—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
Did you know that outdoor cats can live just as long as indoor cats? Pretty amazing, right?! As long as an outdoor cat has a caretaker, they can live into their teens.
Yes, there are added risks with living outside, but cats are incredible survivalists. Whether you have outdoor cats or not, I’ll tell you all the basics about taking care of outdoor cats.
What Are Outdoor Cats?
You may not realize that outdoor cats include different groups of cats. These include:
Community cats - Feral or stray cats that live outside in a specific area. They usually have one or more caretakers feeding them. If they grew up around people, they’re friendly, but if not, they’re likely fearful and will stay at a distance.
Owned indoor/outdoor cats - These cats have a home and live inside, but their owners let them outside too.
- Abandoned or lost cats - Unfortunately, owners will sometimes dump cats outside, especially in areas away from their home so they can’t return. Also, sometimes cats mistakenly get outside and become lost.
Keep in mind, not all outdoor cats are friendly with humans – and they don’t need to be. Feral cats can live a fulfilling life without close human companionship.
Please be careful and do not try to force affection on these types of cats, because you could get injured.
Want to get a feral fixed? There is a safe way to do it!
Trap Neuter Return
Perhaps the most important aspect of maintaining a cat colony is to make sure all cats are neutered or spayed. Cat overpopulation is a major problem, as well as reproductive cancers and labor complications.
Keeping the population is in check will not only help you manage it, but you’ll also have healthier cats. Additionally, hormones can lead to severe cat fights, which can in turn lead to injury, infections, and even death.
Controlling the hormones lessens the likelihood of fights over territory or love interests.
Trap, Neuter, and Return or TNR is a common phrase where cats are trapped, fixed, and put back in their colonies. If this is something you’re interested in, reach out to your local animal shelter to see if they have a free TNR program.
Some shelters may not have the resources, so you can also reach out to local animal welfare nonprofits and low-cost clinics to see if they can help you get your community cats fixed.
The process of TNR is to first, withhold feeding the cat for 24 hours. Set the trap so it’s along a fence or wall and cover all sides but the opening with a sheet (this will increase the chances of the cat going into the trap).
Place stinky food (like sardines or tuna), inside the trap and wait. Once the cat goes inside, it triggers the trap to close. Then, you can fully cover the cat and take them to get fixed.
Many shelters will also give cats vaccines, flea treatment and a swanky ear tip included in the TNR services. The tip of the ear is snipped off so outdoor cats can easily be identified as fixed. Don’t worry – it doesn’t hurt the cat or affect its hearing.
If you want to have the cat microchipped, tested for FeLV (feline leukemia virus) or FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), you can likely pay additional to have those services added on.
After the cat’s altered and recovered, they can be returned to their outdoor space.
It’s best to have a designated feeding station for outdoor cats. Select an area away from foot traffic where the cats can easily blend into their surroundings, making it safer for them to enjoy their meals.
This will also help you monitor how much food is being eaten.
Going through more food can mean a new cat joined the crew, while going through less can mean a cat is sick or injured. Keep in mind, cats tend to eat more in the winter, because they use extra calories to keep warm.
Thick, heavy, deep plastic bowls tend to be best because they’re easy to clean and durable. Wet food? Dry food? It’s up to you. Healthwise, a combination is typically best, wet food has more drawbacks outdoors.
In addition to being more expensive than dry, wet food will attract more insects in the summer but freeze faster in the winter. If you choose to go with wet food year-round, you’ll need to monitor feeding more closely.
Stick to scheduled meal times and remove food after an hour to avoid attracting insects and wildlife. If you have an ant problem, you can place the bowl of food in another container or a larger bowl with low sides, and put a half inch of water in the bottom.
Replace water bowls daily so your cat always has fresh water to drink. Keep an extra close eye on them in the winter, replacing the water twice a day.
You may want to consider filling them with hot or warm water so it takes longer for them to freeze, or even placing a microwavable heating pad underneath. On the flipside, consider adding ice cubes to water bowls in the summer.
Your cat needs year-round shelter to get out of the heat and the cold. You can get heated outdoor houses made for cats, use a dog house, or even make your own shelter.
For a location, try to pick one away from foot traffic, and place it in an area where it will blend in. This will make it more appealing to and safe for the cat.
To make your own:
- Get a plastic tote. Go small if you have one or two cats, and larger if you have more.
- Cut a 5 to 6-inch hole a few inches from the bottom.
- Line the inside of the tote with straw, not hay. Hay gets moldy. Also, avoid towels, blankets, and newspaper, which retain water and will make your cat colder.
- Place the tote on 2x4s or a bed of straw to help with heat.
- For some extra protection from the elements, you can add a heavy plastic bag over the opening to prevent rain and snow from getting inside, but wait to add this feature until your cat is consistently using the shelter (covering the entryway too soon could deter your cat from using it).
- If your shelter is lighter, put weights on the bottom under the straw or put rocks on the lid. This will help keep it from moving on windy days.
In the summer, it’s important that your cat has shaded areas to escape the heat, like under a deck or awning.
As mentioned earlier, spaying and neutering is probably the most important thing you can do for your outdoor cat. Most of the time, outdoor cats are extremely healthy, and even kitty colds and parasites don’t have a big impact.
Keep a close eye on your cat and if you see extreme weight loss or nasal discharge, reach out to your vet about how to handle it. Make sure your vet has experience with outdoor cats and is comfortable helping you treat them ahead of time.
Now you’re ready with the advice you need to start taking care of outdoor cats. Don’t have any but want to help? Many shelters and rescues have TNR programs or will accept food donations for community cats.
Reach out to nonprofits in your area, and see what you can do to help.
Alley Cat Advocates, Tips for Food and Feeding Stations & Building Winter Shelters for Community Cats.
Cat Tipper, How to Keep Outdoor Cats Cool in the Summer Heat.
Humane Society, An Overview of Caring for Outdoor Cats.
Feral Cat Focus, Colony Management.
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist