Living on the edge of domestic identity, cats easily revert to a wild, or feral, state. The distinction between stray (lost or abandoned) and feral is often difficult to pin down, but the definition for feral that everyone can agree on is “never socialized with humans.” The notion that cats can “survive on their own” is a myth that results in millions of unsocialized cats breeding in perpetuity. Even the wildest ones rely on humans to survive.
Did you know:
- 98% of unowned cats are fertile.
- Most animal shelters have no choice but to euthanize feral cats brought to their facilities because they are unable to be adopted.
Feral cats live in family groups, or colonies. Females tend to stay close to the colony throughout their lifetimes, while older males will travel far to mate and return to the colony now and then if they survive. With no intervention, the size of the colony will begin to self-limit at around 30 cats in a single habitat through disease and starvation.
Assisting Feral Cats
People who desire an alternative to lethal population control have two choices: Do nothing (which results in the problem rapidly growing worse), or make the best of a difficult situation by having the cats sterilized and providing care. In feral cat lingo, this is referred to as TNR (trap, neuter and return) – the nationally accepted method of humane population control. And, contrary to popular belief, ferals can live long, healthy lives in a managed colony.
Spay and neuter is the only solution to cat overpopulation. Plus, it stabilizes colonies, promotes a healthy environment, and helps reduce negative behavior in cats such as spraying, crying, and fighting. Trapping stray or feral cats, getting them fixed, and releasing them back into their territories will have a pronounced affect on both population and behavior.
If strays can be distinguished from true ferals, they may have an opportunity to be placed in a home. Formerly owned cats may appear feral at first, but if a cat meows, it was probably someone’s pet once and can be resocialized for adoption. Many mothers that are not part of a colony are tame, though their kittens will become feral without human contact by 8 to 10 weeks of age. Determining whether a cat is tame or feral can take time, so sterilization should take priority over uncertainty.
Sterilized ferals are eartipped at the time of surgery which means 1/3 of the left ear is removed. This prevents them from ending up in a trap and being taken to a spay/neuter clinic when the service has already been provided.
Anyone confronted with a feral cat situation should remember the following social guidelines: Unsympathetic neighbors should always be approached with extreme respect and an attitude that conveys helpful intention; and care should be provided without drawing attention to the cats. It’s also helpful to understand and accept that animal welfare and control agencies have limitations in the services they can provide to this population.