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Feral Cats and Wildlife – Are the Cats as Bad as ‘They’ Say?

By Bernard Lima-Chavez    September 05, 2016 / (10) comments

Feral cats are frequently maligned; by neighbors, local communities, bird enthusiasts, and even some ecological groups. Some communities even go so far as to ban feeding programs or, worse yet, euthanize feral cats.


A common argument against feral cats is that they prey on local wildlife, significantly reducing the population of at-risk species, perhaps to the point of near or full extinction. Though this is a legitimate concern in some very specific situations, this risk is nearly always limited to areas with unique geographical features, such as water-bound islands and otherwise insulated areas where prey species cannot adapt, relocate, or migrate.


The honest truth is that these criteria do not apply to the vast majority of communities and neighborhoods in the United States. Knowing this, it is, in my opinion, easy to see the reactionary opposition to feral cats as often hyperbolic and based on a limited understanding of the complexity of the issue.


Feral cats, as defined by the ASPCA, are “free-roaming domestic cats who were never socialized by humans or have lived outdoors for so long that they have reverted back to a wild state.” These are cats that have been born into the wild, that are lost family pets, that have been dumped outside by their previous owners, or that have been irresponsibly transported from one neighborhood to another. These cats live outdoors, hunt for food, or subsist on the efforts of well-meaning humans who offer them food and clean water sources.


Feral cats, despite formal or ad hoc feeding programs, are hardy, self-sufficient creatures and hunting is an important way they provide food for themselves. Lizards, birds, rodents, and other small mammals are frequently their prey of choice—and this is not always a bad thing. Many times, feral cats can function as a natural population control mechanism, preventing some prey species from growing in numbers beyond what the local environment can support.


A thriving local ecology is a matter of the delicate balance of many factors. When the population of any one species grows too large—whether that species is birds, rodents, small mammals, or even feral cats—that balance is lost and the local ecology can be disrupted.


Because feral cats do not accept human touch, they are typically not candidates for shelters or life with humans inside a home. It is important to note that the stress of being captive in a shelter environment can cause extreme psychological stress to these cats, which has a direct correlation with deteriorating health. And because these cats are unlikely to thrive in a shelter environment, they are therefore unlikely to be adopted.


Unadoptable feral cats are euthanized in open-admit shelters, or they are resigned to living in a cage for the rest of their lives if the shelter or rescue does not euthanize (i.e., no-kill shelter).


The problems of growing feral cat populations and the potential undesired impact on other local species, as well as solutions to address these concerns, are not either/or propositions. Community cats exist and thrive due to irresponsible human behavior, such as setting a cat loose outside when moving, or improper colony management that does not incorporate spay/neuter initiatives.


For me, the solution is multi-pronged; it must be flexible and will require creative problem solving skills.


First, pet parents need to be better educated about the reasons not to release a family pet into the outdoors; this is a fundamental first step.


Second, shelters and rescues need to coordinate together and develop or increase transport programs for healthy, adoptable cats to other areas of the country where pet overpopulation is not as prevalent, thereby creating more space in local shelters or recues to accept more pet cats that must be surrendered.


Third, responsible colony management practices need to be implemented, which should at a minimum include assessing how may cats can be successfully cared for, safe and effective trapping techniques, implementation of spay/neuter programs, ear tipping of surgically altered cats to recapture for TNR, testing for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FLV), and basic vaccinations, especially for rabies.


Finally, in areas where feral cat populations are too high or where geographic features place at-risk prey species in greater danger, these cats may need to be humanely trapped, spayed/neutered, tested and vaccinated, and then released into more appropriate areas or communities that do not have populations of small that are at risk. This method for cat population control is called Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR for short.


The issue of community cats is complex and is too often guided by strong emotions, no matter one’s perspective. We can best serve the needs of both feral cats and local wildlife by viewing the issue both objectively and as a whole. When that happens, we are best able to develop more effective and responsible solutions—for the cats and for the local wildlife.




What You Should Know About Your Community's Feral Cats


Understanding and Caring for Feral Cats


Controlling Feral Cat Populations


On Moving and Relocating Outdoor and Feral Cats: A Quick and Dirty How-to Guide


Fur Flies as U.S. Gets to Grips with Feral Cats


Comments  10

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  • Adoption DOES work
    09/09/2016 06:57am

    I have spent the greater part of three decades living with ferals that were believed beyond the point of socialization. Success can be achieved if you let the cat move at its own pace (one only took a week - and we KNOW this cat was born outside because it had been followed) while another took three years to accept human touch. You cannot force the cat; most ferals learn to accept humans by watching rehabbed ferals interact with humans. You never know what the turning point will be in the cat's mind. One, after a week, just came up and started licking me. The one that took three years finally interacted after a friend bought me some catnip bubbles. She was having great fun jumping and popping them. When I finally stopped playing, she jumped up on the couch next to me - totally new behavior. I held my breath and this skittish baby slowly put her paw out and patted me on the leg as if to say, "More bubbles please." You cannot believe the joy that brings. If people were willing to let the cats be who they are, welcome them into their home without expectation, they will eventually turn around. Some will always be more skittish than others but some become great lap cats giving you head bumps, licks, accepting belly rubs and all kinds of interactive behaviors. I am tired of shelters killing cats just because they are scared. Feral cats are not mean - just scared. I wish more people would give them a chance.

