Keeping Feral Cats Warm: The Saga of “Fish Tank Cat”

Dear Readers,

While I haven’t written extensively about it yet, I have set up a feral cat sanctuary in my little city barn. It’s old, it has windows I can leave open yet secure, and with its loft space and lots of hiding places, I figured it would be ideal for cats. I had two come live with me, one of which found another spot to hang out down the block and is only here part time (See: Calliope) and another that found my couch (See: Senor Pantalones)

The lazy quitter.

The hard worker still doing her job.











During winter prep of the backyard, I moved the yard furniture into the barn and rearranged a few things. I have an old fishtank in there that got left behind. Since it was doing nothing, I opened up the lid and stuffed in a blanket in case Calliope wanted to nap. Recently, I came into the barn and, upon looking into the fish tank, noted a pair of yellow eyes looking back at me. It seems that another cat picked up on the scent of “Cats Welcome” emanating from the barn and, during the extremely low temps we’ve had the last few weeks here in Chicago, decided to seek warmth in the fish tank. He is now known as “Fish Tank Cat.”

While fish tanks are not known as the best of feral cat shelters, I figured that it would be easier to amend his current situation rather than oust him entirely if that’s what he liked. There are feral shelters in the barn but he seemed to gravitate toward the fish tank, clearly because cats love fish (or so they would have us believe).

A home only a cat could love. Look REALLY close and you’ll see Fish Tank Cat in the window.

I noticed, upon further inspection while he was away, that his little breath was creating an icy fog on the inside of the tank. In order to help him stay warm in the negative temps, I ordered some emergency mylar blankets from Amazon. Sadly, they did not arrive quick enough to thwart the ever dropping temps, so I improvised. I found some mylar shiny wrapping paper in the attic and lined the tank with that. Festive, crinkly, warm. Next, I stuffed his comforter back in and lined the sides with additional bed sheets I have set aside for needy cats (as opposed to the self-made cats who have it all). Finally, I put a thick rug over the top halfway to help him keep in some heat yet let him enter and exit with ease. Voila: A makeshift cat shelter.

Now, if you want to actually make a cat shelter, you can get one of those thick Rubbermaid Tubs with a lid. Line that bad boy with some foam board insulation from the hardware store and stuff it with straw (not hay) and, after cutting a door on the front, you now have a cozy feral home. Alley Cat Allies also shows you a variety of homes, both purchased and homemade here.

One of my feral tubs. TOASTY!

Fish Tank Cat comes and goes like a wraith. He only allows me to approach on my knees, bearing the gifts of water and wet food. I can’t get a good look at him because he prefers to wait outside the window while his waitstaff services his accommodations, so he may need some TNR in the future. For now, I’ll just keep him warm and fed.





What To Do If You Find A Kitten

You guys!

What do you do if you find a kitten on the street? Do you leave it alone? Do you take it? What’s the best protocol?

When doing my post a few weeks ago on kitten rescue kits, I got some excellent pieces of advice from Tammy at Feral Fixers. I would like to share it with you now. Please welcome Tammy! ::applause::

feral fixers logo

C: Tell us, Tammy. What do you do if you see kittens on the street?

.T: If you find kittens, unless they are in danger – predators, exposed, frantic with hunger, LEAVE THEM ALONE and watch.  Do not disturb.  Moms leave their kittens for 10 hours at a time.  When moving kittens, they might do it in stages, moving from A to B, getting them all to B, then moving to C, their ultimate destination.  That can take time.

C: How long do mother cats leave their kittens unattended?
T: We have had kittens alone for 72 hours and they have survived – they tend to go into a comatose state and conserve their energy til mom comes back.  But if you disturb them, they wake up and start using their reserves.
C: What if I want to check on the kitten nest?
T: If you keep physically going up to the nest and bothering and the mom observes, she will move the kittens at the first opportunity – where you cannot find them later or may only take one or two because that’s all the alternate living arrangements she has found while she has been gone.
A grumpy little kitten who was rescued along with his mama. This kitten does not like kisses.

A grumpy little kitten who was rescued along with his mama. This kitten does not like kisses.

C: Is the ultimate goal to trap both the kittens and the mother?
T: Yes, that is the ideal: mom doing as much of the work of caring for the kittens as is safe.  Mom is best equipped to care for the kittens.  It’s possible that bringing them into a dog crate can be stressful and result in illness in mom and kittens and moms can up and decide not to continue to care for the kittens if she is stressed, too, but leaving the mom unspayed to make more is completely irresponsible, so if this is the only opportunity to trap her (she only shows up when she has a litter of kittens), take that opportunity.
C: Which kittens are good candidates for abduction, I mean, rescue?
T: If they are out and walking about with no supervision, and seem to be 5+ weeks old and capable of eating on their own, it may be that mom has cut her losses, decided she can only care for a portion of her litter and abandoned these ones.  But, still, waiting to see if mom comes back is ideal.
C: What if I think they really need help. Then what?
T: If you MUST “rescue” the kittens, if they seem weak or lethargic or at their end of energy – DO NOT FEED!  No matter what the age, if the kittens are not bouncy healthy, first make sure they are warm.  Mom cats are warmer than humans.  Give them a heating pad on low setting, fill an Ice Mountain water bottle with hot water and wrap in a towel and set next to them, but your body heat is not enough.  Cover and seal in the heat.  If you feed a kitten when its cold, you will kill it.
C: We have personally used the method of putting a heating pad on half of their bed so they can avoid getting over heated and move, if necessary. Is that appropriate in this case?
T: Absolutely, Set the heating pad on low and give them enough area that they can move off of it, should it become too warm.  Be sure to sandwich the heating pad between two soft pieces of material to preserve the heating pad cover.  Kittens are gross and not in control of themselves until they understand litter boxes!
A messy kitten.

