Homeless Cats & Urban Residents: A Q&A With the Homeless Cat Management Team

Last month, we launched a cat food drive to support homeless caretakers in partnership with the Homeless Cat Management Team and CARMAA to support the good folks who are taking care of homeless cats. In that spirit, I reached out to one of the “cat ladies” who has been instrumental in educating me.

Last year we published this very frequently read post Pittsburgh Wildlife Strategy & Urban Residents: Q&A with Scrap the Trap so I created some of the same type questions to be a general resource for anyone concerned about cats.

There is a finite amount of space on this Earth.  We need to accept ways to live with and support community cats and wildlife who are here to stay.  We can repair our homes and patch holes so squirrels don’t find their way into attics, we can secure chimney caps to ensure birds and squirrels don’t get stuck, we can plant gardens with fences that won’t attract groundhogs or rabbits, we can use humane deterrents to keep community cats away from areas where they should not go, and we can keep garbage and recycling secured to deter racoons and opossums.  We can find harmony.

And please try to donate something to our cat food drive if you can. 

Your name:  Tara Czekaj

Your pronouns:  She/her

Your affiliation(s):  Volunteer at Homeless Cat Management Team, Pittsburgh CAT, Merlin’s Safe Haven Cat Rescue, BeFreePGH, former Congressional District Leader (PA-14) Humane Society of the United States

We live in Manchester, an urban neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s Northside. Along with the humans, there is a variety of wildlife that also call Manchester home, everything from raccoons to possum to groundhogs. Some people say this is normal, others do not want to share their backyard with wildlife. Do you think this is normal? I think this is perfectly normal.  Anywhere there is earth and sky and air there will be some form of flora and fauna with which to coexist.  The key is finding ways to live with wildlife. Some folks support wildlife with birdfeeders, bird baths, heated water bowls in the winter.  Some folks want nothing to do with a groundhog or racoon walking through their yards. For the latter, it’s important to know humane ways to deter wildlife from your property – things like putting fencing around gardens, putting lids on garbage cans, removing clutter from property are good ways to deter wildlife from residential properties.

Then there are cats. Is it fair to call them part of the urban wildlife? I don’t think cats should be considered wildlife.  Cats are domestic animals who have been failed by humans leading to their existence in an outdoor environment.

Can you please define terms like “feral” versus “homeless” or “outside kitties?” Alley Cat Allies has really good information on feral and stray/homeless cats.  It’s important to note that feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats.

  • Stray/homeless cats have been socialized to people at some point in their lives, but lost their domestic homes, as well as most human contact and dependence.
  • Feral cats are not socialized to people. While they are socialized to their colony members and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.
  • Most organizations and municipalities define strays and feral cats at community or working cats.
  • Some pet owners allow their cats to be indoor/outdoor cats.  I disagree with this because of all the dangers outdoor life can pose to a socialized indoor pet.  Just some of the outdoor dangers for indoor cats include disease, parasites, cars, animal abusers, loose dogs and wild animals, toxins, and poisons.  If you love your cat, keep him inside.

Is there solid data on how many are feral and how many have homes, but live outside? There are no completely accurate counts of ferals or strays, but most national humane organizations like the Humane Society of the United States puts the number of outdoor cats (ferals and strays) living in the United States at over 50 million.  The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are over 86 million owned felines in the United States.

What value do the homeless cats bring to our lives in the City? When volunteers, neighbors, and communities employ TNR to control homeless and feral cat populations there are indeed benefits.  TNR stands for Trap-Neuter-Release and it is the longstanding accepted method to humanely control homeless cat populations. When cat colonies are managed through TNR and have dedicated feeders and caretakers, benefits include:

  • Pesticide-free pet control (According to Alley Cat Allies, cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are utilizing community cats for a chemical and pesticide-free solution to pest infestations.)
  • Increases caretaker compassion and sense of community involvement and purpose
  • Prevents other (unsterilized and unvaccinated) cats from moving into the area
  • Saves tax dollars (most trap/euthanize programs are run through governmental agencies and funded by tax dollars, whereas TNR program are generally run through nonprofit agencies and through personal caretaker funding.)

