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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.


Whether you call them feral cats, community cats, stray cats, free-roaming cats, or some other name, these cat populations are a growing problem in many locales. To build awareness in the general public and establish a safe place for these cats, October 16, 2013, has been declared National Feral Cat Day.


Let’s talk a little about these feral cat populations, because there are a lot of misconceptions about their lives and their existence.


It’s important to realize that there are many differences between these feral cats and the pet cat that shares your home. Though it is entirely possible and desirable to capture and socialize kittens from these colonies for placement in homes, it is not easy to deal with the adult cats in the same manner.


When placed in a shelter or rescue environment, these adult cats are all too often euthanized as unadoptable. They don’t interact well with people and don’t adjust well to indoor life as a pet cat. As a result, capturing and rehoming all of them is not a viable option. Capturing and killing them is also not, in my opinion, an acceptable solution.


These feral cat populations, however, do need to be managed. Without proper management, the influx of homeless kittens to shelters and rescues simply continues, leading to higher risk for disease in these facilities, particularly during specific times of the year when breeding activity increases.  Trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs do work to control these populations.


Opponents to TNR frequently claim that the life a feral cat is cruel and inhumane. They claim that these cats are disease-ridden and die young. They also claim these cats have weak immune systems that leave them susceptible to infectious diseases. Further, there is a wide-spread belief that shelters play a large role in returning lost cats to their owners. There is very little truth to these claims in the case of well-managed TNR colonies.


Here are some statistics presented by Dr. Neils Petersen in his presentation entitled What You Should Know About Cats at the 2013 American Animal Hospital Association conference.


  • 30% of cats adopted from shelters will become free-roaming.
  • The survival rate of community cats located in urban areas is 90% per year.
  • Only 2% of cats placed in shelters are actually reunited with their owners.
  • 66% of lost cats are found because they return home on their own. Only 7% are found via a call or a visit to a shelter.
  • Lost cats are 3 times more likely to be returned to their home via non-shelter means (such as a neighbor locating the cat and returning it) than via a shelter.
  • When asked what should be done about free-roaming cats, the majority of people (81%) say they favor leaving the cats alone. Only 14% are in favor of trapping and killing these cats.


Another argument often offered by opponents of TNR programs is that these cats catch and kill native animals and birds. While this is true to some extent, it should be noted that there are many other factors involved in the decline of native species, including the loss of their native habitat to urbanization (i.e., human intrusion). These factors play a much larger role in the decrease of numbers of native bird and animal species than does predation by cats. It is also worth mentioning that these feral populations also prey on rodents. If these cats are removed from the community, an increase in rodent activity can be expected.


What happens when a well-managed TNR colony is removed from a given location? A vacuum is created and other cats quickly move into the area. These cats, unlike the members of a TNR colony, will not be vaccinated and will likely be reproductively active, producing kittens that quickly causes a swell in the population of cats.


How dangerous are the members of a TNR colony to the general public? While there is some risk of zoonotic disease, the risk to the public is minimal. These cats are shy. Though they may form a bond of trust with the caretaker(s) that regularly feed and care for them, they will typically actively avoid contact with other people if at all possible. As a cat lover, you should leave these cats alone if you are not one of their caretakers. Do not attempt to corner, trap, or otherwise interact with them. Teach your children to treat them in the same fashion.


Now that you know a bit more about feral cats, perhaps you’d like to investigate further, or perhaps even to find a way to help. Visit the National Feral Cat Day website to find out more about getting involved or about events taking place in your community.



Dr. Lorie Huston


Image: Thinkstock

Comments  16

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  • Ack!
    10/07/2013 06:01pm

    "30% of cats adopted from shelters will become free-roaming."

    While I was aware of some of the statistics in this post, I was not aware of this one. Ack!

    Are there any statistics as to whether these kitties were abandoned by their humans or if they were allowed to be indoor/outdoor kitties and just never went back home?

  • 10/08/2013 07:02am

    This comment has been flagged as inappropriate.

  • 10/15/2014 10:50am

    You are misinformed. Vaccinated animals are rarely infected or transmit disease.

  • 04/03/2015 05:01pm

    Where did you cut and paste that from? Because you certainly did not come up with it all on your own.

    You are extremely uneducated on the subject.

  • 10/08/2013 07:06am

    This comment has been flagged as inappropriate.

  • 10/14/2014 03:37pm

    You're a sick little fvcker, aren't you… the true vermin on this planet is man (more specifically people like you) - 7 billion and spreading like a plague. I hope Ebola visits you soon.

  • 10/15/2014 10:51am

    What should be done about the invasive wild horses in the southweat?

  • 10/15/2014 10:55am

    You are just a cat hater and not a population biologist. Cats are territorial and TNR strategies reduce feral cat populations by allowing sterile cats to maintain territories and preventing fertile cats from establishing themselves in those territories and reproducing. Removing cats from a territory simply creates an ecological vacuum that will be refilled with more fertile cats reproducing out of control.

  • 04/03/2015 05:02pm

    Thank you for publicly admitting to being an animal abuser and murderer.

  • 04/03/2015 05:06pm

    I say let's rid the world of a$$ holes like you. Every last one of you.

  • 10/08/2013 07:15am

    This comment has been flagged as inappropriate.

  • 04/03/2015 05:08pm

    [b]Lots of words from you - no substance. I bet you live in a trailer park with no job and have nothing to do all day. So you kill defenseless animals to feel like a big man. [/b]

  • Disagree with Article
    10/14/2014 09:17am

    I have trapped and socialized numerous adult feral cats (and kittens well over six months old) - have four adults in my house right now - one is resistant and still in process but showing signs of becoming tame - taking him a little longer than most - he's been with me a little over two months. Two went to a local shelter and got a home together in 2012 only three weeks after entering the shelter. One of those cats socialized in one week and became a lap cat, the other in two months. I have a 7 year old adult cat who was feral for five years and now is a lap cat and the most mild-mannered, well-behaved cat in my house. These myths that you can't make a house cat out of a feral cat are just not true. One totally feral cat was adopted by a lady who has had her now for almost six years - the cat sleeps on her bed with her. So….. these so-called experts on feral cats are the feral cats' worst enemies. They dissuade people from taking a chance to give a feral cat a chance to live a better and safer life. You just have to know what to do - and they don't.

  • 10/14/2014 11:48am

    You are right that some feral adults can be worked with an viable as pets. You may not realize it but at least some TNR groups do try to socialize adults as well as kittens. For those that cannot be socialized though, TNR is far better than letting the populations explode.

  • Thank you
    10/14/2014 11:45am

    Thank you for this article. TNR is so important to helping these cats!

  • Feral Cats Where I Live
    10/14/2014 05:26pm

    There are a few feral cats that have taken up at the mobile home park where I have lived for 2 & 1/2 years. I used to feed a couple of them but they moved up the hill where they hang around and people feed them. People move away occasionally but someone always feeds them. They come out and meow to me sometimes and I pet them, they are very tame and look healthy. I guess they are the lucky ones.

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