While you may have heard the term "feral" used interchangeably with "stray" or "outdoor" cats, it's not an accurate comparison. So then what is a feral cat, exactly? Feral cats are defined by a unique set of characteristics; they are considered wild and in many cases, cannot be content living indoors. For this reason, they usually live outdoors for their whole lives, which can lead to controversy.
Feral cats are the wild offspring of domestic cats that have never had human contact. They usually show extreme fear when they are near humans and must be treated with extreme care by experienced handlers. Feral cats are most content when they live as part of a colony of other feral cats and can avoid most human contact.
What Is a Feral Cat?
Feral cats are defined as the wild offspring of domestic cats. Usually this happens when pet cats wind up living on the streets and give birth to kittens who never have human contact. After enough time without socialization and human contact, these cats become less domesticated and fearful of humans.
Feral cats are a specific kind of stray due to these factors, and they usually show signs of extreme fear when they are near humans. In order to perform any kind of handling with them, they need to be humanely trapped and sedated because they cannot be safely handled otherwise. They often become aggressive, frozen with fear, and/or present an extreme escape risk when they are handled. They must be treated with extreme care by experienced handlers.
Other cats may be considered strays when they are found on the street or without a home, however, if they previously lived in a home, or were socialized to humans as kittens, they are more likely to respond to human attention and can live in a home again, even if it takes time for them to readjust and build confidence. A stray that approaches you on the street, allows you to pet them, or purrs and coos for attention is not feral.
How to Support Feral Cats
Since feral cats are considered wild, they do not transfer to living indoors easily. In fact, any kind of handling or close interactions with humans can be extremely stressful for feral cats. This can lead to both physical and emotional problems when feral cats are forced to live in captivity. Feral cats are most content when they live as part of a colony of other feral cats and can avoid most human contact. Often colonies will form near garbage dumps or livestock barns where they can have a steady supply of food as well as places to hide and escape the cold, rain, and extreme heat. There are a few things humans can do to help their local feral cat colony, including trap, neuter, release programs and providing food, water, and shelter.
Trap, Neuter, Release Programs
Animal shelters and rescue groups can be tremendously helpful and often offer programs to provide basic healthcare and sterilization to feral cats through programs known as trap, neuter, release (TNR). These programs are designed to help humanely trap feral cats so that they can be spayed and neutered and then released back into their colony. This helps to control the feral cat population while also allowing them to go back to their colony and live out their lives.
Cats who are trapped through TNR programs may also receive basic vaccinations and/or deworming while they are sedated. This helps to stop contagious diseases from taking hold in the community. They are also ear-tipped, which means while they are sedated the tip of their ear is surgically clipped so they can be easily identified as cats who have already been spayed or neutered. This prevents them from being unnecessarily trapped and sedated again in the future.
Create Outdoor Shelter
Another way to support a feral cat colony is by providing shelters in the form of outdoor cat boxes. There are many on the market that you can purchase, including some that can be heated. You can also find many creative instructions on how to build your own cat shelters. The most important features are that they are waterproof, provide some escape from the elements, and that they have a large enough opening for the cats to easily crawl in and out of the boxes.
Provide Food and Water
Some people also provide food and water to feral cat colonies. This can be somewhat controversial as neighbors may resent having the colony in their area and worry about the mess and odors from food and/or cat waste. If you do get involved in feeding a colony, try to set up the food in a secluded area away from other people’s yards or homes, and consult with local feral cat organizations on the best ways to support that specific colony.
Controversies Surrounding Feral Cats
Many people have strong opinions about feral cats and how to treat them. There is not always a clear answer as there are many perspectives to consider.
Risk to Wildlife
One area of concern is that feral cats, as well as any stray or outdoor cats, pose a risk to wildlife and other animals. Cats are excellent hunters and when they have the opportunity, they will hunt and kill small rodents and birds, including domestic chickens. Community members who are avid birders, or who keep chickens or other small animals in their yards, tend to not want cats around. This is also a consideration in protecting endangered wildlife. Cats don’t use discretion in what they hunt and a large feral colony can take a big toll on the local wildlife. It is estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill billions of birds and mammals every year in the United States.
For this reason, many people do not welcome feral cat colonies and there have been cases of people taking matters into their own hands to kill feral cats in order to remove them from an area.
Another controversy with feral cats is that they can be reservoirs for certain diseases that can infect other wildlife and/or domestic pets. For example, because feral cats often live in large groups and get into physical fights with one another, they can transmit feline viruses such as feline leukemia (FelV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) within the colony. If someone’s pet cat gets loose outdoors and comes into contact with a feral cat carrying one of these viruses, they could be at risk for getting the virus, too. The same could be true for other viruses such as rabies, which can infect other species as well.
There is often no straightforward way to address all of these concerns and also consider the welfare of feral cat populations. Many times, a multi-pronged approach is used to tackle these challenges including TNR programs with vaccinations, finding appropriate spaces for feral colonies, and/or removing feral cats from areas where wildlife are in danger.
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Alley Cat Allies. Addressing Violent Threats Against Cats. 2022.
Roebling, et al. Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, Release Programs. Zoonoses Public Health, Vol. 61, no. 4, 2013, pp 290-296. doi:10.1111/zph.12070