Some people are concerned about cats getting into trash cans/recycling, others want to keep them out of their gardens. Others still simply are afraid of wildlife – I hear lot of people firmly announce that they saw a rabid cat among other concerns.  Are these the types of concerns cat advocates hear? How do you respond When we hear concerns like this arise, it is generally a matter of education and outreach.  When residents have concerns of cats getting into garbage/recycling, we educate residents to ensure their garbage/recycling items are securely stored in a garbage/recycling can with a lock fitting lid to deter all animals away.

We offer suggestions to deter animals away from gardens and mulch beds with things like fencing, SSSCAT motion airspray, scat mats, and Shake-A-Way.

Rabies concerns can be addressed with TNR and proper colony care.  During the TNR process, all cats receive a rabies vaccination. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 34 human cases of rabies have been reported since 2003.  There has not been a single confirmed case of cat-to-human rabies in the U.S. in the past 40 years. In fact, only two human rabies cases have been attributed to cats since 1960.

Regarding fear, if a resident is simply fearful of cats or wildlife, we encourage them avoid contact with wildlife, where possible.

From a big picture perspective, what are effective strategies to manage the population of homeless and feral cats? For example, publicly funding Trap, Spay/Neuter, and Release programs. Statistically, TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) is the most humane and widely accepted method to humanely control homeless cat populations.  International Cat Care has an amazing short video on what TNR is, why it is important, and how to start TNR in your own backyard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCe46nrdJOc

When a cat is TNRed, they received an “eartip.”  If you see an eartipped cat in your neighborhood, most often it is best to leave the cat alone.  The eartip generally signifies that the cat has been sterilized, vaccinated, dewormed, flea treated and has a caregiver/feeder.  An eartipped cat looks like the below:

Pittsburgh Cat Food Drive

On an individual level, how can an urban resident reduce the likelihood of cats finding their property attractive? Cats love places to hide and places to stay warm.  Keeping properties clear of clutter can reduce the amount of animals who may choose to call your yard home.  Also, doing things like covering basement window wells, putting caps on chimneys, and removing food and water sources from yards can make the environment less attractive to animals looking for places to overnight.  Deterrents such as fencing, SSSCAT motion airspray, scat mats, and Shake-A-Way may also help deter animals from making your yard their home.

Is it a good idea to feed stray cats in your neighborhood? What should you take into consideration? Are there online resources? Many residents choose to create feeding stations on their property for community cats.  Feeding is one of a caretaker’s most important jobs for outdoor colonies – but don’t forget, it’s not enough to just feed – you MUST also TNR these animals to properly steward a community cat.  Some things to consider if you want to become a colony caretaker:

  • Before you even start feeding, talk to your neighbors.  Be a good neighbor, and ask them if they are okay with you feeding colony cats.  In my experience, 99.9% of neighbors are absolutely okay with this. In fact, I partnered with my neighbors in good faith before I became a colony caretaker and both of my neighbors even offered to put shelters on their property!  Good human neighbor partnerships become good cat neighbors!
  • Once you start feeding, you must never stop until your colony naturally diminishes.  Community cats depend on their caretakers for food and water consistency.
  • Consider placing shelters on your property for community cats.  Chances are, if they are coming to your house to eat, they have nowhere else to go.  Providing a simple shelter can extend lives, and save lives in the winter season. A great video tutorial for how to build a simple winter cat shelter from Cole and Marmalade can be found here.  Remember to keep your shelters clean and to change out the straw every year.
  • Purchase food that you can comfortably provide and try not to fret over quality brands.  Most of the lesser expensive brands still provide basic nutritional needs. Wet is better than dry, but something is better than nothing.  Community cats are grateful for full bellies. Chewy, Costco, and Tractor Supply offers great bulk foods at a good value.
  • When setting up your feeding station, understand that feeding under a covered structure is best to keep cats out of the weather while eating, keeping food dry, and is hidden from passerbys.  Simple stations can be placed on back porches, under decks, or caretakers may even use a plastic tote with a cutout in the absence of a structural covering.
  • Make sure to keep your feeding station clean by tidying up spilled food and ensuring bowls are always kept clean.
  • Conscientious caretakers always bring food in at night to prevent drawing wildlife like racoons to their property (and this helps to keep neighbors happy.)
  • In the winter, purchase a heated water bowl (if you have an electric supply) to ensure your colony always has access to water in the winter.


