What You Should Know About Your Community's Feral Cats

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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.

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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-release (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.

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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. 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.

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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

"What You Should Know Your Community's Feral Cats" originally appeared on PetMD.com.

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Cade DeBois

Thank you for this. I've worked with feral colonies and one of my current cats was born at one of those colonies (she was removed and socialized as a kitten and is now a very happy, content indoor cat).

I wanted to add a few things here to help people better understand TNR programs:

1. Domesticated cats are social animals and even if not socialized by humans, they will still seek the company of other cats as well as safety and food. This natural behavior gives rise to feral cat "colonies". As the article mentions, simply removing these colonies usually means other cats simply move in to a newly-vacant area that provides these things.

2. TNR helps an established colony transistion from an unstable breeding colony to a stable, non-breeding, vaccinated adult colony. Stability plus spaying/neutering & vaccinating an all-adult population greatly reduces conflict within the colony, reducing the risk of disease and injury as well.

3. TNR is not "abandoning" cats. It identifies established colonies and seeks to stablize them, reduce unwanted kittens and keep them healthy and safe.

4. TNR is about our social responsibility toward a human-made problem involving a domesticated species of animal. We created this problem by our own short-sightedness. Simply euthanizing feral cats has never worked to reduce feral cat numbers nor is it cost- or resource-effective. We must to something about the burden of unwanted cats filling our shelters and pounds. TNR has proven the most effective, most humane way to do this.

5. TNR programs work in tandem with efforts to educated people about their own responsibility as pet owners to prevent more feral cats. Those who manage feral cat colonies do not want to see more free-roaming cats or more unwanted kittens. We want to more responsible pet ownership.

6. In my experience, removing a feral colony can produce false expectations from humans that the cat problem has been "taken care of" and that produces hostility and frustration when a new crop of feral cats move in. This greatly increases the chance of human abuse and violence directed at feral cats (and even pet cats that are allowed to roam). TNR programs seek to educate people on why feral colonies in their human communities need to stabilized, managed and allowed to exist in peace.

7. Well-managed TNR feral colonies do not poise a very big threat to birds and other wildlife. Regular, human-provided food helps curb most adult cats' desire to hunt, and without breeding females who need to feed litter after litter, those that still hunt usually make far less kills. And even with some hunting, TNR feral colonies do not poise anywhere as big as threat to wildlife as climate change, pollution or habitat loss.

8. Whatever misgiving you may feel about feral cats, remember they are only here because we humans domesticated the cat. We chose to bring this animal into our human world. We have an obligation to care for them and to treat them humanely.

October 16 2013 at 12:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David Ramírez

Thanks for your article. In my block I've lately seen some cats, and I've learned from one who was adopted and other one who I took to the Vet myself (since I use to feed them) and once there, he got a home I hope forever.

Anyways, there's one I guess older cat I also feed, and as I see he's been neutralized yet, but lately I've seen he's like sneexing and perhaps he might be sick. Because of this I try not to pet him althought he's sweet and looks for affection, but since I have two cats at home I can't allow the risk to bring them any harm... anyways, this cat looks like his better days are behind, I'm thinking of taking him to the vet in order to check him out about these symptoms, but the real sad part is that because its looks he's hard to be adopted... I don't know what will I do but at leasty I'll try to get him healed. Sorry for taking your time.

October 16 2013 at 10:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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