Feral cats, wild cats, stray cats -- we have many names for the mysterious felines we sometimes see peeking out from under our porch or darting into abandoned buildings. Yet most of them share a single destiny: short, difficult lives.
Fortunately, helping feral or abandoned cats isn’t difficult. WebMD went to the experts in cat health and behavior for tips on how to make a difference in the lives of our feline friends who are living on the edge.
How the Problem of Feral Cats Multiplies
First, what is a feral cat? According to Margaret R. Slater, DVM, PhD, senior director of epidemiology, animal health services with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a feral cat is “any cat who is too poorly socialized to be handled ... and who cannot be placed into a typical pet home.”
According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, there are between 60 million and 100 million feral cats in the U.S. They are usually the offspring of cats who were lost or abandoned by their owners, and they grow up not socialized to humans.
Because a female cat can become pregnant as young as 16 weeks of age and go on to have two or three litters a year, the feral cat population -- and the problems associated with it -- grows and perpetuates. In seven years, a single female cat and their kittens can produce 420,000 more cats.
Wild in the Streets: The Life and Health of Stray and Feral Cats
Feral cats often live in vacant lots, dodge cars, and eat from trash cans; face infection, disease, and an endless cycle of pregnancy; and suffer extremes in treatment and weather. The life of a feral, stray, or abandoned cat is often short, sometimes lasting for just two or three years.
Of course, feral cats also leave issues on the human doorstep -- including noisy fights, odor, urinating to mark territory (also known as "spraying" or "marking"), flea infestations, and the inevitable breeding that creates even more unwanted cats.
Many experts agree that one of the best ways to help feral cats and cat groups -- called colonies -- is through neutering programs.
Trap-Neuter-Return Programs: The Key to Helping Cats
Trap-neuter-return (TNR) endeavors are geared toward reducing the number of unwanted cats by catching and then neutering or spaying them. Also called trap-neuter-spay-return or trap-neuter-vaccinate-return, they are endorsed by both the ASPCA and Humane Society.
According to web site of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, stray and feral cats are “humanely trapped, examined, vaccinated, and surgically sterilized by veterinarians.” Feral cats are then returned to their familiar environment and, hopefully, cared for by volunteers, who may provide food and shelter, and monitor them for sickness.
Proponents say the advantages include:
- Benefits for feral cats. Neutered cats tend to gain weight and have fewer health problems -- such as breast, testicular, and uterine cancer. Spaying also reduces the risks that go along with pregnancy. Fewer females in heat also means fewer toms attracted to an area, and so fewer risky cat fights.
- Benefits for people. Spaying and neutering feral cats offers population control. Behaviors like fighting and marking are also reduced, while benefits such as rodent control continue. Ultimately, less cat suffering also means less human suffering in the face of dying or injured cats.
Not everyone is a fan of TNR. Some fish and wildlife advocates maintain that re-releasing feral cats after neutering simply constitutes re-abandonment and doesn’t permanently address the larger problem.
The Problem With Relocation and Eradication
Some people advocate relocating or “putting down” feral cats instead. Relocation may sound like a humane solution, but it is ultimately ineffective due to the “vacuum effect.” Feral cats gather where there are resources: food, water, and shelter. When an existing colony is relocated (or eradicated), before long a new flock of feral cats will discover the same resources and move in to “fill the vacuum.”
Relocation is unappealing for other reasons. Because cats are very territorial, a relocated cat may try to find its way home, suffering an accident or death on the way. The relocation area may already have an established colony or it may lack food, water, or shelter. Unless a colony’s life is in danger, most experts agree that relocation is almost always a bad solution.
Most people are not willing to support eradication, either. With a TNR effort, “people will give their time, money, and resources,” says Slater, author of Community Approaches to Feral Cats. “But if you’re catching and euthanizing cats, in most cases you just won’t get volunteers to do that.”
She also sees TNR as a teaching tool. “It gets people to think about how we can prevent cats from ending up on the street and how we can manage cat populations.”
Why Feral Cat Adoption Is Not an Option
Many experts agree that feral adult cats simply can’t be tamed. They are wild animals, like raccoons. They tend to stay away from humans, hide during the day, and when adopted, are very difficult to socialize. Just like you would never try to handle a raccoon, you should never try to pick up a feral cat. Call for assistance from the humane society or other animal welfare center.
The ASPCA advocates adopting the many available domestic cats and kittens rather than trying to tame feral cats.
However, feral kittens -- especially those less than 8 weeks old -- often can be socialized. Abandoned and lost cats can also be reintroduced to domestic living.
How can you tell a stray from a feral cat? Lost or abandoned felines are usually comfortable around people and will frequently attempt to live near humans -- under porches, or in garages, sheds, or backyards.
Still, Slater maintains that TNR is the most humane and effective long-term solution. “What we’ve done historically hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” she says. “We need to try something different. We’re not talking about neutering cats and then dumping them. What we’re really talking about is managed colonies, with a human feeding the cats, caring for them, getting them health care, providing them shelter.”
5 Ways You Can Help Stray and Feral Cats
From little to big, there are many ways to help stray and feral cats. Here are some, beginning with one you can do at home:
- Don’t contribute to the problem. “It goes without saying that you should spay and neuter your own cats,” says Linda P. Case, MS, author of Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends. She also suggests keeping your cat indoors -- not only for their safety, but also to prevent them from getting lost and ending up part of a feral colony.
- Don’t feed and forget feral cats. Feeding feral and stray cats is generous, but they need health care as well. If you can’t manage ongoing care, “at the very least, get the cat neutered,” suggests Case.
- Show you care with cash. A little money can go a long way to help a cat. Spay/neuter surgeries may cost as little as $17 for shelters to perform, so a single $20 donation can dramatically change the life of a feral cat. Contact your nearest Humane Society to find out if they’ve got a TNR program; if they don’t, they’ll know who does. You can also donate money to animal welfare groups through an estate or will.
- Volunteer your time. TNR and similar programs are often run by nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteer help. If you can’t aid in a clinical setting, you can be involved at the community level -- contacting local veterinarians and businesses, writing letters, fund-raising, or staffing a booth at a community event.
- Become a colony caretaker. “In a managed colony, cats can live to be 12 to 16 years old,” says Slater. In fact, she adds, studies of 100,000 managed feral cats in TNR programs found that most were in good health. If you think you can provide ongoing shelter, food, or health care to a group of feral cats, contact your local Humane Society, veterinary hospital, or other animal welfare group to find out how to get started. But before you do, understand that committing to care for a colony is a big responsibility. The colony will become dependent on you, just as a domestic cat would be. If you go away or move, it’s vital you find someone else to care for the cats in your absence.
“As part of living in a civilized society, it is our obligation to look after those who are weak, sick, or powerless,” says Slater. “Our responsibility includes our domestic animals, whom we took from the wild and made dependent on us.”