Don’t forget about our cat food drive to benefit the Homeless Cat management Team.

We set up a dog house filled with straw as bedding for homeless cats last year. We also regularly put out dry food and fresh water daily.  It just felt like a humane thing to do for animals trying to survive in the winter. But we spent a lot of money that we hadn’t budgeted for. Are there resources to help people who want to help homeless cats? There are some limited resources for food.  Animal Friends, Humane Animal Rescue, and Animal Lifeline all offer pet food pantries.  Animal Friends often offers free straw for feral cat shelters every fall and winter as shelter straw should be changed every year.

How do the community Trap, Spay/Neuter, and Release programs actually work? It’s extremely important to know that all TNR programs in Pittsburgh are staffed by volunteers.  If you contact a spay/neuter TNR organization, it may take a bit before you get a response as all of these volunteers have full time jobs, children, pets, colonies of their own, etc.  That being said, most of these organizations are resident empowering education organizations that provide residents with access to resources, teach residents how to trap, and provide guidance and tips along the way.  If you want to start TNRing in your community, here are some items you will want to consider purchasing:

  • A humane live trap.  Tomahawk live traps or Havahart live traps are the most common traps used by volunteers and caretakers.
  • Bait.  Most volunteers and caretakers use “bait” like tuna, rotisserie chicken, or mackerel to bait the traps
  • Towels.  When a cat is trapped, immediately cover the trap with a towel to calm the cat down.
  • Zip ties.  Secure trap doors with zip ties once a cat is trapped.  Some feral cats are strong enough to push through the trap doors.  You never want to be in an enclosed space (like a car) with a feral who escaped a trap!
  • Pee pads.  When transporting a cat in a trap to a sterilization surgery, always place the cat in a secure position in your vehicle on a pee pad.  Some cats have accidents from stress during transport.
    Some other trapping tips are:

Getting colony cats on a feeding schedule can help you trap a cat in less time than it may take to trap a cat that is not on a feeding schedule.  Limiting food the day before trapping may ensure cats are hungry enough to enter the traps. Join support groups like the Pittsburgh Feral Cat Movement Facebook page to get more tips from peers and other volunteers and colony caretakers.

Ensure your surgical provider scans all cats you take for spay/neuter for a microchip, just in case the cat you trapped may be a lost cat. Follow all discharge instructions provided by the TNR surgical provider for each trapped cat.
Never give up!  If you don’t get cats on your first attempt, try again!

Some local low-cost TNR surgical providers are:

  • Animal Friends
  • Humane Animal Rescue
  • Frankie’s Friends
  • Spay & Neuter Clinic – Allison Park
  • Spay & Neuter Clinic – Penn Hills
  • Homeless Cat Management Team
  • Fix Ur Cat
  • Fix Ur Pet

If you are a resident of the City of Pittsburgh you get 5 free (FREE!) spay/neuter surgeries – just for being a City of Pittsburgh resident!  You can download your application for your free surgeries at the program site here: http://pittsburghpa.gov/publicsafety/animal-control/spay-neuter.html

NOTE:  Never, ever, ever, ever leave a trap unattended.  When trapping, traps must be monitored at all times.  Never stick your fingers in a trap after trapping a feral cat.  Never try to handle a feral cat outside of the trap. If you should ever be scratched or bitten, seek medical help from medical emergency professionals immediately.

According to state law, if Animal Care & Control traps a ‘rabies vector species’ on my property (or lends me a trap to do it), they MUST euthanize it, correct? There’s not a farm somewhere where they take the cats or a shelter that takes them in. They take them to be euthanized. Are cats a rabies vector species or do different laws apply? There is no magic feral farm where trapped feral cats can go.  Many shelters and animal care facilities will indeed euthanize a trapped feral cat.  This is precisely why TNR is the most accepted and humane method to manage community cat populations.

