Saving feral cats—How to recolonize feral cats

Saving feral Cats from the shelter

by Jane Garrison

These instructions are not for moving feral cat colonies. Let me state right up front that I am not in favor of moving feral cats who are already in a colony. There are always ways to work through any conflicts that are occurring in an area where a colony already exists. The group Alley Cat Allies has great info to help you resolve any conflicts. In addition, humans should never judge how good an area is for feral cats. I have been contacted many times from people who want to move a feral cat colony because the area is “horrible for the cats” . Typically, the area is horrible for humans not the cats. Cats want to remain where they live and where their friends and family live. They are extremely habitual animals who do not like change. They do not care if a neighborhood is dirty, busy, low income, etc. People always use the argument that “maybe the cats won’t be safe where they are”. However, that argument is the same useless argument that zoos use for capturing wild animals and putting them into captivity and sadly was one of the arguments slave owners used for keeping slaves captive. Therefore, I ask you to use these instructions to help feral cats who end up in shelters and have no other choice but to be recolonized. Focus on the cats who need your help the most…not the ones who are already safe.


* Summary of recolonization of feral cats from shelters

* How feral cats end up in shelters and how you can prevent that from happening.

* Finding yards.

* Rescuing the cats and what to have done before they leave the shelter.

* Setting up the cages.

* Caring for the feral cats when in cages (instructions for caregiver)

* Releasing the cats.


* Index of terms

* How to organize this program in your group or with some other volunteers.

Summary of program

Typically feral cats who end up in shelters have absolutely no way of getting out alive. Who is going to adopt a cat they can’t pet or love? Rescue groups typically do not want to rescue a feral cats because they do not want to get “stuck” with the cat. If you follow this program you will be able to rescue an enormous number of feral cats from the shelters. In fact, just in the past 2 weeks, I have rescued over 25 feral cats from 2 shelters in the Los Angeles area. In total I have rescued almost 100 feral cats in the past year and I am doing this program on a very part time basis. You may be wondering how I am able to find homes for cats who are wild and want little to no human contact. The key to this program is that you are not looking for homes…you are looking for yards or outdoor spaces. Once you find appropriate yards (how to find an appropriate yard/space will follow) you will rescue the feral cats from the shelters, put them in large cages for 30 days to recolonize them(so they know that is where they live and will be fed) and then release them to live in the yard where the cages were placed. Once released the caregiver will continue to feed the cats. It is truly that simple. However, there are many details you must follow in order to keep the cats safe, keep the caregivers safe and assure the cats will stick around once released.

How do feral cats end up in the shelter and how  you can prevent that from happening

Feral cats are usually brought into the shelter by people who do not want the cats in their yards. People will borrow or buy a trap, trap the cats and then drop them off at the shelter. Most of these people do not realize that by dropping the feral cats at the shelter they will be killed. The key to stopping this is education. Start with educating the shelter staff about TNR (trap, neuter, return). Ask the shelter staff to suggest TNR to people prior to lending a trap to the public. You can find very helpful information about TNR on Alley Cat Allies web site (

Finding Yards

There are lots of animal lovers who would love to help save cats by allowing them to live in their yards. There are also companies who would love to have cats in their offices or factories for rodent control. In fact, I have even placed feral cats at several of the police stations in Los Angeles for rodent control. You need to get the word out that you are looking for yards.

Start with an email alert to everyone you know. You can also place ads on craigslist, through civic organizations, school groups, PTA’s , hang flyers at vet offices, pet stores, the gym, etc.

A sample alert looks like this:

People with yards needed to help save cats!


We are DESPERATE right now as the shelter has given us till _____ to get 4 feral cats out or they will be killed. They are all feral so we are looking for yards to recolonize them. This would involve them being in cages for 4 weeks (that we supply) so they know they live in your yard and get used to noises, dogs, kids, etc. After 4 weeks they are released and you will continue to feed and water them.
Can you allow 1-4 cats to live in your yard? Any amount you can take would help! Please let us know ASAP

The feral situation at the shelters is very sad.  They come in terrified and have no hope…and are killed once their holding period is up. 
We will pay to have them spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and have their ear tipped (universal sign that they are fixed).  Then, we will set up a cage that the cats will live in for 3-4 weeks so that they realize that your yard is their new home.  After they are released, you will just have to give them food and water.  You do not need to take all of them…even if you can take 1 or 2 it would help. Please contact ______ at ________.

