You may have seen them in your neighborhood: a makeshift structure where stray cats tend to congregate, perhaps with a few bowls of food and water nearby. This is known as a cat colony, and is managed by a volunteer, or a few volunteers, from the area who are committed to caring for cats that have no other known home.
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Caring for colony cats requires an investment of time and money, and may be emotionally taxing in some cases, but is worth the effort for people who take on the responsibility. To properly care for your colony, be sure to familiarize yourself with a few basic do's and don'ts, as well as your local trap and release organizations.
What are colony cats?
Colony cats, also known as community cats, are cats who live outdoors, are not formally "owned" by anyone, and who roam freely around their neighborhood, says the ASPCA. These cats, which can range from friendly to feral, do roam freely, and usually come to one area, or colony, for food, water, and shelter. On average, these types of cats do have shorter lifespans than indoor or indoor/outdoor cats, and "belong" to no one specifically, although they do rely on the help of people to have their basic needs met.
While indoor/outdoor cats do face risks that full-time inside cats don't have to worry about, cats who live outside all year round have it harder than any feline. In addition to the harsh elements during seasonal changes and limited access to food, a stray or feral cat can succumb to disease through lack of vaccinations, attacks from predators, and even poisoning from humans. Cats are generally known for being independent and self-supporting creatures, but having a colony to call home, along with regular care and maintenance, will greatly improve a cat's quality of life, and her chances of survival.
Do’s and don'ts of colony care
If you're looking to care for a colony of cats, the first thing you'll need to do is determine how much care you will be able to provide, and try to enlist the help of other people in your area who may be able to assist. Cats should be provided food on a regular basis and at a designated feeding site, along with plenty of clean water for everyone, suggests Feral Cat Focus, a non-profit located in Western New York. Housing for these cats should be insulated with water-resistant materials, like straw, which will prevent freezing during cold or wet seasons. During warmer months, keeping food elevated off the ground can help prevent insect infestation. Finally, always make sure your colony is located in a space where you have permission to reduce the risk that your colony be torn down, leaving your colony houseless.
When feeding your colony cats, it is highly recommended that food not be placed outside at night as it can attract unwanted visitors to the area, like raccoons, rats, and skunks. Additionally, keeping your colony as clean as possible will leave less supportive neighbors without reason to call authorities on your or your cat friends, so always do your best to throw out any old cat food cans or bags, plates, blankets or anything that might be considered unsightly. If a cat in your colony births a litter, do not remove the kittens from their mother for the first month, and arrange for a spay and neuter at around three months to prevent further reproduction.
Keeping a healthy cat colony
One of the most important aspects of colony cat care is controlling cat populations by keeping felines spayed or neutered. The most effective and efficient way to keep your cat colony from reproducing out of control is to enlist the help of a local TNR, or trap, neuter, return, organization. These organizations help to provide low-cost or no-cost spay and neuter services, may assist with vaccinations, and will often offer education and guidance for any colony caretakers. A free roaming cat can come across many health problems, like disease or injury, so when possible, create a log of cats in your colony and note any changes in their behavior or physical well-being.