What about the growing problem of the vast population of FERAL CATS roaming about?

by Mary Fariss

Feral Cats FAQ


They live in the shadows —the alleyways, empty lots and condemned buildings—of almost every neighborhood. Their lives are short and usually harsh. They struggle to find food and water in an environment filled with the constant threats of disease, starvation, cruelty and predation. They are the abandoned, the lost and the wild—and they need our help.

The number of feral cats in the U.S. is estimated to be in the tens of millions. Sadly, many communities still opt to control populations via outdated methods, including lethal elimination or relocation. Not only are some of these methods horribly cruel, they are also highly ineffective. It’s time to focus on feral cats in the fight to end animal cruelty.

The ASPCA endorses Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as the only proven humane and effective method to manage feral cat colonies. The following information provides background on TNR, online and print resources, and what you can do to get involved in your community.

What Is a Feral Cat?
A cat born and raised in the wild, or who has been abandoned or lost and reverted to wild ways in order to survive, is considered feral. While some feral cats tolerate a bit of human contact, most are too fearful and wild to be handled. Ferals often live in groups, called colonies, and take refuge wherever they can find food—rodents and other small animals and garbage. They will also try to seek out abandoned buildings, deserted cars, even dig holes in the ground to keep warm in winter months and cool during the summer heat.

What Is the Average Lifespan of a Feral Cat?
If a feral cat survives kitten hood, his average lifespan is less than two years if living on his own. If a cat is lucky enough to be in a colony that has a caretaker, he may reach five years.

What’s Life Like for a Feral Cat?
Feral cats must endure weather extremes such as cold and snow, heat and rain. They also face starvation, infection and attacks by other animals. Unfortunately, almost half of the kittens born outdoors die from disease, exposure or parasites before their first year. Feral cats also face eradication by humans—poison, trapping, gassing and steel leg-hold traps are all ways humans, including some animal control and government agencies, try to kill off feral cat populations.

Does Eradication Work?
Eradication, the deliberate and systematic destruction of a feral cat colony, by whatever method, almost always leads to the “vacuum effect”—either new cats flock to the vacated area to exploit whatever food source attracted the original inhabitants, or survivors breed and their descendants are more cautious around threats. Eradication is only a temporary fix.

Why Are There So Many Feral Cats?
Feral females spend most of their lives pregnant or nursing. In seven years, one female cat and her offspring can yield 420,000 cats.

Is There a Difference Between a Stray Cat and a Feral Cat?
Yes. A feral cat is primarily wild-raised or has adapted to feral life, while we define a stray cat as someone’s pet who has become lost or has been abandoned. Stray cats are usually tame and comfortable around people. They will often try to make a home near humans—in car garages, front porches or backyards. Most are completely reliant on humans as a food source and are not yet able to cope with life on the streets.

What Do I Do If I Find a Stray Cat?
Stray cats will usually try to make contact with you, even if they are a bit fearful at first. If you find a stray cat, please take the following actions:

· Check with your neighbors to see if their cat is missing.

· Bring the cat to a shelter or veterinary clinic to be scanned for a microchip.

· Notify all local veterinary hospitals and shelters so they can post the information in their lost-and-found resources.

· Consider fostering the cat rather than bringing her to the shelter—most shelters only hold strays for a few days, often euthanizing them after the mandatory holding period.

· Check classifieds for lost pets and run a “found” ad of your own. Make sure your description is brief so that callers will need to truly identify the cat.

What Is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?
TNR is the method of humanely trapping feral cats, having them spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies and then returning them to their colony to live out their lives. TNR also involves a colony caretaker who provides food, adequate shelter and monitors the cats’ health. TNR has been shown to be the least costly as well as the most efficient and humane way of stabilizing feral cat populations.

How Does TNR Help Feral Cats?
Through TNR, feral cats can live out their lives without adding to the homeless cat population. “It is very important to have all feral cats spayed/neutered, because it is the only 100-percent effective way to prevent unwanted kittens,” says Aimee Hartmann, Director of the ASPCA Mobile Clinic.

“Feral cats are prolific reproducers.”
Furthermore, by stabilizing the population, cats will naturally have more space, shelter and food, and fewer risks of disease. After being spayed or neutered, cats living in colonies tend to gain weight and live healthier lives. Spayed cats are less likely to develop breast cancer and will not be at risk for ovarian or uterine cancer, while neutered males will not get testicular cancer. By neutering male cats, you also reduce the risk of injury and infection, since intact males have a natural instinct to fight with other cats. Spaying also means female cats do not go into heat and therefore they attract less tom cats to the area and reduce fighting. If cats are sterilized and live in a colony that has a caretaker, their life span may reach more than five years.

How Does TNR Benefit the Community?
TNR helps the community by stabilizing the population of the feral colony and, over time, reducing it. At the same time, nuisance behaviors such as spraying, loud noise and fighting are largely eliminated and no more kittens are born. Yet, the benefit of natural rodent control is continued. Jesse Oldham, ASPCA’s Senior Administrative Director for Community Outreach and the founder of Slope Street Cats, an organization dedicated to feral cat welfare, notes, “TNR also helps the community's animal welfare resources by reducing the number of kittens that would end up in their shelters—TNR creates more space for the cats and kittens who come to them from other avenues.”

What Is Relocation and Why Doesn’t it Work?
Many communities have rounded up colonies of feral cats for either euthanasia or to relocate them to another area. This never works. Feral cats are very connected with their territory. They are familiar with the food sources, where to find shelter, resident wildlife, other cats in the area and potential threats to their safety—all things that help them survive. “Relocation of feral cat colonies is difficult to orchestrate and not 100-percent successful even if done correctly. It is also usually impossible to catch all of the cats, and it only takes one male and one female to begin reproducing the colony,” Oldham states. “Even when rounding up is diligently performed and all ferals are removed, new cats will soon move in and set up camp.”

Is Relocation Ever an Option?
Relocation is something to consider only if keeping the cats where they are becomes a threat to their lives. Moving cats to another area is a great risk to their safety unless they are being moved to a protected area and procedures laid out by groups such as Alley Cat Allies are followed. “Relocation is an extremely difficult process. People should chose relocation only if the cats' territory is going to be demolished, there is no adjacent space to shift them to, and if the cats' lives would be at extreme risk to remain where they are,” says Oldham.

How Do I Deal With Difficult Neighbors?
To help your cats be better neighbors to your neighbors, keep in mind that kindness and patience are key. Find out what about the cats is bothering your neighbors and work with them on those specific issues. For example, items such as motion-activated sprinklers, garden rocks and citrus smells will help keep cats away from the people who do not want them digging in their gardens or roaming their property. “It is also important to nicely explain to them that TNR is the most humane and effective way of managing feral cat overpopulation issues. TNR offers a solution that helps both the cats and the human residents, providing first and foremost permanent population control since the cats will no longer be able to reproduce,” says Aimee Hartmann, Director of the ASPCA Mobile Clinic. “Let them know that it also drastically changes the cats' behavior—there will be less odor since they will no longer spray, less roaming, less visibility, and no more yowling or fighting.”

If you need help speaking to your community about TNR, contact your humane society and do some research on effective talking points for promoting TNR. Here are some key points to keep in mind when dealing with difficult neighbors:

· Establish a friendly relationship with people living near a feral cat colony.

· Present information in a reasonable, professional manner and address individual complaints by listening patiently. Always maintain a constructive, problem-solving attitude.

· Explain diplomatically that the cats have lived at the site for a long time and that they have been or will be sterilized, which will cut back on annoying behaviors.

· Explain that if the present colony is removed, the problems will recur with new cats.

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