When people respond ask the following questions:

1. What city are you in?

2. Do you see coyotes in your area? how often?

3. Are there other outdoor cats in your neighborhood?

4. Will you be willing to feed and water these cats?

5. Do you own or rent?

If an area has lots of coyotes and no outdoor cats it would just be a death sentence for the cats so pass up that yard. I never place feral cats in yards in the hills in Los Angles such as Malibu, Beverly Hills, etc. because there are way too many coyotes. If the person does not own their house ask how long they have been there and how long they plan to live there. They will need to understand that if they move they will need to find someone else to feed the cats or trap and take them with them (and follow these instructions all over again when they move).


 * Get the cats out of the shelters who are classified as feral and have no chance of getting out alive.

* Ask the shelter questions to find out if any of the cats came in together. It is always better to keep bonded cats together.

* Ask if the cat was an owner turn in or came in in a trap. Sometimes cats who were turned in by owners appear feral when at the shelter.

* Have the shelter spay/neuter the cat prior to taking the cat. Be sure to CALL the clinic the morning the cat is scheduled to be fixed and tell them to do the following: 1. Only use dissoluble stitches. You do not want to have to bring a feral cat back in to have stitches removed. 2. Leave NOTHING around the cats neck…no tag, band, etc. 3. Ear tip the cat. This is a universalise symbol that the cat has been fixed. The vet will take off the point on one ear while the cat is under anesthesia. 4. Have the cats microchipped so if he/she ends up back in the shelter you can save the cat. 5. I do not test the cats so don’t worry about combo testing. 6. Give the clinic a small cat carrier with a towel in it to put the cat in after the cat has been fixed. This will save the cat the stress of trying to transfer the cat into the carrier once she/he is awake. Use the smallest cat carrier you have so it will make it easy to transfer the cat into the cage (more on this later). Be sure to cover the cat carrier with a towel when you pick the cat up…this reduces stress.


 Supplies you will need:

1. Extra large wire dog cage.

2. Blankets and towels.

3. Two bowls.

4. Small paper plates

5. Small litter box or wash basin that can be used as litter box.

6. Cardboard nesting box (apple boxes and cardboard file boxes work great).

7. Cat nip and toys

8. Cat litter

9. Cheap dry cat food and wet food.

Ideally, the best place to set up the cages is in the person’s garage. This will offer the most protection from the elements. However, not everyone will want the cats going in and out of the garage once the cats are released. If the person does not want the cats in their garage, pick a place to put the cages that will offer the most protection from rain, sun, etc. Under a covered patio is a very good spot. If there are no covered areas be sure to use tarps to protect the cats.

* Do not put all of the supplies in the cage before the cat is in the cage. You will need the space to get the cat transferred. Start out with setting up the cage (zip tie any area of the cage that does not seem safe and secure), place a towel down on the bottom of the cage. Cover the back half of the cage with a blanket or sheet (depending on the weather). Place the apple box in the cage and face the opening away from the front of the cage. If you are nervous about transferring a feral cat into the cage don’t put a box in the cage and you will be use the cat carrier as a hiding place for the cat. Put cat nip and a toy in the cage. Do not put food, water and litter box in yet.

* The best thing to do is to put the entire small cat carrier in the cage with the door opening toward the back, lean in and open the cat carrier door and use a zip tie or baggie tie to secure the door to the cage so it does not close on the cat. However, you may not have enough cat carriers to leave the carrier in the cage for a month. If this is the case you will need to transfer the cat from the carrier to the cage. NEVER grab the cat or try to touch a feral cat. Cat bites are VERY serious. In addition, you will risk losing the cat.

