Colony Management and Caregiver Resources

Caregiver feeding cats from the community feral cat colony

Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.


In the past, trap-neuter-return (TNR) has been largely a caregiver-centered endeavor. Caregivers did much of the trapping and transport (or at least made such arrangements with a local TNR group), and the framework in which TNR was (and wasn’t) conducted (shelter policy, local ordinances, etc.) was premised on the presence of one or more identified caregivers associated with each community cat. In many communities, this is still the case (though, of course, a great deal of TNR activity also also takes place “underground”).

This is changing, though, with the popularity of shelter-based community cat programs (CCPs), many of which (including those operated by Best Friends) routinely return healthy cats to their outdoor homes without first identifying a caregiver.[1] The rationale for this is two-fold:

  1. If a cat is of healthy weight and body condition, then she probably has a reliable food and water source, and sufficient shelter (often provided by one or more residents).
  2. The risks of shelter impoundment generally outweigh (often significantly) those associated with life on the streets.

This in no way diminishes the important role that caregivers play in a successful CCP. Indeed, in some ways this shift in approach more fully honors their tireless efforts in caring for community cats, while also recognizing the fact that many of them are anonymous (and perhaps prefer to remain so). Best Friends staff and volunteers consider each stray cat brought to a shelter to be a “red flag cat,” a signal that a particular resident or neighborhood needs our help.[2] (In fact, we go to great lengths to identify caregivers and locate additional cats in areas where we are returning cats.)

The following information is intended to help caregivers as they strive to provide the best care they can (often under less than ideal circumstances). 

Colony management: best practices

Best practices are important not only for the cats and the people who care for them, but for the community as a whole. Tidy, organized feeding stations, for example, are less likely to lead to complaints from neighbors. And well-managed colonies (i.e., having all, or nearly all, cats sterilized and vaccinated) are important for garnering support from public health agencies and officials.[3]

The following guidelines are considered best practices for colony management. It must be recognized, however, that situations in the field don’t always allow for such guidelines to be followed precisely. Caregivers must therefore exercise their best judgment, always being mindful of the fact that, to the extent they’re able to conform to these guidelines, they increase the likelihood that the cats in their care will remain safe from harm. (This can be a useful reminder when the extra effort involved seems unnecessary or unfair: If you won’t do it for any other reason, then do it for the cats.)

Feeding practices. Neighbors might not be aware of how many of the cats in your care have been spayed or neutered, but they tend to notice the feeding — especially if the feeding site or station is messy. Be mindful of the following:

  • Feed in discreet locations that are unlikely to attract attention.
  • Feed on a regular schedule, as this allows you to be more discreet (since the cats will likely appear only at feeding time) and also to monitor the cats.
  • Distribute only as much food as will be eaten, so as not to attract wildlife. If nocturnal wildlife are eating the food, consider feeding the cats during the day; on the other hand, if the food is attracting birds, consider feeding the cats at night. (Admittedly, it’s tricky knowing just how much food to distribute so that all the cats get enough to eat. Some cats will be waiting for the food while others sit back and wait their turn, or show up only after you’ve left. Again, caregivers must use their best judgment.)
  • Use bowls or plates, rather than placing the food directly on the ground.
  • Clean up uneaten food, bowls, cans and anything else that might be considered trash (and which, if left unattended, might draw attention to the cats).
  • Replace water regularly, using clean bowls.

“What I emphasize most is this: If you feed ‘em, fix ‘em. This is most easily accomplished with a designated feeding time and a limited amount of food — that way, you know exactly which cats you are feeding. And if you’re free-feeding, locate the feeding station in a place where traps can safely be left overnight — this makes the “fix ‘em” part much easier!”

—Jayne Sage, executive director, Street Cat Hub

Revaccination against rabies. All of Best Friends’ CCPs vaccinate program cats against the rabies virus, even though rabies in cats is extremely rare. Considering the minimal costs involved (assuming the vaccines are purchased in bulk from the manufacturer) and the enormous public health benefit, this is a practice every CCP should consider adopting.