  • 09/15/2016 11:58am

    I have been feeding a couple of feral cats for many years now-a mom and her son- and I've gotten the son to play with a catnip bag I drag around the yard while tied to an old fishing pole. So he's semi-feral at this point. Progress can be made but you just never know what will happen. Good for you for trying so hard.

  • Incredibly Irresponsible
    09/15/2016 12:43pm

    First of all, TNR is an abject failure because it was never meant to be a solution, just a way of avoiding euthanasia. TNR was started 50 years ago in the UK and in that time their feral cat populations has doubled. TNR is NOT a population control mechanism, it's simply a way for cat hoarders to keep cats out of shelters. Wildlife pays the price in blood, communities are exposed to disease and the cats pay the ultimate price via inhumane attrition. Which means getting run over by a car, shot, poisoned, eaten by coyotes or decimated by disease and parasites.

    The only difference in destroying cats immediately and humanely instead of trapping, sterilizing, then releasing them to an inhumane death and forcing them to fight-to-the-death for survival; is that money isn't going into Becky Robinson's Alley-Cat-All-Lies pocket, or an HSUS or SPCA board-member's pocket, veterinarian's pocket, cat-food company CEO's pocket, or a drug-company CEO's pocket. And that's the ONLY difference! Support yet another organization that exploits and perpetuates the suffering of animals for their own personal financial gain, then try to sleep well at night.

    Feral cats are invasive, disease-ridden vermin that inflict destruction on any natural system where they're introduced and allowed to proliferate. Why?

    (1) There are few—or no—‘natural' predator controls to suppress feral cat numbers to environmentally-sustainable levels, either because no apex predators had evolved (e.g. New Zealand), or because humans have exterminated them (e.g. most of North America), in areas where cats have subsequently been introduced
    (2) Domestic cats are vectors of pathogens like Toxoplasma gondii that kill non-resistant species, including the few native mammals and birds that prey on them. While reptiles are immune, there are few that are large enough to prey on cats, and those that do consume less than 10% of a comparably-sized endothermic ("warm-blooded") predator. And they only kill when they're hungry.
    (3) They're voracious predators of a huge variety of native species, particularly in regions where no native cats evolved and naturally-occurring species are therefore ill-adapted for avoiding predation by them
    (4) They reproduce very rapidly—a single female producing 4-12 kittens annually. Multiply by about 16 million, as there is a 2:1 male-to-female ratio in reproductive age feral cats, and the ASPCA estimates their current population at 47 million.
    (5) They're DOMESTIC ANIMALS—urban, suburban and rural populations are subsidized by human feeding, which also allows them to attain numbers far exceeding environmental carrying capacity for ANY natural predator.
    (6) Even under 'natural' conditions, cats kill when they're not hungry—they are as addicted to thrill-killing as doddering spinsters in curlers and bathrobes are to hoarding them. That's how we bred them.

    Unsocialized feral cats are no one's companion. They are no different from feral hogs, burmese pythons, nutria, zebra mussels, or asian carp. Do you advocate TNR for those animals also? What's the difference? Aren't they cute enough?

  • 09/15/2016 04:17pm

    Thank you for taking time to contradict the assertions in this article. I love cats, but as as a biologist know that feral cat colonies (and all outdoor cats, for that matter) are an invasive species wreaking havoc on wildlife that evolved for millions of years without the predation pressure of a small cat. I acknowledge Mr. Lima-Chavez's compassion for animals, but completely disagree with his opinion. Outdoor domestic cats are from a science standpoint no different from starlings, house sparrows, feral pythons, tree-of-heaven, or the invasive insects that attack our native trees. They are contributing the the destruction of the natural ecosystem wherever they live, not just in fragile areas. If the TSR folks would change to Trap, Neuter, Adoption to INDOOR homes, they would then be making a difference. As of now, they are perpetuating the problem.

  • 09/17/2016 03:15am

    Unfortunately, you've contradicted yourself here - you say TNR is a failure but then go on to say one of the reasons it fails is because the cats reproduce so rapidly. Obviously, if TNR is done the cats will not be reproducing any more which eliminates a large portion of the problem.

