Caring for Stray and Community Cats

Seven Steps to Basic Care



  1. Trap-Neuter-Return


The first step in caring for your community cats is providing food and water, but the most IMPORTANT step is the spaying/neutering of your colony. Spay/neuter, vaccinate, deworm and ear tip all community cats in the colony, including those that only visit sporadically and newcomers as soon as they appear. Cats will be safely and humanely trapped and taken to the vet to be fixed. When kittens are found, they will be trapped and assessed for sociability.


This is where the Middleburg Humane Foundation is here to help! To start the process please fill out a TNR Community Cat Assistance Form so we can come out to assess the site.


    2. Food and Water


What Should I Feed?
Dry food is recommended for colony feeding because it can remain out all day and not spoil. If you choose to feed wet food, do so in a separate plate or bowl rather than mixing it in with the dry food. Although most cats enjoy canned food, feeding a colony dry food alone is fine as. If you feed cats wet food, it will spoil if not eaten and will attract ants and other insects. If cats are fed wet food make sure you can pull up right away any uneaten food.


In the winter expect the colony to consume more food because they will need extra calories to maintain energy levels. In places where the wet food may freeze it is advisable to just stick with dry food.


Always remove uneaten food within 30 minutes. Never allow food to sit out, as it may attract insects and wildlife. While this scenario is ideal, it may not always be possible to follow this guideline especially if the colony does not come at a given feeding time.


Feeding Schedule
It is recommended that feeding takes place first thing in the morning, during the day, or early evening before 5 pm. If feeding is done in the morning the cats can eat all day, if you decide to feed early evening it allows the cats a chance to eat prior to dark when wildlife is more likely to venture towards the food.


How Much to Feed
One cup of dry food per cat in your colony per day is plenty. You should, if you can, monitor the amount of food the cats leave behind to determine the proper portion. If the food is all gone (and it hasn't clearly been eaten by wildlife), then you may want to increase the amount. If there is a substantial amount of food leftover, you should decrease the amount.

The Site

It is extremely important to keep the feeding station neat and clean. This is vital, not only for the health of the cats, but also for community relations. Keep the food/water dishes clean by having two sets. One at the site, and another clean and available to replace the dirty ones. Keep the food dishes in one place to facilitate cleanup and to provide a tidy appearance.



Fresh water should be given every day. If water is gone when you visit the colony, increase the number of water bowls or get a bigger one. It is important that water is available always.


Throughout the winter month’s water will freeze, here are some tips to assist with preventing this:

  • Refill the bowls with warm or hot water. A pinch of sugar stops water from freezing as quickly.

  • Use heated water bowls, if there is an electrical outlet close by.

  • Keep the water in the sun and use dark colored bowls.

  • Use wider and deeper bowls.

  • Insulate the bowls.

  • Use double-layered bowls.

  • Place the water dish inside a Styrofoam cooler to slow freezing.

  • Use microwavable disks under the water bowl.

  • Surround the top and sides of the feeding area with plexiglass to create a greenhouse environment for the water.

  • If there is a water source like a spigot, run the water slightly, since it won’t freeze as quickly as still water.

  • Shield the bowl from the wind.


Feeding Locations and Stations

Unless there is a covered area where food/water bowls are kept, a feeding station is recommended to keep the food protected from birds, insects and the weather. Although feeding stations are not a requirement, establishing a specific area for feeding can help conceal where the cats eat and make colony management easier on the caregiver. The goal is for this area not to be visible to the public. Also, you can gradually and easily move the feeding stations when needed to address neighborhood concerns. Feeding stations should not be placed near high traffic areas, sleeping locations, or the place where they defecate.


For information on how to build a feeding station visit:


Cleanliness is also essential to feeding. An area cluttered with debris will call undue attention, this includes garbage and trash. Removing this daily or weekly will help make the feeding station sanitary and unobtrusive. This also helps avoid possible health code violations and maintain positive relations with the residents.