Trapping and euthanizing feral cats does nothing to control community cat populations.  Removing community cats from a territory merely opens that area up for the vacuum effect.  When an area is void of community cats, but resources are still present, an influx of new community cats will occur.  Trapping and euthanizing policies have proved to be a solid waste of taxpayer resources because of the vacuum effect.

Let’s talk about outside cats that have homes. We have several neighbors who firmly believe their cats are happy living outside in spite of the traffic and other dangers. To be fair, we have neighbors who let their dogs run off leash. What’s the truth about cats living outside, even part-time? It’s extremely dangerous for pet cats to live outside, even part-time.  Just some of the outdoor dangers for indoor cats include disease, weather, parasites, cars, animal abusers, loose dogs and wild animals, toxins, and poisons.  Press upon your neighbors that if they truly love their cat, their cat should be kept inside.

Ideally, what would you like to see Animal Care & Control do to care and control the cat population in Pittsburgh? Truly, the homeless pet population issues in Pittsburgh cannot be tackled by just one organization.  Animal Care & Control is doing an amazing job coordinating the free spay/neuter program for the City of Pittsburgh.  TNR tools and resources are readily available for citizens to own community issues and implement solutions for community cats.  These cats are homeless because they have been failed by humans over and over again, we can do better – and now we have the resources to do so.

It must be said too that City of Pittsburgh Animal Care & Control only facilitates services for the City of Pittsburgh.  In the suburbs and more rural areas of Pittsburgh, Animal Control agencies will often contract with multiple municipalities – some as many as 40 municipalities.  It is unreasonable to expect one organization to manage community cat populations in such a large area.

These animals have always been here, long before highways and houses and cars and any human resident. They seem willing to adapt to sharing the space. Why are humans so adverse to sharing our spaces? I’m not sure why humans can be resistant to share space with community cats – or wildlife.  It really does boggle my mind how a homeowner can value a hosta over the life of a deer, or a patio chair over the life of a feral cat, or a tomato plant over the life of a groundhog.  I can’t reconcile that. Animals can be territorial, and at the core of our DNA humans are mammals, so I suppose humans can be territorial too.

There is a finite amount of space on this Earth.  We need to accept ways to live with and support community cats and wildlife who are here to stay.  We can repair our homes and patch holes so squirrels don’t find their way into attics, we can secure chimney caps to ensure birds and squirrels don’t get stuck, we can plant gardens with fences that won’t attract groundhogs or rabbits, we can use humane deterrents to keep community cats away from areas where they should not go, and we can keep garbage and recycling secured to deter racoons and opossums.  We can find harmony.

Please list organizations that can support urban residents confronted with feral or homeless cat challenges.

There are some terrific organizations who can offer tools and resources to help manage community cat populations:

Alley Cat Allies
Homeless Cat Management Team
Humane Animal Rescue
Animal Friends

How do we support these organizations in turn? Non-profits that support feral cats are in desperate need of donations.  Monetary and in-kind donations are accepted. The Homeless Cat Management Team helps to distribute pet food donations to colony caretakers in need too!

What about the person who just doesn’t care about wildlife and has no qualms about trapping them, or about the fate of orphaned offspring, etc.? How do you reach that person? We may not be able to change every person’s mind 100% of the time – and we need to accept that.  If a resident won’t listen to logic and facts or emotional pleas, there may not be an argument that can convert said resident.  This is why it is so important to arm ourselves with the tools to help these animals ourselves. If you see a homeless cat that is not eartipped, do something.  It may be a lost cat, it may be stray cat, it may be a feral cat – take action to trap that cat, have it scanned for a microchip, get it sterilized and vaccinated, and come up with a plan for care after TNR.  We can all do it, but we need to support each other through the process.

Please list any links (website/social media) you would like to share. I highly suggest anyone interested in learning more to peruse the Alley Cat Allies website.  If you want to get started TNRing or become a community cat caretaker, join the Pittsburgh Feral Cat Movement FB group to start making a difference today!

Donate right now to help homeless cats with our Cat Food Drive!


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