  • 09/17/2016 02:50am

    The article keeps saying TNR stands for trap-neuter-release, which is false. The commenters who say TNR is a failure do not correct this HUGE error. TNR stands for trap-neuter-RETURN, as in "return" the cats to where they were trapped (after spay/neuter, vaccination and recovery), because that is their habitat and where their family members are located, and that is where they know how to survive. The author and the commenters apparently confuse TNR with catch-and-release, which is a cruel practice of some fishermen who think it is appropriate to use sharp hooks on fish that they are going to put back into the water. TNR means trap-neuter-RETURN, period. Got it?

  • 09/19/2016 01:47pm

    That is correct, and here is the problem with TNR. In order for TNR to be the least bit effective and halt, not reduce, just halt population growth in a colony you need to spay between 75% and 85% of the colony members. When researching over 100 of the most "successful" TNR programs worldwide, JUST ONE trapped more than 0.4%. Oregon's 50,000 TNR'ed cats (the highest rate I found) is 4.9% of all ferals in their state. Yet, by applying population growth calculus on the unsterilized 95.1% they will have trapped only 0.35% of all cats in their state sometime this year. Less than 0.4% is a far cry from the required 75%-85% to be the least bit effective. It's like throwing a bucket of water on a towering inferno. A few colony reductions here and there does NOT equate to reduction at the population level.

    TNR can neither eliminate feral cats, nor reduce predation, and does not address illness or disease, facts supported by actual scientific study.

  • Where are your statistics
    09/15/2016 03:09pm

    I am a cat person. I am a bird person. I didn't read in your treatise anything about how ferals are a possible benefit to the environment. From experience, our neighborhood cats have routed out bunnies, rats, snakes, mice, which is good from the standpoint of disease when we are talking about rodents; and gardening, when referencing rabbits. I feed birds and am able to provide bird habitat; I also see the killed birds. We no longer have turtles, frogs, anything, in part due to cats, in part due to destruction of habitat by unstopping development with disregard for green space. National Parks have a growing and real problem in the unwanted cats that are being dumped in the Parks, usually in the park periphery, and where they thrive on killing native species, significantly. I'm sure you can find this information easily as well. Another scourge related to pets in general is pet food packaging, which is inefficient, as is the pet and vet industry. I never set out to get even one cat, but a hoarder ended up sneaking her cats to my property, so now I have cats. I do have friends in feral colony care. Cats are little miracles, but there are two sides to this.

  • So, how do they help?
    09/15/2016 04:22pm

    The author fails to mention how Feral cats supposedly "help" the environment. With exception of the following blurb "Lizards, birds, rodents, and other small mammals are frequently their prey of choice—and this is not always a bad thing. Many times, feral cats can function as a natural population control mechanism, preventing some prey species from growing in numbers beyond what the local environment can support."

    This immediately tells me Mr. Chavez has little or no understanding of ecological systems. Cats killingl rodents is not necessarily a good thing. Cats compete with owls, haws, weasels and other important native predators that aren't subsidized by people and that need these creatures to survive.

    That "mouse" deposited on your front stoop might well be a least shrew, a star-nosed mole or some other rare and ecologically important species. In some places, cat predation is frustrating efforts to save federally endangered species, such as the piping plover, the California gnatcatcher and the Florida beach mouse.

    Cats have their own biology, ecology, and ethnology, and their behaviors directly impact the biome. There are 60-70 million feral cats in the North America. Feral cats draw their sustenance almost entirely from wildlife that they catch and kill. A cat will eat as often as possible, and must eat several times a week (at least) to survive. These are facts, undisputed by both sides. One shouldn’t need to use statistics or years-long research to see how quickly the numbers of dead prey add up.

    The removal and eradication of harmful invasive species has become an important part of most conservation plans, and is actually supported by federal, state, and local law. These laws mandate the protection of native wildlife, and as such require the active elimination or control of alien species. Laws currently exist that allow specifically for the control, prevention, and elimination of feral cat colonies, while protecting pet cats and their owners.

  • This article inaccurate
    09/16/2016 09:34am

    Clearly the author has never lived indoors with a large group of feral cats. It is inaccurate to say that ferals cannot live happily indoors with, say, 20 or so other cats, both feral and socialized. Spayed/neutered ferals are not "stressed" by living indoors any more than any other cat is stressed by living indoors. When it is raining or cold outside, the ferals lie by the window and seem particularly to enjoy being indoors. And when let out of the house accidentally, most clearly want to rejoin their buddies inside and hang around until they get back indoors. Ferals are as entertaining as other cats to watch, and whether they want to be petted is really irrelevant if you enjoy watching cats interact. They are quite pleasant to have around, just as any other cat is pleasant to have around. Most cats are occasionally amusing, and the social interactions of fairly large group of ferals and tames are quite hysterical to watch.