     3. Provide Shelter


Feeding Station and Winter Shelter

Community cat sleeping shelters, designed to protect cats from the winter weather are also a great idea. Some colonies find shelter for themselves in a shed or under a building where their safety is uncertain. You might want to consider building a shelter for cats. It can keep them safe from the elements and help you control their location and deter them from neighbor’s properties.



Something to keep in mind when building your shelter:

  • Size of the doorway

  • Protection from the elements

  • Bedding

  • Camouflage

  • Deterring wildlife


    4. Monitoring Members of the Colony and Provide Ongoing Health Care


New Cats and Kittens

Know who your regular/core colony members are versus occasional visitors from the neighborhood. If you have a "newcomer" to the colony that is not ear tipped and is not a neighborhood pet it is important to get it altered immediately. All newcomers need to be trapped, altered, vaccinated and then returned to the colony. This is a VERY important aspect to Colony Management. If new cats show up, please fill out a TNR Community Cat Assistance Form at so we can assess and trap.


The Healthy Colony Cat

The general health of the cats should be assessed at every opportunity. Note the condition of their eyes and fur. Eyes should be clear without discharge; coats should be clean. Unkempt fur can be a sign of disease and discharge from eyes could mean upper respiratory infections or a sign of more serious illnesses. If a cat is injured or sick, TNR Community Cat Assistance Form at so we can assess and trap.


Signs of Illness or Injury

If you have been feeding your colony for a while you probably will notice any changes in a cat’s behavior or eating habits. Sudden changes are often an indication something is wrong, other times the problem may be more subtle. Sick cats often experience fever and fatigue, with community cats these signs are often harder to detect. The greatest risk to community cats is injury through predators, cars, accidents or exposure to extreme weather.


Veterinarian care is suggested if:

  • The cat seems to have lost its appetite, is losing weight, suffering from diarrhea and vomiting.

  • The cat appears to have an Upper Respiratory Infection. Symptoms usually include sneezing, runny or itchy eyes and heavy breathing.

  • The cat appears to have skin issues. This can include hair loss, intense scratching, and scabs. A flea infestation can lead to anemia, especially in kittens.

  • The cat is limping or appears to have any open wounds.


If you notice a sick or injured cat the best thing you can do for him, and your colony is to fill out a TNR Community Cat Assistance Form at Trapping the cat as soon as possible will prevent the disease from spreading and infecting other cats in the colony and injuries can be addressed immediately.



    5. Helping Cats and People Co-Exist: What You Can Do


As the caregiver, you are the one who will be “the voice” for the cats. It is important to be open with your neighbors so that they know they can contact you with any complaints or problems. Being open about caregiving can protect the cats. By establishing a friendly dialog neighbors know that they can freely come and chat, make yourself available and provide them with a way to contact you. Additional suggestions on how to address concerns:  Establish a friendly, ongoing discussion; remain calm and constructive; if a neighbor has concerns, determine the specific problem and do your best to resolve it.


Below are some steps that may help you avoid potential questions or concerns altogether:

  • Trap-Neuter-Return.

  • Clean feeding areas and follow feeding protocols.

  • Keep the location of feeding stations and shelters discreet.

  • Provide litter box areas.

  • Use humane deterrents to keep cats away from places they are not wanted.

  • Address poisoning threats.

  • Maintain colony health records, which may include vaccination records and photos.

  • Protect yourself and the cats (type up an agreement with neighbors if there are concerns).



    6. Planning for Substitute Colony Care


Sometimes things come up and it’s important to plan. What if you can no longer care the colony? What happens when you go on vacation? Coming up with a substitute caregiver is very imperative to provide for the colony. Reach out to your community or contact Middleburg Humane Foundation for suggestions on how to resolve either no longer being able to feed or to provide suggestions for a vacation caregiver.



    7. Safety


Although we tend to focus a great deal on the cats, it is equally important that you stay safe while performing your duties as a Colony Caretaker. Some suggestions include:

  • Feed during daylight hours

  • Be aware of your surroundings

  • Do not try to "touch" a sick cat or kitten

  • Do not try to "catch" a sick cat or kitten



**Information and data collected by The Middleburg Humane Foundation (MHF), The Loudoun Community Cat Coalition (LC3) and Alley Cat Allies.