Dear Concerned Cat Lover

I’ve noticed some cats hanging out behind a shopping center near where I live. Should I feed them or leave them alone? I want to help but don’t know the best thing to do.

                                                                                                    —Concerned Cat Lover

Dear Concerned Cat Lover,

First what you have to decide is whether you want to really help the cats. If your answer is “Yes!,” then simply feeding them is not enough. If you put out food, it may attract other cats which can cause problems with territorial aggression and breeding. Next you need to answer the following questions. 

Are they friendly cats or are they feral? Feral cats are cats who have either never had any contact with humans, or their contact with humans has diminished over time. They are fearful of people and survive on their own outdoors. A stray cat may approach you while a feral cat most likely will not and will hide. Their body language will be different, too. For instance, a stray may walk with their tail up. However, a feral cat will crawl, crouch, stay low to the ground, protect their body with their tail and probably not make eye contact with you.

If they seem friendly, do they belong to someone? Ask your neighbors and the business owners and workers in the shopping center if they know anything about the cats. Is anyone else feeding them, providing shelter or even letting them in their house? Do they have a collar and tags? Check with your local animal shelters and veterinarians to see if anyone has reported any cats missing that match their description, and file a found report with them. 

If you are not able to home the cats or find other homes for them, the best thing to do is to take them to your local shelter so they can care for them and find them a loving family. If the shelter is overcrowded and the rescue groups are all full, then consider fostering them yourself and looking for a permanent home. If that’s not possible either, get them neutered and care for them outdoors by providing food and a warm cat shelter. If the cats have been abandoned, they are probably not adapted to a life outdoors and will need regular care.

If the cats are feral, they likely aren’t adoptable. They can however stay outdoors if you feed them and give them shelter. But the most important rule for caring for feral cats is to get them neutered—and quickly! You must use a trap to capture them and take them to a veterinary clinic for spay/neuter. They can also vaccinate them and let you know if they notice any health concerns. It’s important to call ahead and schedule an appointment before you trap the cats so you can quickly bring them in after they’re caught. After their surgery, they will need to be cared for while they heal (for about two days) before they are returned to where you found them. 

If the area where you found them is not safe, you should find a suitable new location. This is called trap-neuter-return, or TNR, and it’s the most effective and humane way to control the free-roaming cat population. If any new cats join the group, they will also need to be neutered.

It takes a bit of time and work, but when you’re done and the cats are in new homes or being cared for outdoors, you’ll know you’ve made a difference. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Any of the animal organizations in this magazine would love to help with tips on lost and found pets, trapping and outdoor sheltering.