Managing Feral Cats

The tabby on the doorstep. The calico hovering around the garbage can. The black howler under the street light. No tag. No owner. No home. Such is the life of the stray or feral cat.

Stray or Feral…What is the Difference?

Ownerless cats may look the same, but there is a difference between stray and feral cats. A feral cat is born and lives in the wild with little or no human contact. According to the Stray Cat Handbook, “A stray cat is a domestic cat that has been abandoned or has ‘strayed’ from home and become lost.” A stray cat may be presently homeless, but was once a pet that lived with humans.

"A feral cat is born and lives in the wild with little or no human contact."

Stray cats learn to live on their own and may adopt feral behaviors as their contact with humans decreases. They may be afraid of humans, but often remember how to renew their trust in people and rekindle their ability to be “pets.” Eventually, many strays overcome their fears and happily revert back to household kitty status.

"A stray cat may be presently homeless but was once a pet that lived with humans."

Feral cats are fiercely independent and survive (but may not thrive) without the help of humans. They avoid people and hide, back away, or flee when they spot humans. If cornered, feral cats may become defensive. They rarely become pet cats.

Status of Feral Cats

There are feral cats living on all continents except for Antarctica. This is a testament to their ability to adapt and survive in challenging environments. Worldwide, there are approximately 100 million feral cats, with 60 million of them residing in the United States. Despite their ability to survive, feral cats have a shorter lifespan than pet cats.

Feral Lifestyle

Food, water, and protection from the elements are valuable commodities in the feral world. Feral cats are skilled hunters who eat small rodents and birds. They scavenge carcasses of animals already dead and scour garbage bins for edible scraps. Water sources may include gutters, puddles, ponds, bird baths, etc. Feral cats often live in groups (colonies) and seek the shelter of alleys, building eaves, trees, caves, or any natural or man-made structure that will provide a cover and windbreak. They may roam in search of food and water, but often lay claim to sleeping quarters by marking their territory. Cats that become more accepting of humans may seek shelter under carports and porches.

Social Problems Associated with Life in the Wild

People living in areas with feral cat populations have a litany of complaints. Feral cats are nocturnal… hunting, socializing, breeding, and fighting at night. Howling cats can interrupt sleep of human neighbors. They use flower pots, flower beds, and vegetable gardens as public litter boxes. Feral cats that seek shelter in urban areas do not always clean up after eating and leave behind animal carcasses on porches and sidewalks.

Finding rodent skeletons may be upsetting enough, but finding bird feathers is even worse. Feral cats hunt birds and are responsible for killing the an estimated 2.4 billion/year in the U.S. and up to 350 million/year in Canada. They also scare birds away from backyard feeders and bird houses which upsets many bird-watching enthusiasts.

Medical Problems Associated with Life in the Wild

Pet cats live longer than stray or feral cats, due to good medical care and proper nutrition. Immunizations protect them against contagious diseases like Feline Leukemia, respiratory infections (bacterial and viral), and rabies. Testing and isolation protocols, along with targeted vaccination, help prevent the spread of FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus). Parasite prevention protects them against heartworms, flea and tick-borne infections, and intestinal parasites. Good hygiene prevents ear mites and fungal infections. Feral and stray cats do not get good medical care and can suffer a wide variety of ailments.

"Lack of immunization, parasite control, adequate nutrition, and hygiene put feral cats at risk of many life-threatening problems."

Lack of immunization, parasite control, adequate nutrition, and hygiene put feral cats at risk of many life-threatening problems. Plus, their lifestyle increases their risk even more. Feral cats live in close quarters that prompt the transmission of contagious disease and parasites. Lack of nutrition suppresses their immune systems, making them more vulnerable to a host of diseases. Random breeding and fighting with other cats expose them to bacterial and viral infections such as FIV. All of these problems shorten the lives of feral cats. They need help.

Managing Feral Cats

Countless programs funded by governmental dollars, grants, or donations are dedicated to managing feral cat populations. Programs may vary, but they all have the same goals: protecting cats, other animals, and people.

"TNR (Trap, Neuter, and Release) programs are the hallmark of controlling feral cat populations."

TNR (Trap, Neuter, and Release) programs are the hallmark of controlling feral cat populations. These programs humanely trap feral cats and partner with veterinarians to spay and neuter them. Many programs vaccinate the cats for rabies and other infectious diseases. Although repeat immunizations are unlikely, some degree of protection is conferred. After surgery and immunization, the cats have one ear “tipped” to indicate that they have been sterilized. This method of identification prevents unnecessary trauma of future capture.

TNR programs are endorsed by the National Animal Control Association and the Humane Society of the United States, and have successfully reduced the population of feral cats. TNR is an ongoing effort. There is no permanent remedy for feral cats. Many local programs facilitate TNR efforts and adopt feral cat colonies. When people intervene and care for a colony, it is called a managed colony. Care may include food, water, and shelter. Some colonies provide frequent veterinary care and work patiently to socialize accepting colony members for eventual adoption. Organized programs dramatically increase the life expectancy of feral cats.

"With early socialization in managed colonies, kittens born to feral cats can be domesticated."

With early socialization in managed colonies, kittens born to feral cats can be domesticated. Learning to live with humans in protected environments increases their lifespan tremendously. Programs that target kittens not only help individual cats survive, but further reduce the feral population by removing kittens from the reproductive pool.

What can you do to help manage feral cats?

1. Financially support volunteer efforts and TNR programs. Call local humane societies and rescue organizations to find out where to donate funds.

2. Stay safe. Remember that feral cats are afraid of people and may lash out in self-defense. Never approach or corner a feral cat. Allow him to come to you. Leave trapping to the professionals. Incorrect trapping can injure you AND the cat.

3. Feed responsibly. If you feed a feral cat, you may be helping one kitty, but contributing to the overall feral cat problem. To avoid inviting feral cats to your house, feed your own pets indoors.

4. Put up a no vacancy sign. Close openings in garages, sheds, and under porches where feral cats may seek shelter. Appeal to their senses. Cats have a very keen sense of smell. Use commercial or natural odor repellants to discourage visits to your garden or flower beds. Place motion activated lights or noise traps (cans of beans, bells) that will deter jumping on cars and fences.

5. Call in the Special Forces. Report feral or stray cats to the authorities that can help them.

It is discouraging to feel that we have to discourage cats. But feral cats can be a problem for people and other cats. Rather than contribute to the problem, there are ways to help manage it. For more information, visit :