TO FEED OR NOT TO FEED
When a new cat appears in the garden, some cat-lovers immediately offer it some food; but is this always the right thing to do? If the cat is lost or abandoned it may be a lifesaver, but otherwise it may only cause problems for the cat and its real owner.
The cat might be on a specially medicated diet and ordinary cat food (and even more the popular dish of milk, which is bad for most cats) can compromise its health. The cat might be greedy and receiving extra meals may cause obesity. If the cat is new to the area and exploring its new neighbourhood, whilst not totally familiar with the outside of its new home, food offers may stop it from returning home altogether and we are then dealing with a lost cat. This can also happen to “holiday cats”, which are in the care of a friendly neighbour with keys to the house. The cat misses the usual attention of its owners, gets bored and seeking human company it may venture further than usual with potentially disastrous circumstances. The cat, having found a feeder elsewhere does not go home anymore and the neighbour finds the food untouched and stops feeding – a pet has become homeless. Every year, particularly during the summer holidays we receive requests from people to “collect a stray” which they have started feeding, unaware that they may have caused the problem in the first place. I suggest they reduce the feeding to only one meal to encourage the cat to go home.
Meanwhile the cat should be scanned for a microchip, the number of which is stored on a central national register containing the cat’s home address. Failing that the neighbourhood should be informed about this cat in notes on trees and through letter boxes, at least until the holidays are over.
A very sad story twenty years ago warned me against removing new cats. A man and his two children came to me to choose a new kitten. All three, and soon all four of us, were in floods of tears. Their nine-month-old beautiful and affectionate neutered tomcat had been left in the care of a neighbour for two weeks. He had soon disappeared and when the family made enquiries on their return they found out that Tom had ventured only ten houses away where he had previously never been seen. Two elderly people assumed he was lost and started feeding him. A few days later they realised they had acquired a cat and unwilling to adopt him, they had him collected by a charity which was not opposed to killing for expediency. Because he wore a collar he was kept for a few days, in case the owner turned up, then he was put down.
Who was to blame for this tragedy? Practically everybody involved; the cat should have had an address attached to his collar, the neighbour should have advertised when he went missing (or looked for him), the ladies should not have fed him or at least asked around for his owners and finally the charity should have left notices realising that such a well groomed, well fed cat was not really a stray.
How can you tell if a cat is lost or not? Lost cats are usually desperate and hungry and will eat anything; to test them I offer some food of moderate quality, which will be ignored by a spoilt cat, which has had its meal at home, although most cats will take some food if offered. If a cat hangs about I use a scanner, if it is a kitten I take it in instantly for safety reasons and make extensive enquiries in the area. Young kittens do not survive for long without regular feeding and cannot be left to fend for themselves.
Then, there are feral cats. They look less fat and less shiny, unless they are adopted, and they usually behave in a shy and furtive manner and show fast reflexes when scared; unless they are used to the feeder they shoot off when a door opens, although they are hoping for a meal. To suggest, “do not feed them and they will go away” is cruel and neither helps the cats nor the people. It is a myth that feral cats are self-reliant. They are natural hunters but there is not enough wildlife to sustain them in our towns and cities (and who would want them to kill our songbirds out of necessity? – it is bad enough we lose so many to Magpies).
Feral cats need at least one meal a day in order to remain healthy, this includes “working” cats in factories, hospitals etc. Most cats have one or two regular feeders and may also receive scraps from people who prefer to put out their leftovers for them rather than waste it. Provided this food it not spicy and has no bones which can cause injury (and death) it can add to a good and varied diet. Fresh water must always be available. For us animal workers it is important that feral cats are “attached” to certain gardens so that we know them all and have every single one neutered.
© Elke de Vries – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor