Cat Feeding Station Best Practices to Avoid Coyotes

Cat feeding stations are commonly used to feed feral cat colonies and outdoor/barn cats.  They are also frequently used to help locate a missing cat.  When searching for a lost cat, the feeding station is often set up with a surveillance camera to verify that the cat is present before setting a humane trap.  

There is a lot of disagreement around the use of cat feeding stations since they can attract other wildlife including predators that may harm cats.  In particular, coyotes are a potential threat to cats in most areas of the US.  Some pet detectives will never or rarely use a feeding station due to the potential risks involved.  However, there are also potential risks to not providing food if the cat cannot be found and caught quickly.

Coyote visits cat feeding station

Coyote visits cat feeding station

When used for feral cats, most Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) sites recommend feeding the cats once a day at a set time, and only leaving the food out for 30 minutes.  Any remaining food and bowls should be picked up to avoid attracting any wildlife.  Unfortunately, this is not practical when using a feeding station for a lost cat.  Many lost cats only come out at night and generally avoid human activity.  It often takes several days and sometimes a week or longer of setting a feeding station before the lost cat appears on camera.

What can be done to reduce coyote activity around a cat feeding station? If you are in a hurry for the answer, skip to "what we can learn from this study."

What We Can Learn from Published Research Studies on Feral Cat Feeding Stations

I was only able to locate a single study on coyotes and cat feeding stations: Confluence and Implications of Cats, Coyotes, and Other Mesopredators at a Feral Cat Feeding Station (Mitchell et al. 2022).

Study Methods

This study focused on a single TNR cat colony in Rhode Island, US.  Over the course of two years, three different feeding methods were employed.  Visits of cats, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks were measured at the feeding station using a wildlife camera.  

Method A: Large quantities of food at ground level.  Between 3-5 lbs of dry food was heaped in a large salad bowl or two "deli" trays.  This method was also what was used prior to the start of the study.  

Method B: Large quantities of food elevated.  An on-demand gravity feeder was secured on top of a one-meter-high table.  Animals had to climb or jump onto the table and then push open a flap at the bottom of the feeder storage bin to access the food.  The feeder was never left empty.  

Method C: Small quantities of food at ground level.  Between 1.25-1.5 lbs of dry food was placed in a bowl on the ground.  

In all cases, food was placed out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 8:00 and 8:30am.  

Study Results

The following animals visited the cat feeding station: cats (64% of visits), raccoons (22%), coyotes (9%), and skunks (5%).  Blue jays, turkeys, mice, squirrels, grey fox, red fox, and opossums were also present but were not measured.  

Boxplot chart of cat and coyote activity at a feral cat feeding station

Boxplot from "Confluence and Implications of Cats, Coyotes and Other Mesopredators at a Feral Cat Feeding Station" (Mitchell et al. 2022)

Overall, cats visited the feeding stations less when coyotes, raccoons and skunks were present.  The most cats and fewest coyotes visited when large amounts of food were placed on an elevated platform.

Method A: When large amounts of food were placed on the ground, cats visited mostly during the day.  Coyotes, raccoons and skunks primarily visited at night.  During this time, 30% of the feral cats disappeared from the feeding station.  

Method B: When large amounts of food were placed on an elevated feeding station, more cats visited at night.  Raccoons also ate from the feeding station.  Coyotes and skunks were not recorded.

Method C: When small amounts of food were placed on the ground, cats visited throughout the day and night.  Cat activity was highest when the food was put out in the morning.  Coyote and raccoon visits were minimal at night, and no skunks appeared.  The food was generally gone before night.

What we can learn from this study

Based on this study, an elevated feeding platform works best if you want to maximize cat activity at the feeding station while minimizing coyote activity.  This also allows you to more safely provide a large quantity of food.  With more food present, some food will be available at all hours.  This increases the chances of getting all cats in the area (and hopefully the lost cat) to make an appearance at the feeding station.

The second best option was only providing small amounts of food on the ground during the day.  This may also reduce coyote activity at the feeding station unless you live in an area where coyotes are frequently active during the day.  However, if this method were used for a lost cat, the food could easily be gone well before the cat shows up (usually in the middle of the night).

Another interesting finding of this study was how long it took before all cats in the area showed up on camera.  With large quantities of food, it took 3-5 days to get an accurate estimate of the number of cats in the area.  In contrast, with small amounts of food, it took 8-11 days.  This is something to take into consideration when you determine how long to leave up a feeding station before concluding that the lost cat is not present.

Study Limitations

Unfortunately, this seems to be the only study on cat feeding stations and interactions with wildlife (at this time).  The study was conducted on a single feeding station in Rhode Island in a suburban area.  Since coyote activity is highly variable throughout the country, this study really needs to be replicated in other areas.  In areas with significant daytime coyote activity, the results might differ.

During the study 40% (8/20) of cats disappeared and most occurred during Method A when large amounts of food were on the ground.  During this time coyote visits were highest (14% of visits).  The researchers conclude that the missing cats were killed by coyotes, but they never found any cat remains.  It certainly is possible that the cats were killed by coyotes, but it is also quite possible that they left for other reasons. 

