The 6 Steps to Fixing Feral Cats in Wisconsin

A report by Kuhelika Ghosh, in collaboration with Inna Larsen, based on her experience with the Barn Rescue project of spring, 2023. The project was supported by a grant from the Graduate Public Humanities Exchange (HEX), and carried to completion in partnership with community partner 9 Lives Rescue Inc.

Community cats, also called feral cats, live outdoors in multi-species environments and are often very fearful of humans. Despite their lack of socialization, they are often fed by human caretakers in their community and lead healthy lives. Madison has numerous neighborhoods with community cats, but overpopulation creates a struggle for resources. Additionally, community cats are often euthanized at shelters because they are deemed unadoptable. 

Although the lifestyles of community cats may be different from that of pet cats, their lives matter and it is crucial to ensure community cats’ wellbeing when their lives are often threatened by environmental and human factors. 

9 Lives Rescue conducted a TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) project in spring 2023 funded by a generous grant provided to us by the Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Our project targeted both urban neighborhoods as well as rural areas such as an abandoned farm.

TNR essentially means the process of capturing cats in live traps, sterilizing them (spaying/neutering), vaccinating them for FVRCP and Rabies, and then transferring them back to their outdoor neighborhood with an ear-tip for easy identification of sterilization. The TNR policy helps support feral cats in the Madison community by managing free-roaming cat populations while still making sure that these cats can remain safe and healthy in their outdoor homes.

We wanted to take this opportunity to compile some valuable information on how we went about organizing this TNR project, since it can be quite tricky for individuals and organizations trying to do this on their own for the first time. We hope that this step-by-step guide can help other Wisconsin animal shelters and rescues to provide spay/neuter treatment to feral cats in their local neighborhoods. There are six crucial steps to help resolve feral cat overpopulation in Wisconsin – just remember the acronym FIFATTA!

Note: We started the TNR project at the end of winter owing to Wisconsin’s unsuitable weather conditions for winter trapping. We highly recommend beginning around the end of winter or early spring season before the kittens are born so that there are fewer cats to trap and fix, making it a much more manageable process for all.

Step 1 – Find Neighborhoods Suffering from Overpopulation of Feral Cats

This step will require you to reach out to all of your personal contacts or find information through social media such as Facebook groups and the Nextdoor app. Keep an eye out for posts where people are looking for resources to help the feral cats in their area or are simply complaining about cat overpopulation in their neighborhood. These posts are good indicators of the territory occupied by these feral cats. 

A huge part of this step is to reach out to these community members and figure out if they are interested in fixing the feral cats in their neighborhood (hopefully for free if your project is grant-funded). The cooperation of community members is crucial to a smooth TNR process. If you find a good Samaritan dedicated to feeding the cats in the area or interested in learning more, definitely keep the lines of communication open since you will need their help later on.

Step 2 – Interact with the Community Members, the Cats, and their Environment

The next step is to visit the site and evaluate its potential. Feral cats are called community cats because their lives are intertwined with the environment they live in and the community members they interact with (both human as well as other species). Based on these interactions, the cats’ behavior falls under a spectrum ranging from friendly to very fearful. The more you know about the neighborhood and how the residents treat the cats, the better the trapping process will go. 

When you arrive at the site, the first step is to talk to your main contact (discovered through personal sources or Nextdoor/Facebook) and learn more about the cats and their patterns. Gauge the individual’s interest in being a part of the trapping process – some people are very hands-on and like to help throughout the TNR project, while others might be more nervous and are only interested in feeding the cats. 

After speaking with your main contact, walk around and talk to other folks such as the neighbors or other people feeding the cats. This might be a good opportunity to educate the neighborhood and pass out flyers about the TNR process, if the community members are curious to learn more. Our main goal at this step is to recruit feeders and volunteer for the trapping, as well as permission from homeowners to use their backyards or front yards for this purpose. Make sure you get the contact information for interested recruits, so that they can keep you updated on the cats’ feeding behavior and trapping later on.

Step 3 – Feed Cats on a Strict Schedule in Preparation for Trapping

Make sure you establish feeding patterns at least a week or two before the trapping so that the cats are all on a consistent feeding schedule. This means feeding them at the same time every single day, so that they begin to expect food around that time. Cats are fond of routine and habit, so feeding them at a particular time means they will continue visiting at that same time when it’s time to trap. 

It is difficult as an organization to come out to a neighborhood and feed cats every day. This is when you can put your contacts to the test and inform the community members about the feeding schedule they need to follow. 1-2 feeders in a neighborhood are more than enough, so make sure you do not recruit too many people, otherwise the cats will get confused.

While establishing the feeding pattern, ask your contacts to count the cats and assess if any of them are pregnant or have special needs.

Step 4 – Arrange for Low-Cost Vet to Fix Multiple Feral Cats

Once you know the number of feral cats in the neighborhood, it is time to locate a low-cost vet who will provide spay/neuter treatment to multiple feral cats. Based on the location of your organization, you might have to shop around for low-cost vets and find the best deal for the number of cats you are planning to trap.

After finalizing the vet, make sure to schedule appointments or communicate with them about the timeline for your trapping process. They might be open to keeping a couple of mornings free for you to bring in 3-4 cats at one time. Please do not expect them to be able to fix more than 10 cats at once, so manage your trapping process accordingly.

Step 5 – Trap Cats Based on their Feeding Schedules 

Now it’s time for trapping! Make sure to withhold food the day before trapping begins so that the cats are very hungry and will easily go into the traps. Ask your feeders/volunteers to put out the set traps with food inside and a trail of food leading into the trap. You might have to teach your volunteers how to set the traps beforehand since that part can be tricky. 

Based on the number of feral cats in the neighborhood and the amount of traps your organization can lend, we recommend setting out 3-4 traps at a time so that the volunteers and vets are not overwhelmed. Trapping is not a one-day process and will often require several days if you have multiple cats in the neighborhood.

Step 6 – Transport Cats to Vet for Spay/Neuter Treatment  

Once the cats are trapped, either you or the volunteers can transport the cats to the clinic. Note that SUVs can fit multiple traps. After the surgery, the volunteers can pick them up and bring them back to the neighborhood for recovery in a specific holding space.

Step 7 – Attend to Cats in a Safe Enclosed Environment for a Few Days

Make sure that your neighborhood contacts have a designated holding space for the cats to recover after surgery. This might be a garage or a shed prepared with crates/boxes lined with towels. Give the cats some space to recuperate and continue feeding them throughout the recovery process.

After the cats have had enough time to recuperate based on the vet’s recommendations, you have multiple options on what to do with the cats depending on the cats themselves. Kittens and pregnant mothers can be placed in foster homes since kittens can be socialized more easily. The adult feral cats can be placed in barn homes where they often lead happy lives as mousers. In states that allow for return of feral cats to their neighborhoods, that is often the best option for the cats.

You can find more information on trapping cats here and acclimation guidelines for helping feral cats adjust to their barn homes here. To read about 9 Lives’ successful spring 2023 barn trapping project, click here.