How to: Low-stress handling for feral cats
Magical outcomes are possible for feral cats
Using our low-stress approach, we have been able to successfully treat 100% of the feral cats we've trapped with serious or complicated (but treatable) ailments like toxoplasmosis, broken bones, wounds, abscesses, stomatitis, inflammatory polyps, pneumonia, ringworm and much more.
Our techiques allow these remarkable cats to receive treatment similar to any other cat.
Knowing sick and injured ferals can be treated and live happy, healthy lives means euthanasia is no longer the only humane option for these cats!
See our handling techniques in action:
This is an intake exam with a feral cat named Chapel. He's a massive, fierce, muscular boy. Chapel represents the most difficult end of the spectrum, as far as handling goes - 90% of the time, it will be much easier than this.
Create a Towel Sanctuary to reduce stress
Sit on the floor with the cat in the trap in front of you.
Spray Feliway (pheromone spray) on a large towel and weigh the towel.
Place one hand about 1/3 of the way from the top of the towel, then drop the top 1/3 of the towel over to cover it.
Place the towelled hand against the trap door, so the towel is hanging down and completely covering the opening. Slide the trap door slowly up, keeping your towelled hand in place blocking the exit.
With both hands under the towel, slowly reach toward the cat. Keep your hands flat along the top of the trap.
Once your hands have reached the back of the trap, carefully wrap the towel all the way over the cat and tuck the edges underneath.
Assess where the cat's snout is so you can ensure it is completely covered, with the towel tucked all the way under her front legs. If her face is close to the edge and she sees light, she will try to escape.
Once she is securely wrapped, slowly lift the whole bundle and slide out of the trap and into your lap.
More fearful cats might need a moment to settle in your lap.
Maintain gentle pressure surrounding the cat with one hand resting on her head, surrounding the rest of her with your other hand and arms until she quiets.
At this point, you can carefully lift to an exam table, but we prefer to do exams on the floor to keep the cat as calm and secure as possible.
To weigh the cat, place the scale on the floor next to you and weigh the cat while still bundled securely in the towel. Subtract the weight of the towel to get the weight of the cat.
Carefully cut a 2" hole in the towel to give you access to the areas of the cat you need to examine (ears, mouth, eyes, wounds, etc). If you need more access, you can carefully unwrap the towel from the tail end. Do not uncover her face at any point.
Remember to stay focused, breathe and maintain good snout awareness at all times, so her face doesn't find its way to the edge of the towel. Gently bracing her back end with your hand will prevent her from scooting backwards to escape.
Tips & Tricks
- If you're feeling nervous or scared, wear handling gloves to boost your confidence.
- Practice on a friendly cat first, to get a feel for the steps.
- Stay focused, review the steps in your head, breathe and move with confidence when you're ready to begin.
- Gently bracing their back end with your hand will prevent them from scooting backwards to escape.
- If the cat is in a trap that is longer than your arms, use a trap divider to keep the cat within easier reach of the trap door.
- Always maintain good snout awareness (know where their face is at all times). If their face finds its way to the edge of the towel and they can see an escape route, they are likely to make a run for it. This is stressful for cats and humans, so maintaining good snout awareness at all times will help you avoid this.
- If the cat does manage to escape, make yourself small and remain still without making eye contact until the cat settles. Before you move, make a plan in your head for how you can best approach and contain the cat with as little chasing as possible.
Why not just sedate the cat?
- We often can't get vet appointments right away.
We can immediately begin to reduce stress and increase comfort, thanks to intake protocols we've developed with our vet team:
- We almost always manually trigger our traps so we can wait and allow the cat to eat a full meal before triggering the trap mechanism. Ferals will sometimes be too stressed to eat for the first 12-24 hours, and will benefit from coming in with a full belly.
- We administer gabapentin immediately on intake unless we suspect pregnancy. Gabapentin is shown to reduce fear response and stress in feral cats. It takes about two hours to take effect fully, and does not sedate them, but helps them feel more comfortable.
