List 7: Care taking experiences

When you decide to trap a pregnant feral/stray cat, and take care of it in your home until the kittens are ready for adoption and the mother cat can be neutered, there are many practical unknowns. That has been my experience. First you hit the milestone of trapping the animal. Then you transfer it to the safe holding place you have set up. Next is developing a caretaking routine until the kittens arrive. And that is only the beginning… Here are some facts and figures that I found out about.

  1. Your feral/stray cat can react to trapping and being in a house in numerous ways. It is good to be familiar with the different scenarios
    • Fear: will make the cat hide from you; there may be hissing, exposing teeth and even lashing out with claws out but the general characteristic is that the cat will try to retreat and stay away from you
    • Anger: truly feral cats will be pissed-off about being captured. Not only will there be hiding, hissing and lashing out, the main difference with a fearful cat is that it will actively attack you and come towards you if you cross its boundaries. We have not encountered anger, just fear. So, if you are dealing with a truly angry feral cat, it might best to either have somebody experienced help you at a daily basis, or hand it over to the experts. These can be people from a rescue group or other volunteers with special knowledge about feral cats.
    • Allow 2-4 days for the cat to accept captivity
    • After 2-4 days do short visits to the cat and play it by ear to know if you are overwhelming it. Note eyes and ears. If friendly, read a book in the vicinity or do some errands in the room but keep noises down, as the cat may not be used to household sounds.
      • Personal note 1:
        • To lower my own anxiety about the whole project, I was often humming to myself. I quickly noticed that Mitsy really like this and to this day I use soft singing as a way to put her at ease!
      • Personal note 2:
        • ‘Ours’ is a semi-feral cat that was always interested in human contact. We can tell that she is not unfamiliar with the inside of houses. We can tell that she knows how to connect to humans. But we can also tell that nobody has cared for her as an indoor cat. She does not play, she does not seek out physical contact and she has never in her life seen a human-made scratching pole. But she is curious. And we can see her brain work to process new situations. We can sometimes literally see her study her new environment and then make a choice to connect. Once she had her kittens, she was of course very protective. But after 3 weeks she allowed us to touch the kittens right under her nose without hostility. So there is a very good chance that the kittens can be fully socialised and thereby become adoptable. We are still working with the mom to see if she can be conditioned to be an indoor cat.
  2. Naming the shelter
    • Whenever my husband and I talked about Mitsy and the holding crate, we stumbled over our words, referring to carrier, crate, shelter, etc. So we decided to name all components. It may seem like a trivial thing, but it just made our conversations easier and more transparent.
    • Basecamp: the crate/dog kennel we released Mitsy into after trapping
    • The Nest: the carrier in Basecamp
    • The Ensuite: the second crate we added when the kittens were around 3 weeks old; this was to be either an exercise and play space, or a kind of service-module for poop and food…
      • The Nest was Mitsy’s first safe place after trapping
      • Basecamp is where she ultimately spent most of her waking hours and where, in the initial set-up, she found food, water and a litter box. We use ‘Yesterday’s News’: pellets made of old paper. The smell of the material needs some getting used to, but it is the kind of litter that reminds Mitsy of the mulch areas in the outside world. Also: the material consists of pellets, that are much easier to clean when spilled, then any of the other non-clumping litters. Finally: when the kittens play with this stuff, it is completely safe for them. It cannot get stuck in their feet, and even if they bite on it, it is just paper and will do no harm. As soon as extrement is buried, the smell will quickly be absorbed. Pee will be absorbed well, and morph into paper powder in the bottom of the box
  3. Double up:
    • If you can afford it / have access to supplies, have double series of food dishes and filled litterboxes. This minimises the time spent IN the crate. You simply exchange everything quickly. If required you can top up kibble, water and wet food from outside the crate
  4. First few days: check that the cat goes to the bathroom; bring a stool sample to your vet to check it for infestations so you can start kitten-safe treatment via food right away
  5. Try to refresh litter once a day, but keep yourself safe. Sometimes it is better to not interfere and simply top up the litter box from the outside to cover waste and come back the next day for refreshing.
  6. Feed four times a day at fixed hours and don’t force too much contact at this time; the mother cat should be able to eat as much as she wants, at any time; remember that she lived outside before you trapped her, so even if some of the food has been in her bowl for a day, she will eat it with no issues; if there are left-over, just flush them down the toilet and give fresh food. There is no such thing as spoiling a pregnant cat!
  7. If you have a webcam installed, you can keep an eye on the cat remotely for the first few days and adjust your set-up as needed
    • Personal note about adjustments:
      • Our set-up had the Nest in the back of Basecamp. Next to the Nest was a 15 inch wide litter box. We could reach the litter box from the side door of Basecamp. We used the front door to refresh food and water. It was a tight fit. In the second week Mitsy started to develop an annoyed reaction to the daily litter box cleaning process. We had 2 litter boxes and the cleaning came down to removing one soiled litter box and putting a fresh one in. It did not take a lot of time or hassle – we thought. But we assume that, because it was such a tight fit, Mitsy felt the litter boxes scrape the Nest when we did it and it annoyed her more and more. It came to a point where we had to wait for her to be in the back of the Nest with the kittens drinking, before we could get in. And even then, she started to seriously charge us. We had to put up with it until we opened up the Ensuite, in anticipation of the kittens getting bigger and more mobile. We then removed the first litter box and put in its place an additional sleeping place. We placed the two litter boxes side by side in the back of the Ensuite, far away from all the spots where the little family liked to lounge and play. It removed the annoyance trigger quickly. Opening up the Ensuite also meant moving the food bowls further away from Basecamp. It created enough space for us to be safe when refreshing everything and kept Mitsy in a serene place. And it turned out to be a safe zone for me to lean into and play with the kittens right under Mitsy’s nose…
  8. Once the kittens arrive:
    • Allow 2 weeks for the mother cat (‘the Queen’) to bond with kittens, don’t interfere or try to touch and expect some hissing as protective behaviour of the new mother
    • During the first 2 weeks after birth you should not disturb the mother and refresh any of the materials, except litter and food. The mother will take care of kitten waste and if all goes well she will use the litter box for herself, so there should be minor soiling; but it might be a bit smelly; for kittens this smell ensures that they do not ‘get lost’ when they wander off, so control your urge to do a clean-up. If there are smells, open a window and make sure that everything is secure and nothing unwanted can get in or out; have the insect screen in place and keep it there and interfere as little as you can.
      • Personal note:
        • Our kittens were born outside of the Nest. There was a warm blankie with a heating pad underneath in that area, and I think that Mitsy really liked that as her labour advanced. The kittens stayed there for most of the first week. The basement felt kind of cold to me, so I used a small heater to warm it up a little. I checked on Mitsy’s breathing to find out if she was OK. It was only after 2 weeks that I was able to remove the birthing blanket. I had thought it was fairly clean and it certainly did not smell as far as I could tell. But once I took it out I saw that it had absorbed a lot of fluids and blood that I was unable to clean in the washing machine.
  9. Set a timer for heaters, open windows, lamps. You will forget if you do not do that… Lights and windows help keep the cat in its normal day/night rhythm and ideally she will probably enjoy getting some sun through the windows.