* Be sure the back half of the cage is covered so the cat feels that that half of the cage is his/her safe place. Do not have anyone standing on that half of the cage. If someone is helping or watching they need to be behind you. Put the entire cat carrier in the cage and close the cage door. BE PATIENT. Many times the cats will just come out of the carrier and go to the apple box that offers them more space and cat nip. You can even walk away (as long as the cage is securely locked) and give the cat time to come out of the carrier. If the cat won’t come out of the carrier, you will need to encourage the cat by lifting the back of carrier up and trying to get him/her to come out the front. This is tricky as you must be careful the cage door is still able to close should the cat run toward you. NOTE: I HAVE A FREE DVD TO SHOW YOU HOW TO DO THIS. Once the cat comes out and is in the apple box, quickly take the carrier out. Do not try and take the carrier out until the cat is sitting calmly in the apple box.

* Once the cat is in the apple box and the cat carrier is out, you can put the food, water, liter box and small paper plate of wet food inside the cage by the door. Do not put any of these items too far in the cage. You must make it easy for the caregiver to get to them without letting the cat out. Always have your hand on the cage door and be ready to close it quickly should the cat run. Never open the cage if the cat is not in the back of the cage in the box.



Always give the new care givers a copy of this section

1. Name and talk to the cats each day for at least 30 mins.

2. Never open the cage if the cat is not in the back of the cage in his/her hiding box.

3. Each day open the cage door carefully and remove the dry food bowl, water bowl and litter box. Close  and lock door.

4. Change litter (put only about 1″ in box since you will change it each day), fill water and dry food bowl and put wet food on a small paper plate.

5. Open cage and put all of the above in there at once. This limits the amount of time the cage is open. When you feed the cat it is a good idea to say whatever you will say to get the cats to come to you once you release them (i.e here kitty kitty, want to eat, etc).

6. If the cat is on medication, put the meds in a pill pocket (can be purchased at most pet stores) and put the pill pocket in the middle of a small amount of wet food or chicken baby food.

7. Be sure the cat is eating, peeing and pooping.

8. If it gets cold or rainy be sure to cover cages with tarps and/or blankets.

9. You can give treats through the bars each day.

10. Never try to pet or grab a feral cat. If the bedding gets wet and you need to change it call an experienced feral cat person and let them take care of it.

11. Be sure that before you release the cat that there are good hiding places for the cat to go under/in. has lots of inexpensive shelters you can build or buy.

12. The three most important things to make re-locations successful are:  yummy wet food each day (they typically like the junk food like friskies), talking to the cats and keeping them in cages for 30 days.


Always mark on your calender the release date of the cats you are recolonizing. Be sure you have registered the microchips and the cats are healthy and eating before releasing. NEVER release a cat who is not eating or whose microchip has not been registered. About 2 weeks prior to release be sure that there are hiding places in the yard. if there are not any hiding places you will need to create some for the cats. Cats like to hide under or behind things. The ideal hiding place is under a deck or house. If that is available you will not need to create anything. If that is not available you can do the following:

1. Set up dog houses

2. Place plywood leaning up against a fence or wall so the cats can hide behind it.

3. Put a large piece (like 8′ by 8′) of plywood on top of cinder blacks to create a “wood bed” they can hide under.

4. There are also shelters you can purchase online.

Once hiding places are set up and the cats have been in the cages for 4 weeks, it is time to release them.

1. Just open the doors of the cages and walk away. I prefer to do this during the day so the cats won’t wander too far the first day. They will typically come out of the cages and find a hiding place in the yard and stay there until it gets dark. At least they will know where a good hiding place is before they start exploring in the dark.

2. Leave really stinky food out for the cats outside of the cages. Put a bowl of dry food, plates of wet food, water and a dish of mackerel or sardines.

3. The caregiver should still call to the cats when feeding them even if they do not see the cats. It is not unusual for the cats to disappear for a few days once released. Keep putting food out regardless of if you see the cats or not.

4. Leave the cages set up for about a week (more if the cats are going back in the cages to sleep).

5. When done with the cages, carriers and litter boxes clean with an 8 to 1 bleach/water combo. This is VERY important to prevent the spread of disease.



1. What do I do if the cat is not eating?

It is not uncommon for a feral cat not to eat for a few days when in a cage. However, the cat can’t go more than 3-4 days without eating or drinking. If the cat is not eating first try offering her/him different types of food. Give dry cat food (cheap cat food is more appealing to most cats), wet food, turkey or chicken baby food, etc. Also try covering the cage completely with a sheet to make the cat feel safe. If the cat still does not eat after several days you may have to take the cat in to the vet to get fluids. Unfortunately with feral cats this will involve putting the cat under anesthesia so be sure to try everything possible before taking to the vet.

