Community cats may be vulnerable in emergency situations such as extreme weather and natural disasters. By having a plan in place for sudden emergencies as well as predictable dangers such as frigid winter weather, you will help ensure the safety of your cat colony.
On the plus side, community cats are resourceful and are used to dealing with weather; after all, the outdoors is their home. They often sense when bad weather is coming and take steps to protect themselves if they can. For example, Alley Cat Allies reported that the Boardwalk Cats colony in Atlantic City moved to higher ground as Hurricane Sandy approached in 2012, and all the cats were later accounted for and healthy. The Sandy storm surge submerged the shelters of a marina-based colony in Queens managed by a Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals staffer, but luckily all 15 cats came back a few days later. However, other waterfront cat colonies in the metro area suffered heavy losses during that storm. It is important to assess your colony’s particular situation and take steps both ahead of time and during emergencies to help the cats.
- Maintain a record of the cats in your colony. Alley Cat Allies offers a free tracking system on their website, making it easy to document descriptions and health records of colony cats. The tracking system is available for download in printable PDF or editable Excel spreadsheet formats. Include a photo of each cat — this is especially important if the cats look very similar. If your budget allows, have the cats microchipped, too.
- Provide warm, dry shelter for your colony, especially in winter, though year-round shelter is ideal so the cats can take refuge from heavy rain. You can place purpose-built cat shelters outside or give access to a climate-controlled garage or basement. Outdoor shelters should be elevated off the ground for added protection against flooding or heavy snowfall. See our Community Cat Shelter Designs page for more guidelines and tips.
- Have a caretaking buddy — or better yet, a team of caretakers — you can rely on if you aren’t able to care for the colony. This team approach will yield the double benefit of reducing stress on you and of ensuring continuity of care in case anything happens to one of you. Network with other cat caretakers in your neighborhood or contact local animal welfare organizations to help you find a backup caretaker.
- Keep emergency contact information for you and your backup caretakers, in case any of you aren’t immediately available in an emergency. Each of you should carry the information in your wallet and post it somewhere visible at home, such as on the refrigerator.
- Keep contact information for local shelters and rescue groups in case you need help or resources from them, such as traps.
- Make up an emergency supply kit for your colony. Suggested items to include:
- Pet first aid kit
- Cat colony records, including photos
- 3–7 days’ worth of cat food (be sure to rotate these out of your kit as needed) and dishes (collapsible are good)
- 7-day supply of bottled water
- Humane cat traps
- Blankets or towels
- Heavy gloves
Planning for Harsh Weather
- If a storm surge is predicted, turn the openings of cat shelters and feeding stations away from the direction surge will come from. Move shelters and feeding stations to higher ground if possible.
- If there is no higher ground near the colony, consider trapping and taking the cats inside temporarily, but only if you are not in danger of being evacuated. One Certified TNR Caretaker in NYC started her TNR project a week early so that her colony could wait out Hurricane Sandy in the safety of her living room as they recovered from surgery.
- Take extra steps to protect the most vulnerable cats in your colony. Before Hurricane Sandy, the NYC Feral Cat Initiative advised caretakers to trap pregnant cats, young kittens, and/or elderly cats so they could wait out the storm safely indoors. Do this only if you are either not going to be evacuated or can take the cats with you in the event of evacuation. Friendly cats and young kittens who are trapped may be prepared for adoption.
- In case you have to evacuate, leave a 3–7-day supply of food and water at your feeding station.
- If you do evacuate, bring your emergency supply kit so you can provide food and water as soon as you return.
- Remove or tie down any objects in and near your colony that could become airborne during high winds.
- Add tarps, weights, and other protective gear to outdoor shelters and feeding stations.
When the Danger is Past
- Give the cats fresh food and water.
- As the cats come to eat, do a headcount. If any are missing, don’t panic — cats may hide for several days after severe weather. However, to ensure the cats are not truly missing, you should:
- Contact all aid organizations in the area that are assisting animals and provide descriptions and photos of the missing cats. Ask what the procedure is for claiming the cats if they are found.
- Contact your local shelter and rescue groups with descriptions and photos of the missing cats. We recommend visiting the shelter in person. Ask them how you can claim your cats if they’re being held there.
- Check the feeding station and shelters for damage, and make a note of what needs to be repaired or replaced. Remove any hazardous debris (this is where the heavy gloves in your emergency kit come into play).
In addition to providing warm and dry shelter for the cats, there are several things you can do to protect cats in wintertime.
- Keep antifreeze out of reach of cats and clean up any spills immediately.
- Use pet-friendly snow melting products rather than salt and harsh chemicals.
- Before starting your car, knock on the hood and check between the tires.
- Shovel out cat shelters and feeding stations so cats won’t be snowed in.
- Provide extra food — cats need more calories in cold weather to maintain their energy levels. Wet food (in insulated containers) is best because it’s easier to digest than dry food, leaving more energy for staying warm.
- Provide fresh water daily to prevent dehydration, especially if you are feeding dry food only. To keep water from freezing, try warm water, insulated bowls, air-activated hand warmers under bowls, or, if near an electrical outlet, use heated bowls.
- If there is a friendly cat in your colony, consider putting in an extra effort to find him or her a home. Rescues are often overrun with calls to help stray cats during cold snaps, so be proactive and call on friends, neighbors, and family to help that cat come in from the cold. On the other hand, shelters have few kittens in the winter, so it is often a good time of year to find homes for friendly adult cats.