Using Elevated Platforms for Cat Feeding Stations

The elevated cat feeding station used in the this study was described as "an
“on-demand” gravity feeder secured on top of a one-meter-high table... Animals had to climb or jump on the table and push open a flap at the bottom of the feeder’s storage bin to access dry food. Feeders could hold up to 3.2 kg (7 lb) of food; the feeder was never left empty" (Mitchell et al. 2022).  I have reached out to the authors to try and get a photo or illustration of the elevated feeding station, but haven't heard back at this time.  

For those interested in using an elevated platform, I found the following resources.  These include designs that will limit raccoons, opossums, skunks, and coyotes.  In general, minimal elevation (even 1-2 feet) will usually exclude skunks.  On the other hand, raccoons can climb just about anything, but they aren't great jumpers.

Elevated cat feeding station with skunk

A minimally elevated cat feeding station may exclude skunks but not other wildlife.

When setting up a feeding station for a lost cat, you probably want something more portable.  I sometimes just use a folding table with a box on top to protect the food from the weather.  With a large enough table, a trap can also be set up if needed.  This set-up works to keep skunks out, but usually not raccoons or opossums.  I haven't yet had a coyote show up at an elevated feeding station, so I can't say from personal experience how well this works to exclude coyotes.  If anyone else would like to share their elevated feeding station designs, please email photos to info@lostpetresearch.com.  

Cat feeding station on folding table

Cat feeding station on a folding table. This will avoid skunks but likely not raccoons or opossums.

One concern that I sometimes have with elevated cat feeding stations is whether it might also exclude some cats.  In my experience, not all cats are great jumpers and some cats, in particular old or overweight cats,  might have difficulty reaching the platform.

Other Potential Methods to Protect Cats from Coyotes at a Feeding Station

Below are some additional suggestions, but most have minimal to no research that I am aware of.  However, I am planning to do additional journal research on these topics.

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Use of Coyote Deterrents

There are a lot of coyote deterrents on the market.  Unfortunately, many things that will scare a coyote, like loud noises, flashing lights or spraying water, are also likely to scare off a lost cat.  The methods listed below are some of the less intrusive coyote deterrents, but it is still possible that they would scare away a cat.

Wolf Urine

Some researchers have found that wolf urine works to discourage coyote activity even in areas where wolves are not present (Wauson and Rogers 2021).  In order to be effective, the urine must be applied in a perimeter and reapplied frequently.  This study used dispensers that needed to be re-filled every nine days (despite the online instructions stating every 33 days).  They also recommend applying the urine high enough to simulate a large wolf.  The Predator Pee Store also promotes wolf urine as a feral cat repellent, but I haven't found any research to support its effectiveness.

Predator Deterrent Lights

Nite Guard and Predator Guard are among companies selling predator deterrent lights.  These products have one or two small red lights that flash and supposedly simulate the eyes of a larger predator.  I haven't yet found any studies to support whether they work or not.  There is also the question of whether these would scare a cat if they actually work.  

Last update on 2024-03-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Last update on 2024-03-02 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Fladry

Fladry consists of a line of brightly colored flags hung along a fence or perimeter.  The flags moving in the wind are supposed to scare wolves and other predators from entering livestock pastures.  There is some evidence that this works for wolves (at least for a month or two), but at least one study found that it did not work for coyotes (Davidson-Nelson and Gehring 2010).  As with other tools, there is some concern that fladry might scare a lost cat as well.

Reduce Coyote Access to the Food

If the coyotes cannot access the cat food, they will likely stop visiting the feeding station.  This is what this research study found when they put the cat food on an elevated platform.  Theoretically, this would also work if the food was made inaccessible in other ways such as placed inside or under something where coyotes could not fit.  

Provide Escape Routes for the Cat

Alternatively, the food could be placed on the ground, but near suitable escape routes for the cat.  This could be near a shed or deck that a cat could hide underneath, but a coyote would not fit.  If no natural escape routes are present, one site recommends using 12 inch x 6 foot PVC pipes.  These need to be secured in place so they won't roll.  The cat may need to be encouraged to investigate the pipe with treats or they might not use it in an emergency.

Providing the cat with something to climb is another option.   However, I've seen a number of Youtube videos where cats attempting to climb were pulled down by coyotes.  In general it seems like cats are not able to climb quickly enough.

These methods seem less than ideal, since the coyotes are likely to continue to visit the feeding station if food is readily available.

Future Research

Clearly more research is needed on this topic.  If you use one of these methods or an alternative method to reduce coyote activity around cat feeding stations, please describe it in the comments or email photos to info@lostpetresearch.com.  Future research projects will be posted at LostPetResearch.org.

Literature Researched

Davidson-Nelson, S.J. and T.M. Gehring.  2010.  Testing Fladry as a Nonlethal Management Tool for Wolves and Coyotes in Michigan.  Human-Wildlife Interactions: 4(1): Article 11.  

Mitchell, N.C., M.W. Strohbach, M.N. Sorlien, and S.N. Marshall.  2022.  Confluence and Implications of Cats, Coyotes, and Other Mesopredators at a Feral Cat Feeding Station.  Society & Animals 30: 721-741.

Wauson, M, and W. Rogers.  2021.  A test of gray wolf urine to reduce coyote depredation rates on loggerhead sea turtle nests.  Journal for Nature Conservation 63: article 126050.  Read a full copy of the thesis here

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