility to find a new home for the kitty.
If you own a cat and you take the cat to the woods and drop him off that is abandonment and very illegal. (And morally reprehensible. Do NOT do this. Abandoned pets do NOT do well after being dumped, no matter WHERE you dump them.)
A cat caretaker, on the other hand, chooses to feed and care for cats they do not own, provide basic veterinary care, spay, and neuters, provides shelter by building it if they have to. After a cat has received care or is fixed, the cat caretaker will return to the cat to his outdoor home. This is NOT considered abandonment.
There is this distinction to help people who Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) outdoor cats so they don’t get into trouble for abandonment, yet they can also consent to veterinary care for the cat and make decisions for the cat if the worst occurs.
But like I mentioned previously, some areas have some different laws. These two definitions I’ve used are what community cat rescue organizations, volunteers, and caretakers tend to use.
If you have barn cats on your property and in your personal barn, you are a cat owner. If you bring a feral cat into your barn, it is adoption. (Which is AWESOME and I love you.) Your property, your building, it is your cat. Even if there are five of them and they are all feral. If you leave your property to feed cats living in a park, you are their caretaker. If you feed your neighborhood cats, you are a caretaker.
If you want a more in-depth look at how you can save a cat (and all his friends), go here!
Cat Caretaker Responsibilities
- Food and Water
- If you feed him, fix him! Spay and neuter is absolutely vital! Cats reproduce fast and you do not want to get overwhelmed.
- While they are being fixed, they will have to get rabies vaccines by law, and others if you wish.
- Emergency veterinary care is required. Do not let a sick or injured cat suffer simply because you don’t want to spend money on a cat you don’t ‘own’. If you really can’t afford it, reach out for help from local feral cat groups or rescues or shelters. As a community cat, sometimes they are willing and able to help with their grants and donations.
- Provide shelter if needed. If a cat already has shelter (such as a barn), you don’t need to provide more. Unless you want to. If they have none? Build it or buy it. It’s just the humane thing to do.
- Get socialized strays and kittens homes after they are fixed. This helps to reduce the population immediately. It is not fair to keep cats that can be adopted into homes living the harder, outdoor life if they’re desperate to come inside or young enough to be socialized. Outdoor cat life is hard and their lives are shorter. Proper caretakers can increase their survival rate and allow them to live longer lives, but it isn’t the same as indoor cat life.
- If something happens and you cannot continue to care for your colony, you must find someone to continue their care. Abandoning the colony to their own devices is NOT an option. It is cruel. Read my story below to find out my experience with abandoned cats.
- Unless you only care for a handful of cats, you cannot relocate them when you move. Outdoor cats do NOT relocate well. They are deeply bonded to their home location, some more than they bonded to people, especially the unsocialized ones.
- Only relocate feral and community cats as a LAST resort. They need proper acclimation to a new outdoor home and the less socialized they are, the longer it takes. Feral cats, with no real socialization, are bonded to their outdoor location NOT people. They will NOT stay somewhere without time and incentive, like food and safety and fellow cat colony members.
- Lock up your barn cats at night! (Or if you live in a rural area and feed in your yard, try to find some way to lock up your colony at night if you can. Your garage, a shed, maybe?) Cats are a favorite target for coyotes. Barn cat lives do NOT need to be super sort and they are not all destined to be a snack. Yes, you may lose one or two occasionally, even with caution, but you can greatly reduce the risk by getting your cats into the barn and locking it up at night. Don’t be that jerk who lets their barn cats reproduce because only one or two survive the year. (I have to fight with one of mine every night and she purposely disappears and hides when it is time to come in. Even though I’ve locked her up every single night for an entire two years almost).
- Do not feed or trespass on private property without written permission to do so.
- Do not make a mess of the feeding stations. No garbage left behind!! Clean up after yourself.
- Do not feed wildlife, such as raccoons and opossums and coyotes. It’s illegal to feed wild animals even accidentally in a lot of places. Secondly, there are a lot of issues that come with feeding wildlife that I will go over in another post.
I list this as optional because while rabies is mandatory during TNR, yearly vaccinations for outdoor, poorly socialized cats are not going to go well. Those cats will be seriously traumatized by this. If you have to take them in for an injury or care, then you can boost their rabies (which will likely be required anyway) or other vaccines if you wish. This is going to be personal preference. In no way do I advocate people to trap and vaccinate their outdoor feral colonies yearly.
If you want. Some people do, some people can’t afford to, some people don’t believe they need it, whatever. If you want your colony cat returned in case he or she goes missing and is later found, then do microchip your colony.
- Worm and Flea Medicine
I list this as optional because if you care for a colony of unsocialized or completely feral cats, this might be a little difficult. If you can pet them, you can do these things much easier.
Deworming is more important and cheaper to do every few months and you can easily hide it in wet food. (Except cats like to move to different bowls and there is always one glutton in every colony who steals other cats’ food).
Even with excellent and expensive flea medicine, fleas will still be a slight problem because of the environment. If you have a manageable number of cats, definitely use flea treatments. If one of the cats has a flea allergy, then yes. Or a horribly bad infestation, then yes. If you can treat the area, too. All the better.
If you can afford it, definitely go for it. Be creative!
Abandoned Community Cats are Heartbreaking
I’m going to tell you a story, here.
For decades, cats lived in and around the barns at Evangeline Downs Training Center in Carencro, Louisiana. The training center was open year-round, so the cats always had people around who fed and cared for them. If one trainer and his stable of horses moved out for a few months, another one moved in.