Health monitoring. Although it can be challenging to re-trap a sick or injured cat, it’s important that, to the extent possible, caregivers monitor colony cats for health issues (upper respiratory infection, abscesses, wounds, etc.). As mentioned above, it’s much easier to monitor the cats if you feed on a regular schedule. (See “Post-surgery Recovery” for information about monitoring cats immediately following their return.)

Feces and urine accumulation. Consider installing a litter box or sandbox (in as discreet a place as possible) for the cats, and be sure to clean it out regularly. Not only will this practice keep your own yard clean, it will help maintain neighborhood relationships, since the cats will be less likely to urinate and defecate in areas where they aren’t wanted.

Flea management. In some parts of the country, fleas can be a problem for colony cats. And in Texas and Southern California, the fleas can be infected with murine typhus. Although the risk to humans is relatively low, and it’s more likely that infected fleas will be found on rats, caregivers should treat colony cats and their immediate environment for fleas, if necessary.

Shelters. Use shelters to protect cats from extreme weather. (A number of do-it-yourself options can be found online.) Be sure to keep shelters clean and in good condition, and locate them discreetly to avoid drawing attention to the cats. Shelters shouldn’t be placed on property without permission from the property owner.

Colony tracking. Having detailed colony data (original population, current population, number of cats sterilized, kitten births, number of cats pulled, etc.) can be invaluable for demonstrating the effectiveness of TNR. (See “Additional Resources” below for links to examples of colony tracking systems.)

Note: Special care must be taken to ensure that colony and caregiver records are protected, which might mean that they remain the property of a nonprofit organization that is not considered a designee of a government agency.[4] Otherwise, this sensitive information might be made public via public records requests.

Caregiver resources

As TNR grows in popularity, more and more resources are available to caregivers, including the following.

Outreach materials. Many of the same materials developed for a CCP’s community outreach efforts can be of use to caregivers. Targeted door-hanging, for example, can be very effective for locating and connecting with other caregivers in an area (important for sharing best practices, filling in for absences, etc.). An example of a Best Friends door hanger is shown in the appendix. (See “Community Outreach and Engagement” for additional information about this topic.)

Food banks. Some communities have pet food banks, and can provide caregivers with food for their colonies.  

Microchips. Some caregivers are willing to pay to have their colony cats microchipped, if it means that any cat who’s impounded will be returned. Although their benefits are a matter of some debate,[5] microchips can be useful for determining a revaccination schedule.

Guide to key legal issues. Too often, caregivers are cited (or threatened with citations) for feeding cats — either because of poorly written or legally tenuous laws, or because of misunderstandings surrounding the provisions of a local ordinance. Best Friends’ “Key Legal Issues to Consider” provides caregivers (and others interested in the issue) with a cursory look at some of the most common legal issues faced by caregivers.

Conflict resolution. Although TNR and CCPs continue to increase in popularity, we must recognize that some people object to free-roaming cats in their community — and especially on their property. Caregivers, therefore, sometimes find themselves in situations of conflict. Fortunately, Best Friends and others have developed resources designed to help resolve these situations:

See “How to Address Various Complaints” for additional information on this topic. More information of use to caregivers can be found on Best Friends’ community cats page.

Additional resources


The 28 chapters that make up the CCP Handbook fall into three sections, as follows:




[1] One important exception is kittens eight to 12 weeks of age, who are returned only if a caregiver agrees to provide ongoing care and monitor the kittens after they’re returned.

[2] Of the thousands of cats sterilized, vaccinated and returned to their outdoor homes through Best Friends’ CCPs, the majority are found  through community calls and neighborhood canvassing efforts.

[3] It’s also true that some communities have ordinances outlining various requirements for caregivers. Best Friends does not encourage such policies, as they tend to drive caregivers underground, thereby hampering efforts to effectively manage community cats.

[4] The specific factors used to determine whether a nonprofit is subject to public records requests varies state by state.

[5] The safe return of impounded colony cats requires a uniform community policy and practice regarding the scanning of cats, having the correct equipment on hand, having a notification system in place, and more — conditions that are rarely present. In any case, concerns over impounded community cats can generally be addressed by provisions making it clear that healthy ear-tipped cats will be impounded only when doing so is in the best interest of the cat and when a positive outcome is assured.

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