When one of the stray cats has a health problem, it takes cunning and tuna to fix it.

LAST month, I saw that one of the stray cats in the back lane had sandy ears, and my heart sank.

Target and Guido, who live with me, lead lives of unparalleled luxury that princes would envy but the strays who live in the back lane, nicknamed The Kitchen Cats, are less fortunate.

We feed the strays twice a day, supply them with fresh water, and do our best to provide basic medical care. Putting down food and water is easy enough but everything else is a struggle.

The main problem is that these cats don’t trust us. There’s one black girl who will allow me to touch her; in fact, she always asks for an ear squizzle before she eats but the rest of the cats range from shy to feral.

We don’t mind that these kitties are stand-offish, in fact, we recognise it as a necessary trait. It’s amazing how cruel people can be and we don’t want these cats to lose their survivor edge. However, sometimes it makes life very difficult. For example, we wanted to spay and neuter them all, but we’ve only been able to do the ones we’ve been able to collar.

Luckily, we’ve managed to neuter most of them so we seldom have kittens. Strays lead brutal lives and kittens are fragile; sadly, those who are born, tend not to survive. It’s not perfect but we accept that there are some things we can’t control.

As for the rest of their medical care, it’s a bit of a hit and miss. Not only can we not catch some of them but there are several pure black cats, and several ginger cats who are indistinguishable from one another. There’s also the possibility that one of our other neighbours, and we’re talking some 80 households, may also be helping the Kitchen Cats. As a double dose of medication can be as or even more dangerous than none at all, we have to think and rethink all our actions.

Like when we put worming pills in the food, we hope that: (a) they all get the proper amount for their weight, and (b) that one of our neighbours doesn’t dose them in the same week.

As every health issue presents a dreadful dilemma, you’ll see why my heart sank when I saw that kitty and his sandy ears.

I fed the Kitchen Cats and spotted two others with sandy ears. Oddly enough, it was the three gingers; worryingly, they’re all feral.

I suspected ear mites but I wasn’t certain. There are other conditions that look similar. Normally, I go talk to a vet but it was a holiday weekend. I therefore trawled the Net, spoke to some rescuers and then I did something that I wasn’t certain would work but that couldn’t harm them: I dosed them with Frontline Combo.

The ear mites have vanished and our Kitchen Cats are handsome again.

As I can’t touch the ferals, I developed a cunning plan. I delayed breakfast by two hours so that the cats would be nice and hungry, and then put out a plate of tuna. It’s crumbly stuff so the kitties can’t do a snatch and run. It also smells delicious and even the ferals find it irresistible.

So I put out that plate, sat by the door, and waited. The black girl and shy cats came in and ate but ironically, the sick feral kitties looked on and hung back.

I waited patiently, and eventually the smell of the tuna was too overpowering: one darted in, took a bit, and darted out again. I didn’t move, so he did it again. This made the others brave, and they came in. I held my breath, and when all the boys were at the plate, gorging, my arm snaked out and I dropped the stuff between their shoulder-blades. The thing took less than five seconds.

The three boys looked up and gave a united, concerted hiss of disapproval before scampering away. They stood at a distance, telling me I was a fiend, evil and wicked beyond belief. I didn’t care; I just shut the door, leaving them to the rest of the tuna, and hoped it would work.

Frontline Combo does treat ear mites but I had applied it incorrectly (see sidebar) so after 10 days or so, they were flea-free but their ears were getting worse. The sandy bits had turned to a raw red bubble-wrap type of texture. It was painful to even look at.

By this time, the holidays were over and I was able to source proper vet advice. It’s very difficult to give advice when you can’t even see the patient, and not everyone will do it, but as I’ve trawled in with enough waifs and strays over the years, and at times even just photos taken with a long-distance lens, my vets had a think and told me that of all the available systems, Advocate was my best bet. At the worst, they said, it can’t hurt.

As it turned out, Advocate is also a serum you drop into the back of the neck, so I found myself sitting behind the door again, waiting for the cats to fall for another tuna trap. It wasn’t easy, but greed topped caution so a few hours later, there were three damp-necked Kitchen Cats cursing me up and down again.

This time, the results were miraculous. Within a couple of days, their ears were healing; within a week, they were clear. Today, you wouldn’t know that the three boys were ever infected. They are handsome, fluffy and gorgeous. They are tigers, shining sleekly in the sun.

And are they grateful? Not one little bit! At mealtimes they hang back, giving me the evil eyes and hissing.

I don’t care. Just looking at them makes my heart sing.

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