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


Leave alone, do not disturb, call us we are a registered charity with the knowledge and experience to deal with the situation.

We always secure the mother cat first as the kittens are very young and comparatively immobile, within reach and unable to escape, it is best to trap the mother before touching her kittens. Usually a mother cat will leave her nest for a short while to find food, and provided she is unsuspecting will readily walk into a trap which has been baited with very tempting food such as finely chopped cooked chicken or turkey. If several people are in the area, particularly if they are talking, it may be many hours before the cat appears, since she will be careful not to disclose where her kittens are.

Anxious members of the public have in the past picked up kittens before our arrival. It was then more difficult if not impossible to trap the mother, who had scampered off in panic, and it sometimes took many hours, even days, before she went into the trap. A mother cat who was originally a pet and was not born feral, will usually return sooner. Whatever the situation, we persevere until she is caught. Under no circumstances must the kittens be returned to the nest once they have been picked up, as the mother will either abandon them or else most certainly move them to another hiding-place.

As soon as the mother is caught, the trap must be covered completely with a large sheet or blanket to calm her down and prevent her injuring herself in panic. The kittens may now be collected from the nest, and should be put in a separate warm box for the journey home, during which they must not be given to the mother as she may suffocate them in the trap/carrier.

Our aim is to Neuter the mum and save the kittens from a feral life. With the implementation of Lucy’s law it is now necessary to show the kittens with their mum.

Some 30 + years ago, when I first noticed feral cats and started helping them, a very experienced animal worker warned me: “…for feral cats there may not be a tomorrow!”. I have experienced the sad truth of these words many times and could not possibly forget them.

If this warning applies to adult feral cats which have to cope with the hazardous life of a homeless cat, diseases such a Leukaemia, Fiv, Fip ( feline Coronavirus)then how much more does it concern young, helpless feral kittens when born in such places as skips, bonfire heaps, under floorboards, in storage rooms or simply under bushes in the open? There is a slim chance of survival, and even those kittens which are seemingly safely tucked away with their mother in a shed are at everybody’s mercy: dogs, foxes, tomcats and even cruel or ignorant humans may at any time discover and harm them. Their mother may for no obvious reason move them to a new hide-out, unknown to her concerned feeders. Raised in a damp corner kittens are especially prone to cat ‘flu, which if untreated can lead to eye infections and blindness, or to pneumonia and death.

If they are lucky enough to survive the first few weeks new dangers await them once they appear in the open. Kittens have been attacked by crows, magpies or foxes; because of their adventurous and curious nature, and their total lack of experience and judgement they have ended up in fishponds, underneath cars or inside their bonnets, inside industrial machinery, air vents, pipes, sewage systems, drainpipes, skips… all these are cases I have come across personally.

Should the kittens survive the first few weeks unharmed they will grow up fast – soon they become unhandleable and within months will begin to breed. A female can come into season as early as four months, only to produce yet more unfortunate feral cats. Unless the kittens are picked up while still very young and found homes as domestic pets, and unless the rest of the colony is neutered, we are facing a no-win situation.

To be sure the kittens are safe they have to be rescued as soon as they are noticed, and if they are very young ALWAYS with their mother to rear them.


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