Relocating cats — especially as a colony — is an enormous undertaking that can be very stressful for the animals, as well as the people who care for them. Therefore, it should be considered only as a last resort, usually when the cats are in immediate danger. In the vast majority of cases, it’s best to return community cats to the location from which they were trapped.
Many colonies exist and thrive in locations that are less than ideal. The location itself may lack proper cover or shelter, leaving the cats unnecessarily exposed. Or a neighbor may want the cats moved because they’re too close to his property. However, there are effective ways to address these kinds of problems that require less effort and less risk than relocation (see “Solutions to Cat-Related Issues”).
Another major and often overlooked downside to relocating a colony is the risk of a new one moving in. And if the new cats aren’t sterilized, their number could quickly surpass that of the original colony.
Colony dynamics and adoptability
Identifying friendly adults and pulling them out of the colony for adoption might be an option for some of the cats. But it’s important to remember that just because a cat is affectionate toward a caregiver doesn’t mean she’ll respond well to living indoors with unfamiliar people. Colony cats often form strong bonds with one another and being separated can cause them stress.
Kittens under four months of age are ideal candidates for being pulled from the colony and socialized for adoption. The younger the kittens, the better their chances for becoming socialized to people. But even some adolescents are excellent adoption candidates. Local rescue groups can often help find foster homes and adopters for kittens and young cats.
Safe relocation sites
Typically, rural locations are the most popular option for colony relocation because they offer more space and safety for cats than urban settings. On private rural property, the cats are provided with structures that can be used for shelter, such as barns, stables, tack sheds, garages or unused chicken coops. The property owners and caregivers, in turn, receive a group of healthy, vaccinated and spayed or neutered cats who serve as a natural deterrent to pests. Farms, ranches, riding stables and equestrian centers, wineries and similar locations all have the potential to serve as ideal sites for a cat colony.
While urban and suburban sites may not offer the same amount of space and degree of safety that most rural sites do, they do have some advantages. Large predators that pose a threat to the cats are less common in more developed areas and the proximity of these locations allows for easier caregiver screening and transport of the cats. Also, by including them in your search for relocation sites, you can often increase the number of cats you’re able to help, particularly in areas lacking rural properties. Fire stations, police stations, automotive shops and garages, warehouses, flower and produce distributors, garden stores, home improvement stores, feed stores, certain athletic venues and shipping ports are potential sites.
Recruiting and screening caregivers
The best caregivers are often people who are recommended or referred by trusted friends and colleagues. Check with shelter staff, volunteers and other caregivers you know well to see if they have any promising contacts. Placing ads in local papers, posting notices in online communities and hanging flyers in area shops can help, too.
Potential caregivers should be asked if they will commit to providing food, water, shelter and medical care on a daily basis for the cats. People who agree to keep cats on their property must be willing to fulfill these basic needs to ensure the colony’s health and well-being.
You should also establish an agreement with caregivers regarding follow-up contact, letting them know you would like to call and/or visit to check on the cats’ progress for the first few months. Anyone unwilling to comply with this request should not be considered as a potential caregiver for your relocated colony.
If the cats haven’t been neutered or vaccinated, be sure to make arrangements in advance to take the cats directly to a veterinarian after trapping. The cats should undergo a general checkup, be spayed or neutered, and given any necessary vaccinations. Request that dissolvable stitches be used in surgery to avoid a second visit for suture removal.
Transport to the relocation site
Just like pet cats, some colony cats adapt easily to traveling in a vehicle, while others may howl and cry. To reduce stress during transport, cover the bottom of the traps with newspaper or cloth and keep the traps covered. Do not place more than one cat in a trap and make certain there is adequate ventilation. If the trip to the relocation site is lengthy, provide food and water, but make sure you secure the containers properly to avoid spilling. While driving, avoid sounds that are unfamiliar to the cats, such as a blaring radio, and use common sense to make the experience less traumatic. Cats should never be transported in a vehicle’s trunk or in the open bed of a truck.
Once the cats arrive at their new location, it might be necessary to keep some of them caged individually for several days if, for example, they’re still recovering from surgery or they need regular doses of medication.
Most, however, can be housed together in a large enclosed or caged area for two to four weeks while they become familiar with their new environment. They can be released into a closed barn, shed or other large shelter, such as an unused chicken coop or covered dog pen. The idea is to give them enough room to become familiar with their new home without permitting them free access to the outdoors.
Keep in mind that cats can be escape artists, especially when they are stressed. During their acclimation period, make absolutely sure that the cats cannot escape from their enclosure or become injured while trying to do so. Some cats will even try to dig out of an enclosure, so be sure the bottom is secure. In addition, provide smaller shelters within the larger shelter or enclosure to give the cats a safe place to hide while caregivers are feeding and cleaning, and while other humans are in the area.
It’s important for the cats to come to regard this enclosure as their permanent feeding station before they are permitted to roam freely outside. Feed the cats canned food at least once a day, and always at the same time; regular feedings will help them to realize they have a reliable food source. Always have dry food and water available for the cats.
During the cats’ confinement period, the new caregiver must regularly visit the cats to ensure the bonding that is essential for successful relocation. Speaking to the cats, even if they remain hidden, helps them to overcome their fear of humans. After their two-to-four-week confinement period, the cats can be given access to the outdoors. A small opening should be provided so they may come and go whenever they want. After the cats have acclimated to their new surroundings, the enclosure can be removed.
To ease the cats’ transition to the new colony location, bring some materials, such as bedding, food dishes and leaves, from the original colony location. This will provide the cats with some familiar scents. And if possible, have the original caregiver alternate daily feeding duties with the new caregiver for a few weeks, so the cats have an additional sense of continuity.
Your commitment to relocating community cats doesn’t end when they’re delivered to their new home. Build a friendly relationship with the new caregiver by making regular phone calls and visiting, if possible, for the first few months. It’s very important that you’re available to the caregiver, providing him or her with information that might aid the cats in adapting to their new environment.
Since you discussed your desire to maintain contact with the caregiver when you found the new home, your actions will likely be seen as supportive rather than intrusive. And in some instances, the new caregiver will become part of your support network for future community cat relocation projects.