An issue that doesn't get much attention in the feral cat world is what to do with feral cats as they age. There is necessarily a focus on getting the word out about TNR and getting the community to accept it as the only reasonable solution to the feral cat problem, but not much is heard about what happens after that.
We TNR'd several cats who live in our back yard over two years ago. While their ages vary, the undisputed king of them all is Mugsy, a bulldog-like orange tabby tomcat. Unlike dogs, it seems that cats choose their alphas not by strength or aggression, but by charisma. The other cats love Mugsy, following him around, trying to get in as many head-butts as possible and generally staying near him at all times.
Mugsy is definitely charismatic, with a gentle curiosity and humble demeanor that has made him alpha cat to us humans as well. But when he was fixed the vets determined he was around 4-5 years old; now he may be as old as 7. That's elderly for a feral cat. Some studies state ferals live only 2-3 years (although there are so many factors involved it's hard to prove this). As time went on, we worried more and more about his health. He always had had a noticeable head-tilt, usually a sign of ear mites or infection, and recently he had stopped grooming himself , his fur congealing into huge mats. He looked like a dusty orange armadillo. So we made the decision to trap him and take him to the vet.
We were very lucky to trap him, as most TNR cats learn a healthy fear of the trap. But he is a sucker for cheap mackerel cat food, so we had him in about a half-hour. I dropped him off at the vet's, as they would have to sedate him to give him his checkup. As I found out later, they actually had no problem handling him, although he did need to be sedated for some of the procedures.
When I returned to pick him up, I got the list:
- 3 rotten teeth pulled
- Vaccinations given
- Blood drawn
- Mats shaved
- Bath and nail trim
- Polyp removed from ear canal, cauterized
The last thing answered the ongoing head-tilt issue, and I suspected some of his teeth would have to go (he had already lost some on his own). His preliminary tests have been reassuring, not disease or thyroid issues. The prognosis is positive. But there's just one catch: he needs 10 days of medicine.
I had hoped the vet would have a way to deal with medication in such a way I could release him back to his territory, but among other things, he would need ear drops twice a day. I really want him to be 100% before we let him go, so we set up the big dog crate we have in a spare room and moved in Mugsy.
He absolutely hates the cage. He has been pretty good about taking his medicine; I crush his pills up and hide it in canned food, it's only the ear drops that have been problematic. As he gets stronger, he is getting feistier, swatting at my hand and hissing and flinching like he's getting electrocuted. I may have to get our the heavy rubber gloves to administer later rounds of meds.
The unforeseen hurdle has been the litter box. This is a cat who has never seen a litter box in his life. I took dirt from the yard and sprinkled it over a tray of Tidy Cats to see if he would understand. After one day in the cage he used the litter box, but only for urine. He was eating like a hog, so I was waiting for the rest of it. But he wouldn't poop.
This could be very serious, very fast. Not defecating could result in bowel impaction, and could indicate intestinal cancer. I was very worried at this point and decided if he hadn't gone by morning I would take him back to the vet. I took a litter pan out to the yard and filled the whole thing with dirt, hoping this would make more sense to him. Then something else occurred to us.
While most of the other cats will use pretty much any part of the yard as their litter box, we have never seen Mugsy in action, so to speak. He always goes completely out of the yard, as though he's somehow more civilized than the others. So we began thinking that the cage made for too close quarters between living space and bathroom. So we made the decision to open his cage, move the litter boxes to the far wall of the room and hope he would figure it out.
With this morning came success! He pooped in the dirt-filled litter box, getting dirt all over the floor.Small price to pay to know all his functions are working normally. Now the only problem is he has more room to evade me and his ear drops. This morning it was like a cat rodeo as he dashed from one corner to the next. But this is all promising; he's getting his mojo back!
When we talk about TNR and feral cats, we don't usually think about this logical outcome of the work: feral cats living longer and longer. While it's probably unrealistic for most feral colony managers to bring cats again and again to the vet's. But it's clear that it was very necessary to have Mugsy fixed up, he was probably in some amount of pain and now we hope he will be healthy for a good long while. Unfortunately for us, Mugsy will probably keep his distance from us for a long time after we release him, despite of all treats and new bedding materials we have just bought. Oh well, he is a feral cat after all.
Nowadays there are automated litter boxes available in the market which saves more time and makes the cleaning process of the pet owners manageable. Click for more information here.