2. What do I do if the cat turns out to be friendly?

You can either put up for adoption, leave the cat outside in the yard to be a outdoor cat or see if the person who is caring for the cat would like the cat to be able to come inside.

3. What do I do if the shelter left a tag around the cats neck?

You will have to have a vet put the cat under to get the tag off. NEVER use a catch pole on cats. NEVER try to grab the cat to get the tag off yourself.

4. What do I do if the cat is sick?

Put the cats medication in a “pill pocket” (available at most pet stores) and then place the pill pocket in chicken baby food, sardines or mackerel. Do not try to put the pill in the cats mouth.

5. What do i do if the cat escapes before the 4 weeks is completed?

Leave food and water out at several different places around the house. Leave bowls of dry food and plenty of water. Set traps at night using mackerel or sardines. Always check the traps every few hours. Turn loose any other animal you trap right away (including raccoons, skunks, etc). If you trap the escaped cat put back in the cage following the aforementioned instructions. Hang signs in the neighborhood asking people to contact you if they see the cat. Continue to leave food and water out…do not assume the cat is gone. After a week of trying to trap the cat, you can stop trying to trap but MUST continue to feed. Leave dry and wet food and water out for the cat. If all the food disappears each day you may also be feeding wildlife. If only the wet food is gone you are only feeding cats. You can also put baking flour around the food bowls to determine what type of animals are eating (you will see the footprints).

6. What do I do if the caregivers are going to move? 

Once the cats are released it is best to leave them where they are. The caregivers should find someone else to feed the cats. If the new feeder can’t feed at the exact location, they can slowly move the feeding station. This should be done over about 30 days. Every few days move all the food and water bowls closer to where the new feeding location is located.

7. How do I know the cats I am recolonizing won’t fight with each other or other cats in the neighborhood?

First of all the cats are fixed which reduces fighting tremendously. In addition, the cats will be meeting each other through a cage for 30 days so will get to know each other.

8. Should I put 2 bonded cats in the same cage?

If you know for CERTAIN the cats are bonded and the cage is big enough it would be great for them to be together. The only challenge this creates is if one of the cats is sick or is not eating. If you do not put them together in a cage be sure to at last put the cages right up next to each other so they can touch noses and paws through the cages.

9. What do I do if the cat is too sick to be fixed when leaving the shelter?

Once the cat is well enough you will have to bring back to the clinic to get the cat fixed.

10. What do I do if a cat bites me?

Go to the doctor immediately and get on antibiotics. Do not kill the cat for fear of rabies…there has not been a confirmed case of rabies in cats in years and years.

Carrier: used to transport cats. Always carry from bottom and double check the safety of the carrier.

TNR: Tran-Neuter-Return. A way to prevent feral cat colonies from increasing in size. The cats are trapped, fixed and released back to their colony.

Trap:a humane device used to trap a feral cat.

Ear Tip:a universal sign that a cat has been fixed.

Lysine:a great nutrient to give cats to prevent them from getting sick or help clear up Upper respiratory infections (a kitty cold). Open a 250mg capsule per day and sprinkle in cats food.

Microchip: the size of a grain of rice. It is injected into the cat and remains there for their entire life. If the cat ends up in the shelter,  the shelter will scan the cat for a chip. The chip contains an id number that is associated with your contact info. All cats should be microchipped.


You can do this program alone or have some help from other volunteers. If you are using other volunteers, the following are the important jobs to be done:

Transporter: This person will transport cats and cages.

Supplies coordinator: Keeps a supply of litter boxes, towels, etc. and brings supplies to locations when needed.

Administrative assistant: Registers all micro chips, keeps a chart of cats microchips and where cats are located, keeps track of where cages are located, keeps chart of potential yards to use for cats, release dates, etc.

Shelter Contact: Keeps track of any feral cats in shelter and secures the cats release. Communicates with the shelter or spay/neuter clinic to make sure the cats are fixed, eat tip, dissoluble stitches, etc.

Comments are closed.