What You Should Know About Your Community's Feral Cats

By Lorie Huston, DVM on Oct. 7, 2013

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-return (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


Lorie Huston, DVM


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