National Feral Cat Day – October 16

The ASPCA considers a “feral” cat one who has been born and raised in the wild or one who was abandoned by its owners and turned to the ways of the outdoors to care for itself. Some may tolerate a bit of human contact, but most are totally unsocialized and will avoid humans out of fear for their safety. They often live in colonies and find food wherever and whenever it is available; garbage, rodents and other small animals become a source of sustenance. Feral cats find abandoned buildings, deserted cars and other out of the way structures to shelter from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter.

My own semi-feral cat, “CB,” lives alone in my backyard. As an older kitten, he was left behind 16 years ago when the neighbors 2 houses down moved away and left him behind. Luckily, they managed to get him his kitten shots and neuter him prior to the abandonment. He started showing up on my back patio around dinnertime every evening and I fed him. CB was so terrified, it took me 3 years of gentle persuasion and regular meals to finally let me pet him.

He is now a senior kitty of good health that chases other strays out of my yard (it IS his territory!) and comes inside for a few hours to sleep on the couch when the weather is cold and/or raining. I take care of flea and heartworm prevention for him and he crawls up into my lap whenever I sit outside to work or read a book.

I figure it’s an even trade.

But what happens to those feral cats that don’t find a home or even an occasional caregiver? The statistics behind the feral cat population in this country are staggering.

Statistics of the US Feral Cat Population

According to recent figures provided by the Solano Feral Cat TNR (Trap, Neuter & Release) Task Force:

  • Feral cats have an average of 1.4 litters per year, with an average 3.5 live births in each litter. That equals 4.9 kittens per year, per female feral cat. Indeed, a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce 420,000 kittens over a seven-year period.
  • Approximately half of the 146 million cats in the US are feral or unowned.
  • In the state of California alone, taxpayers fund more than $50 million annually to animal control agencies and shelters for just cat-related expenses.
  • Seventy thousand kittens and puppies are born daily in the US.
  • Each year, approximately 1.4 million cats, many of them feral, are euthanized in this country.
  • Established TNR programs effectively reduce feral cat populations both long and short term and are more cost-effective than trapping and killing those cats. On the average, altering a cat costs about $50; euthanizing a feral cat costs more than $100.

Spaying/Neutering with TNR

Trap, Neuter and Release programs humanely trap feral cats, have them neutered or spayed, vaccinate them against rabies and other diseases, then return them to their colony to live out their lives with their feline families and companions. TNR programs routinely involve one or more colony caretakers who provide food, water, and adequate shelter and monitor each cat’s health. Besides being cost effective, studies have shown that TNR is the most efficient way to stabilize feral cat populations.

Sterilizing all feral cats is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent unwanted kittens, that later turn into unwanted cats, states, Aimee Christian, ASPCA Vice President of Spay/Neuter Operations. “Feral cats are prolific producers.”

Controlling population growth allows feral colonies more food and shelter and provides fewer risks of deadly diseases, including Feline Leukemia, Feline AIDS and Feline Panleukopenia (feline distemper). After spaying/neutering, colony cats tend to gain weight and live healthier lives.

Neutering of male cats – who normally fight other male cats – reduces the risk of trauma, infections and bite abscesses. Spayed females no longer go into heat, so fewer toms are attracted to the area, leading to a more peaceful coexistence for both genders. Additionally, sterilization reduces the risks of testicular cancers in males and mammary/ovarian cancers and pyometra in females.

TNR cats living in colonies with caretakers often live more than 10 years, far longer than those ferals forced to exist without assistance from humans. Over time, the population of the colony automatically reduces through attrition. Neighborhood nuisance behaviors – spraying, fighting, mating noises – are mostly eliminated and no more kittens are added to the resident adults. Fewer feral kittens means fewer feral cats that end up in shelters. Those resources can use the extra space for more adoptable cats and kittens that come to them from other avenues.

How to Handle One – or Several – Feral Cats

Most experienced TNR programs recommend that you do NOT attempt to tame a feral cat. While a feral cat might look exactly the same as a pet cat, they’re actually very different. Feral cats survive by avoiding close human interaction. When properly cared for, feral cats are happier outdoors in their own territory—they have their own hierarchies and are able to exhibit their natural behaviors. There is very little documented success in adopting a truly feral cat.

My own experience with CB proves that. As loving as he is outdoors, once he’s been inside for a while and had a warm, dry nap and a bit of a nosh, he insists on going out again, even in the coldest weather. His personality changes and he becomes quite anxious, fearful and even aggressive when he is inside too long. As a veterinary professional, I have seen the dangers associated with infectious cat bites and so try to avoid them. I let him out, even though I would prefer he stay in, because it makes him happier and more comfortable.

The one difference in domestication success rates is with feral kittens; the mortality numbers for babies are very high because of all of the challenges living on the street. If you can get them young enough and socialize them to human contact, these kittens are highly adoptable. The Urban Cat League has some tips on trapping, fostering, and socializing these very adoptable babies.

  • Whenever possible, kittens should continue to nurse until four weeks old—this can be done in captivity.
  • Do not let feral kittens run loose—they can hide in tiny spaces and are exceptionally difficult to find and catch.
  • Confine the kittens in a dog crate, cat condo or cage with a small litter box, food, water and something snuggly to cuddle in.
  • Food is the key to socializing. Give the kittens a small amount of wet food by hand at least twice a day—eventually the kittens will associate your presence with food. For those who are more feral, start by offering baby food or wet food on a spoon through the cage.
  • Younger and less feral kittens can be picked up right away. Make a kitty burrito by wrapping a kitten in a towel, allowing her head to stick out.
  • Once the kittens no longer run away from you but instead come toward you seeking to be fed, held and petted, you can confine them to a small room.
  • Be sure to expose the kitten to a variety of people.
  • Do not forget about the mom—spaying her is essential as well.

If you find a stray cat, the ASPCA recommends using the following guidelines:

  • 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.

If you’re interested in volunteering with a TNR program, you can contact your local program for volunteer training opportunities.

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