Moving forward

After some weeks, we got a rhythm going in caring for Mitsy and her offspring. I think we implemented some big changes in our set-up and could focus on getting to know the kittens. I was also working on getting closer to Mitsy. I used food for that, treats, because, as a semi-feral cat, she is largely food-oriented. I am relatively sure that she has never spent any serious time in a house with a caring owner. How do I know that?

Mitsy has never played with a toy. I introduced her to one and she has no idea what to do with it. She is interested, but does not participate or understand. Or maybe, in her cat brain, she is giving me the finger – ‘the claw’ – because such foolishness is far beneath a cat that has been living independently in the great outdoors 🙂

Mitsy has also never been touched by a human. When I give her treats, I do so safely with the use of an extendible small spoon, that I put together by fastening a plastic spoon to an old antenna I once found somewhere. She likes treats! A lot! So when she behaves well, does not hiss, lets me play with the kittens, she gets a treat as a reward. As she is eating it, I softly touch her body and her front legs with the (plastic) spoon. I can see an expression of puzzlement on her face when I do that. She does not dislike it, but you can tell it is a new experience for her. And this is how we slowly move forward, one day at a time…

The room is open

40 Days after the kittens arrived, we moved the whole family up to a dedicated room. It was a good moment to do so. It gave Mitsy more private space, and the kittens loved to run around and play in that room. At night, we still kept the locked in the crate, because we were not entirely confident that they would not use the darkness to get into mischief, such as climbing the crates, the walls and trying to eat electricity cables. During daytime, we had the cat cams to keep an eye on them. This worked out really well and both of us finally felt that there was time to enjoy the little family until it was time to take them to the vet.

If you want to follow along with how things went / are going, read the posts in Mitsy’s Nursery Blog. Enjoy!