At one point, I was told, there were over 300 cats who were TNR’d there.
By the time I arrived, the number was closer to 100 cats.
In the Spring of 2018, the owner decided to shut the doors of the training center for good and sell the property, after auctioning off the buildings and equipment, of course. The closure was due to happen on August 15th.
The crazy woman that I am, I worried about the cats! I knew that some people would take their barn cats, especially people who had been there year-round and had bonded with the cats. But not everyone is a cat person and the prevailing theme was “they’re cats, they’ll be fine.”
Before and after closure, I busted my hump getting all the cats who were not fixed in to get spayed or neutered. I set about finding new barns for the cats I knew for sure needed a new home, either because people were not allowed to bring them to the new farm (whoever heard of cats not allowed in barns?) or because someone wasn’t planning on taking any.
I had the help of one other volunteer who provided most of the transportation to surgery and to new outdoor homes.
By the time the place closed down and emptied out, I started walking the barns to see what cats were remaining. (Plus, to feed them of course.)
I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of people did try to take cats with them. Just not enough.
(In the end, I had to get 26 cats fixed and had to find new barns or outdoor homes or training centers for 41 cats.)
When I walked the barns, feeding and counting cats, these cats would follow me. Even after the food had been put out, they would immediately follow after me instead of eating. Some would rub against me and roll around as I pet them before they would even eat, they were that lonely.
When I would turn to walk to the next barn, I had cats following me, crying.
Some would stand outside the area they were comfortable with, just yowling like a kitten who had lost his mama.
This really broke my heart. They were alone and scared, and desperate for me not to leave. Even cats that were clearly unsure of trusting me would cry at me, even if they wouldn’t let me pet them.
I started trying to move the cats to one feeding location, so I had to stop feeding them daily and switch to more every other day and let them follow me back to the one feeding area.
One cat refused to even leave his barn for food. He wouldn’t let anyone near him and didn’t cry. But he would NOT leave his barn. In the end, I had to keep feeding him in that barn and later trap him there. He was not leaving on his own.
I had feral cats stalking me in the shadows while I walked around, which was odd. The truly feral cats would not come out until night and always avoided people. But here they were, following me. Even they were nervous.
I had to deal with this for over two months. Walking a deserted training center alone most of the time, except the security guard who occasionally checked up with me.
He once asked me, “Who’s paying for all this food?”
My answer: “Me.”
I don’t know why he thought anyone else was going to provide it. The owner of the property didn’t care about cats, even if I was getting them out of there.
One cat, who we got fixed, got very sick. We called him Skinny Boy because he was very thin. (Our imagination for naming was really low during this crisis and I wasn’t going to see some of these cats again). I brought him into the Wild Cat Foundation. He was given fluids and put on antibiotics, which didn’t help.
He was fading fast, refusing to eat, and I had to even force-feed him. But he stayed near me and inside my little room. (I was still living at the training center at this time). I brought him back in and because of the lack of response to treatment, we combo tested him for Feline Leukemia (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV). It came back positive for FeLV.
As an unfixed male, before neutering, this was not a shock, but it was heartbreaking. Here, I am, in the middle of a gigantic relocation project and I cannot isolate this cat from the other cats, and I couldn’t afford to try a lot of different treatments in the hope something helps enough to prolong his life. We could have tried, but I made the heartbreaking decision not to. It might not work and he was clearly miserable and fading fast and I had two cats, both vaccinated against FeLV, but the entire colony wasn’t. Plus, he was suffering and it might not work.
I insisted on being there when they put him to sleep. I was the only person he had who gave him love after he had been left in the barns, alone. He was friendly, not feral. He was just left there. I only knew him a week, and I STILL cry for him. I didn’t want to be there for the end, but I HAD to be for HIM. R.I.P. Skinny Boy.
During all this, I continued feeding, trapping and relocating cats as soon as we found barns for them. For months, cats were crying and yowling when I left. They were so desperate for attention that they would ignore food for petting every, single time. I could only feed them once a day, simply money and time, walking up and down those barns. Plus, I was trying to consolidate them all in one place.
All the cats got new outdoor homes and I hope everyone acclimated them properly to their new environment. So the relocation was a success. But it was still the most heartbreaking experience I’ve ever had to deal with, except death.
Watching cats whose hearts are broken? That’s devastating. Watching cats who are starving, actually reject food for attention? I cried. I honestly cried.
Do not abandon your outdoor colony to fend for itself. If you start something, you continue caring for them until you can’t, and then you find a successor to continue to care for them. Unless you keel over dead with no notice, you do not have any excuse good enough to abandon them. Even THEN, I would be letting family and friends know that you want them to find a new caretaker for your colony if you are physically unable to care for them anymore.
They may miss you when a new caretaker takes over, but they will eventually trust and bond with the new person too.
To Repeat Myself
Do not feed outdoor cats unless you are committed to seeing it through. No matter the hardship. No matter how much money you end up blowing on cat food and gas and low-cost spay and neuter services.
It is MUCH kinder to let the cat move on so he can find a safer area with a managed colony somewhere else than to start feeding him only to abandon him later. (Unless the cat is clearly injured or dying, then you should rush him to a vet or shelter).
Someone yesterday used the words “contract” to describe the pact you make with a free-roaming cat that you start feeding and she is so right. Once you start feeding a cat, you are promising that cat food and as much care as that cat lets you provide.
You are making a promise once you start feeding. Don’t let them down.