Restraining a feral cat requires an entirely different approach to the techniques we use for handling even fractious tame cats. A recently trapped and apparently quiet feral in a trap or transfer cage will panic if you attempt to touch them. At best you will get scratched and bitten. At worst, the cat will bolt past you. The cat, thinking its life is in peril, will literally climb the walls of the room in its desperation to escape. It may well injure itself in the process. If it doesn’t find a way out, it will find the tightest, most inaccessible corner in which to hide. Now the cat is incredibly distressed and will take a long time to come down from their ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This is not good for a cat before anaesthesia and surgery.
Different pieces of equipment have been designed to safely manage feral cats. They have the benefit of minimising the cat’s stress while protecting you, the handler.
When the cat walks into the trap and inches forward following the trail of food, they trigger a step plate that closes the entry door behind them. The best traps will have a very gentle action, as a very loud bang as the door shuts will really panic the cat. As soon as the cat is trapped, the trap must be covered over. This immediately calms the cat, who might otherwise hurt themselves in a frenzied attempt to escape. If the trap isn’t covered over, the cat will most likely tear their nose and gums from biting the bars, and may lose some claws from scrabbling. The trapper will immediately bring the cat in the trap to the clinic.
Combined transfer/restraint or ‘crush’ cages
Not every vet clinic will have hospitalisation cages and we don’t recommend putting a feral cat in a standard ShoreLine kennel, even if the cat is provided with a box or carrier within the kennel to hide in. The risk of escape when you open the kennel door is too great. We transfer the cat to a pre-prepared cat carrier as soon as the surgery is complete and while the cat is still asleep. The cat will remain in the cat carrier for 24 hours post-surgery, at which point it is returned to its colony and released.
Cat carriers work well because they offer more space and comfort to the cat. Being solid-sided, the cat feels much more secure. Cat carriers with a tray in the floor are great because the cat doesn’t have to sit on soggy bedding when they’ve peed. The carrier should be both spacious and secure. The standard cat carriers sold in pet shops are really only kitten-sized and their plastic doors aren’t sufficiently secure for ferals. We only use cat carriers that have a metal door with a spring latch, such as Vari-Kennels. We sometimes cable-tie the door for added security.
Have the carrier prepared before the surgery. Line the carrier with clean newspaper to cushion the cat against the hardness of the carrier floor. The newspaper also acts as an insulator against the cold of the floor under the carrier. We also provide a puppy pad and piece of vet bed. Put the puppy pad on the newspaper and lay the vet bed on top. We find that when we release the cat after twenty four hours, the pee has seeped down through the vet bed and has been absorbed by the puppy pad, so the cat has remained dry. It is really stressful for a cat to have to lie in their own excreta, so we think the extra cost of providing a puppy pad and some vet bed is really worthwhile. Bear in mind also that the cat will have a fresh surgical wound and it is imperative that it be kept dry and clean.
We also like to provide the cat with some food and water as soon as they are fully recovered from the anaesthetic. Bear in mind that the cats go without food the day before trapping and, in most cases, will have been fasting for 24hrs and 48hrs if they have been kept at the vets overnight for surgery the following morning. Because space in the carrier is limited, we attach a bowl to the inside of the carrier door, whenever possible; standard food and water bowls can get knocked over so that the cat is wet and uncomfortable overnight. We mix a about half a pouch of food with some warm water to make a soupy stew, so that the cat gets nourishment and hydration in one. We try not to provide too much food to the cat while they are in the carrier after surgery – just enough to prevent any hunger pangs. The reason for this is we put food down for the cats immediately before we release them. The food is laced with fenbendazole (Parazole™) so ideally the cats have worked up a good appetite and won’t be overly concerned by the taste of the wormer in their food.
Sometimes the cat will defecate in the carrier. If the poo is towards the back of the carrier and the cat has covered it up, we prefer for the nurses to leave things be, rather than risk opening the carrier door to pull out the soiled paper. You need to be a very good judge of a cat’s frightened behaviour to do this. Normally the cat will retreat to the back of the carrier and freeze, but it’s not unheard of for a cat to try to barrel past you. (This is why we use as big a carrier as possible!) If you do want to change soiled newspapers and are confident about opening the carrier door, do so in a fully enclosed room that doesn’t have furniture the cat can squeeze behind. A bathroom or small consult room is perfect for this purpose.