Understanding and Caring for Feral Cats

By PetMD Editorial on Aug. 14, 2012
Understanding and Caring for Feral Cats

By Christine Michaels

Chances are that you will come across stray and feral cats in your lifetime. These outdoor animals are often misunderstood. Whether you spot them in your backyard, around your office park, or while traveling abroad, misconceptions still prevail worldwide about stray and feral cat. Learning the facts can help overturn the myths and stop the overpopulation and mistreatment of homeless cats.

What is a Feral Cat?

A feral cat is typically born in the wild or outdoors with little to no human interaction. If you attempt to get too close or try to pet them, feral cats view your hand as a claw that will harm them and will hiss and/or run away. Feral cats are born from other ferals or from stray cats. What is the difference between the two? Well, a stray cat was once a pet cat, until it was either lost or was abandoned by its owner. While they struggle to survive in their new outdoor environment, some strays become fearful of people, even adopting feral behaviors after a period of time, depending on their surroundings. However, most stray cats remember that humans feed them and try to stay near homes, carports, and other areas where people concentrate.

When a regular caretaker notices a stray cat that is friendly, it is recommended to take the cat to a veterinarian to scan for a possible microchip. In lucky instances, the stray cat and its owner are happily reunited.

Anyone Can Become a Caretaker for Stray Cats- How to Care For and Feed Feral and Stray Cats

Feral cats have a rough life and live, on average, two years on their own. With regular care, which includes reliable shelter and daily feedings similar to the care of barnyard cats, they can live as long as ten years. If you decide to become a caretaker, an important lesson is to never forcefully grab an outdoor cat or make a sudden movement towards it. These cats are fearful of people and tend to run away as strangers approach them. Let the feral or stray cat come closer to you on his/her terms.

Through daily feedings, in time they will let you know if it's acceptable to touch them. Another helpful hint: If you do decide to become a caretaker, squat or sit on the ground so you're at their level when you regularly feed them. This approach indicates to the feral or stray cat that you are not threatening.

How Wild is Wild?

In my work with feral cats, I learned that there are varying degrees of "wildness." Most of the feral cats will not allow me to touch them, but I can come within millimeters to dispense their food. One cat, Lion King, after three years of feeding him, gradually came closer to the feeding bowl; he now rubs against my legs. Recently, I was able to start petting him, but only when he's facing away from me. If Lion King turns to face me while I am stroking his gold fur, he hisses in displeasure. Pretty Boy and Tabitha allow me to pet them, but nervously jump out of my arms when I attempt to pick them up. The lesson learned: respect their limits.


Raging Hormones Lead to Unwanted Behavior

One recurring statement I hear is that feral cats are a nuisance. The fighting and yowling from protecting their territory or mating is obnoxiously loud. An immediate remedy is to have them spayed/neutered. You can reach out to local nonprofit groups for assistance which will humanely trap the cats and get them spayed/neutered. Trapping feral cats should be left to the professionals and incorrect trapping can result in injuries to both you and the cat. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have all pet cats spayed and neutered, including indoor cats. You never know when one will escape or get lost.

The Universal Sign of a Sterilized Cat

If you decide to become a caretaker of a feral cat colony, it's extremely important to ensure they are all spayed and neutered. During the sterilization surgery, the cats are administered a rabies vaccination, and they are also "tipped," which means that the tip of one ear is surgically removed while the cat is still under anesthesia. Ear-tipping is a universal sign that a feral or stray cat is sterilized, another term for spayed/neutered. This prevents the trauma (an expense) of re-trapping and unnecessary surgery.

History has taught us that overturning misconceptions and prejudices takes time and education. One way to begin the conversation is to abandon the word "feral" and refer to them as "free-roaming" or "community" cats. This removes the stigma associated with "feral" or "wild" cats.

No one likes to be misunderstood, including outdoor cats. It's up to us to share the facts and keep educating the world.

Image: Lee Ming Hui / via Flickr

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