- We clean ears and begin treatment for ear mites, inflammation and infection. Ferals often really appreciate this.
- We vaccinate unless we suspect pregnancy or cat is showing moderate to severe signs of illness.
- We assess the mouth, as the majority of our ferals need dental care.
- We begin deworming and flea treatment.
- If wounds are present, we clean and assess for abscesses and urgency.
- We assess body condition and hydration.
- If she's female, we make sure she isn't lactating because we want to make sure she doesn't have vulnerable kittens left behind.
- If we have immediate concerns, we will consult our vet team via telemedicine to create a treatment and pain management plan, or determine whether an emergency vet visit is recommended.
- Our vets appreciate knowing in advance what concerns we have, and we can't adequately assess concerns without getting a closer look at the cat.
- When treatment is needed beyond the spay/neuter appointment, we need to be able to reliably administer meds in the least stressful way possible. Sedating the cat every time would not be safe or practical.
- Some of our ferals come in with terminal illnesses or conditions which increase risk of standard sedation/anesthesia without an assessment first.
Can the cat breathe???
- Yes. We are careful to use one layer of towel over the face and with holes in the towel there is plenty of air. If you're concerned, you can confirm by putting a towel over your face and seeing if you can still breathe.
This still seems stressful for the cat. Is it really worth it?
- There's no way to eliminate stress for feral cats, but we have witnessed over and over again the remarkable transformation from a feral cat who comes in sick and in pain to a feral cat who is healthy and happy.
- In some cases, the cats decide life with humans isn't so bad after all, and we are able to socialize and adopt them into amazing homes. In other cases, the cats let us know they will be happiest returning to their home in the wild once they're healthy.
- While in our care, we use security cameras and our livestreams to monitor their emotional well-being as well as their physical progress from afar. Fewer visits from humans means less stress, especially in the early days. We are delighted to be able to observe them engaging in "happy cat" behavior like playing, eating, grooming, and interacting with each other when the humans aren't around.
- Thanks to the years we've spent caring for our managed colonies, we have been able to observe how happy they are to return home to their friends and to live their lives on their terms once they are healthy again.
- We also have a long and growing list of ferals who have shredded their feral cards and are absolutely LOVING life in a home with a human family.
- If we were to euthanize these cats because of a treatable illness, we would be robbing them of the best part of their lives.
More examples of feral cats being handled:
Magnolia (injured and possibly pregnant)
Magnolia's intake demonstrates a much more typical feral cat response to an intake exam. This is how it goes for about 80% of ferals. Magnolia was injured when we trapped her, and we didn't know if she was pregnant.
Thankfully, she was not pregnant and was spayed and treated successfully so she could return to her home in the wild.
This is unedited (sorry)... you'll see an example of us communicating with our vet team in real time so we are able to make initial treatment plans, and around 23 minutes in, you'll see how we give oral meds with tuna water before and after.
Hyatt (blind due to toxoplasmosis, severe dental disease)
Hyatt was one of the less-typical ferals who was on the challenging end of the spectrum, and who could blame him? He was blind and sick, and he REALLY wanted to survive.
Having to treat and examine eyes is one of the most threatening things to have to do to a feral cat, and Hyatt was very assertive about wanting to survive. We had to give up to 8 eye drops a day, plus antibiotics and pain meds. While Hyatt clearly did not appreciate being handled for his exam or eye drops, he did engage in rambuntious playtime when the humans weren't around, which helped us to know he was managing pretty well despite the stress of being treated.
After 86 days of treatment, we were able to fully restore his vision and he was thrilled to return to his home in the wild:
Giving meds to Hyatt, who was hiding behind Chapel...
Here's the unedited intake video for Hyatt, with a lot more explanation. This was about as hard as it gets, so it wasn't always smooth or pretty - but that's rescue reality.