Handling and Restraint

by Limerick Feral Cats

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.

Cat Traps

When the cat arrives at your clinic, it will probably have just been caught and will still be in the cat trap, which should be fully covered with a large towel or blanket. The cat trap is a humane device for catching feral cats. It relies on their hunger to entice them in. The trap is baited with very savoury, aromatic food such as mashed sardines in vegetable oil. The trap is set with the swing door at the front end open to allow the cat access. The majority of the food is placed at the far end of the trap, beyond the step plate. There is usually a door at this end that lifts upwards to facilitate placing food inside. The trapper will have laid a trail of very small pieces of food towards and into the trap, to capture the cat’s interest. It is of supreme importance that the trail of food doesn’t satiate the cat, or they won’t be motivated to chance eating the majority of the food at the very back of the trap. The trail should consist of a dribble of oil from the can and the tiniest morsels of the fish.

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.

Transfer cages

These are an incredibly useful piece of kit. They can be used to temporarily move a cat out of the trap to allow you change out soiled newspaper and replenish the food and water. Like the trap, the transfer cage has a door that can be pulled upwards to allow access. In a fully enclosed room, place the front end of the trap against a wall to secure it. Line up the transfer cage with the back door of the trap and push one against the other so there is no chance of the cat escaping out between the two. Remove the towel or blanket from the trap and place it over the transfer cage. Pull up the door of the trap and the door of the transfer cage simultaneously. The cat will instinctively move towards cover. There is no need to rush this. The key is to be as calm and quiet as possible so the cat doesn’t get agitated. If the cat is slow to move into the transfer cage you can gently blow on them from behind. This is usually enough to encourage them forward. Once the cat is in the transfer cage, gently close the transfer cage door. You do not want to do this quickly in case the cat decides to go back in the trap and is hurt as the door descends. Make sure the transfer cage door is securely shut. If the cat is scrabbling to escape out of the transfer cage, they may manage to nose under the door enough to be able to crawl out. You can cable tie the bottom of the door to the base of the cage, for added security. Transfer cages should not be used to hold cats overnight as they are much too small.

Combined transfer/restraint or ‘crush’ cages

These are essentially the same as an ordinary transfer cage, with the added feature of a movable internal floor. This floor is attached to running bars that extend out of the basket to form two parallel handles. Use the handles to draw the cat forward until they are firmly pressed between the partition and the side of the basket. This actually has a calming effect on the cat. You can now give the cat their intra-muscular injection effectively. Once the cat has been injected, fully retract the floor panel and cover the cage.


A steel comb can work fairly well to facilitate injecting a feral cat in its trap, if you don’t have a crush cage. The comb is inserted through the bars on one side of the trap. The teeth of the comb should slide out between the bars on the far side. Now the cat is isolated at one end of the trap and can’t move forward. Combs work best with MDC Export traps.

Hospitalisation cages

These are a dream piece of equipment for feral cats, but they are expensive. They are considerably larger than standard transfer cages and have a removable partition in the middle and top-opening doors to facilitate cleaning and feeding. These cages are large enough to accommodate a litter tray so they are ideal for feral cats that need to be confined longer than 24hrs due to surgical complications. There is a door at one end for transferring the cat from the trap. At least one end of the hospitalisation cage should be kept covered so the cat feels less exposed.

Cat Carriers

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.



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