Do you know a cat that lives in your community, but not in anyone's actual home? If so, you can join the thousands of people in a movement to keep these creatures healthy and happy.
First thing's first. We need to understand community cats. Many cats live out the duration of their lives without regular human contact, and it varies amongst individual cats how much interaction with people is wanted and tolerated. Some may be scared at the sight of you, and others may be desperate for your attention. The needs of each cat are different based on their socialization, especially during the time of kittenhood. Either way, all of these cats are members of the communities in which they live, and deserve care and respect.
The best thing we can do as caretakers of these creatures is to provide sources of food and shelter for them, as well as to take steps toward getting them neutered and vaccinated.
If a cat seems to be much more domesticated than feral, and enjoys human company, you can certainly adopt the animal into your home and seek appropriate medical care. Sadly, many community cats aren't feral, but instead are cats left homeless due to an owner's death or neglect.
Food and Shelter Leaving out cat food consistently and in set locations is a simple way to secure a food source for cats in need. Most of these cats will also need a place to sleep away from rain and harsh winds. Consider making a simple shelter from plastic storage bins, hay, and insulating material (click here for a gallery of simple prebuilt and DIY cat shelter options: http://www.alleycat.org/ShelterGallery).
Trap/Neuter/Vaccinate/Ear Tip/Return Most importantly, keeping feral colonies healthy depends on getting each animal trapped, neutered, vaccinated, ear-tipped, and reintroduced into their communities. Cats reproduce incredibly quickly, and growing colonies mean more competition amongst cats, and more stress on the environment around these cats. With millions of cats being euthanized in US shelters every year, spaying and neutering is a compassionate way to combat pet homelessness. Neutered and spayed feral cats also tend to be healthier and live longer lives than their un-neutered counterparts.
For many cats, getting trapped and brought to a veterinary clinic may be the only time they receive medical care. In addition to neutering and vaccinating, other services may be performed as needed. As examples, cats with open wounds will be cleaned and disinfected, and cats with worms will receive treatment. While under anesthesia, most veterinarians will tip a cat's left ear in order to identify him or her as already having been neutered or spayed. Although it's stressful for cats to be transported to a veterinary clinic, the long term benefits are far-reaching and will help to keep cats safe and healthy in their communities upon returning. Ask your local shelter or veterinarian for information on a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in your area.
Advocate Advocate for your feral friends and encourage others to keep hazardous/poisonous materials away from the free-roaming cats in your community. Educate and encourage others to get involved with Trap/Neuter/Vaccinate/Ear Tip/Return efforts.
Lastly, it's vital to keep an eye on the cats in your community and watch for any feral cat that may require immediate medical assistance due to injury or illness.
If you share a neighborhood with a feral or homeless cat, you're in a great position to be a friend and a guardian. Crazy cat people, unite!