A messy kitten.

C: Yes, they are a bit yucky. What happens when they’re warm?
T: Once they are warm, the first step is to give them sugar water – doesn’t even have to be Karo syrup.  One part sugar to 3 parts water, even 3 mls will help tremendously to get their reserves replenished.  Plain water if you have no sugar, just to get their systems going again.  THEN you can give them kitten formula (never cow’s milk) or human meat baby food if they are old enough in tiny amounts.  Again, its okay to wait a whole day to feed, as long as they are first warm and then hydrated.
C: Any further tips on the kitten housing?
T: Kittens can be housed in small crates,2’x2′ will do until they need room to play.  A plastic shoe box type container can be used for litter until they get too big for it, with at least 2″ of litter to keep it heavy enough not to be spilled.  Use heavy, crock-type food bowls unless you wish to do lots of laundry!

C: If there anything else you’d like to add?
T: In all, you have to make yourself as educated as possible in advance (why you are reading this now) so that you can make informed, gut decisions when this situation occurs in your yard!   Every situation is unique and this is a general protocol, a starting point so that you can make the best decisions for the cats you encounter!


Thanks to Tammy from Feral Fixers for this informative guide and for being out there every day helping homeless cats! It’s a tough job and she deserves a big round of applause!  She also suggested this link to Alley Cat Allies for more information on caring for neonatal kittens. Does anyone have any questions for Tammy?



What To Carry In Your Car For An Unexpected Cat Rescue

You guys!

Have you ever been out and about and, perhaps you see a cat and think, “If only I had the ability to help him right now…”

Well, I’m about to get you ready to do just that! I’ve spoken with three experts in the rescue field and am about to share with your their tips for what to carry with you in your car in case a rescue is needed.

This kit sucks for rescue. Shoes will not help you help a cat. Read on to find out how to pack your kit.

This kit sucks for rescue. A sparkly bathing suit and sunblock will not help you help a cat. Read on to find out how to pack your kit properly.

First up, we have Shawn Simons, the Headmistress at Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats in Los Angeles, a rescue with a heck of a story and a special focus on trapping feral cats in the LA area. Here’s her advice:

I would always carry is a towel.  It is a very good way to grab a sick or injured cat while protecting yourself. Make sure you have a carrier to put the cat in. A humane trap may be useful but I find successful trappings often need a bit more prep, although a hungry cat may not need it. If you are trapping, our kits always include newspaper, tuna, can opener and a trap cover (like a blanket or large towel). We use baby food a lot for semi ferals. For night time, you’ll need a flashlight, of course. Also if you are not able to get straight to a vet, flea meds and clavomox would be good to have on hand.
Towels: A necessity!

Towels: A necessity!

Next up, we have a list of things that you might keep with you, provided by Liz Houtz, the Community Cats Program Manager at Tree House  (who happened to be the person that helped trap Louie and Sprinkle, the two “fosters” here that never seem to want to leave.) Here’s Liz’s list for what to bring with you when you plan to trap a feral kitty:
  • KMR kitten replacement milk
  • Kitten feeding bottle
  • Hot water bottle to keep kittens warm
  • Towels
  • Canned cat food and tuna for trapping
  • Can opener
  • At least one carrier (medium) and one trap
  • Newspaper for traps
  • Wire ties for broken carriers
  • Flashlight
  • Trap covers
  • Tarp to protect car
  • Duct tape
  • Trap divider

And finally, we have Tammy from Feral Fixers, an organization in DuPage County, Illinois that focuses on trap-neuter-return programs and works to support colony caretakers by providing traps and spay/neuter resources to help control the feral cat population. She says:

One of the most frustrating parts of rescue is not being able to go somewhere yourself. But having volunteers who CAN go there and do what needs to be done is priceless! We make it a habit to learn whatever we can about our volunteers so that we can call on them in a pinch and they come thru time and time again! A drop-in carrier, two towels, a small throw, some canned food – stinkier the better and a small sample size bag of dry food that you can shake to stimulate interest in food are the very basics and all can be stored and carried in that carrier. One towel to go in carrier, other towel or throw to drop on top of the cat to wrap and drop in carrier and then the throw to go on top and cover whole carrier to keep it quiet and safe. Just the very basics for cat pickup.

The Can Opener:  A Must Have for Resscues and The Already Rescued, Well-Fed House Cat

The Can Opener: A Must Have for Rescues as well as  The Already Rescued, Well-Fed House Cat

And there you have it! The basics (and then some) of what to carry with you so that you’re prepared in the event of a much-needed rescue! A hearty thanks to all of these wonderful experts in cat rescue. As a follow up to this article, we’ll be talking to Tammy again regarding how to know if kittens really NEED rescue and what exactly to do if you see some out and about.

Stay tuned!