Cats | October 27, 2015

What are feral cats and how can we help them?

Cat

What is a feral cat? A true feral cat is one who was born wild and has had little or no human contact or socialization. Many people also define a feral cat as one who has lost his home and human contact over time and gradually reverted to a more wild state in order to survive. However you define them, feral cats are fearful of people and survive on their own, outdoors. They usually live in colonies of two or more and are unlikely to ever become accustomed to human contact or enjoy living indoors.

The vast majority of feral cats born wild are unadoptable. Sometimes pet cats who have become feral can be rehabilitated under the right circumstances. And if caught early enough, kittens of trapped feral cats can be raised the same as any regular pet cat.

Tracey Bon is a volunteer of 14 years with Katie’s Place Cat Shelter in Maple Ridge, BC. Katie’s Place started out as an extension of a dog rescue group who had some cats which also needed care. As with many such groups, the helping hands of caring volunteers has seen Katie’s Place come into existence and grow immensely over the years. Tracey has seen thousands of feral cats come through their doors.

“It’s important to remember that feral cats need their communities.  If you see a stray cat or two in your neighbourhood and you know they don’t belong to a neighbour, you should report them to an organization like ours. We can help stop the population explosion and save many cats from suffering needlessly.”

Feral cat colonies can be a problem because they add to the pet overpopulation problem. In addition, some of the behaviours of unaltered cats can be disruptive to neighbourhood peace and quiet. For these reasons, sadly many cities will trap and place these cats from colonies in pounds or shelters. Because they are largely not sociable with humans, most of these cats end up being euthanized.

But there is hope. More and more municipalities and rescues like Katie’s Place are implementing TNR programs for feral cat colonies. TNR stands for Trap, Neuter, Return. Cats in feral colonies are trapped in humane traps, then spayed or neutered. They are usually assessed for health and sociability, so kittens and those who show signs of having been socialized previously can be put up for adoption. Those who are healthy but deemed not adoptable are returned to their colony to live out their lives naturally. Usually there is a human caretaker of each colony who feeds them and keeps an eye out for new cats which need to be trapped. The cats can now live out their lives where they are most comfortable without adding to the pet overpopulation problem.

So, why is it that these feral cats in a TNR program are returned to their colony location and not simply removed permanently? Tracey calls it the ‘vacuum effect’.

“It’s unlikely you are going to be able to trap every single cat in a colony at once.  Since favourable conditions obviously exist where the feral colony is situated; adequate food, hiding places, and not too many predators, other feral cats will just move in.”

Also, the other issues associated with unaltered cats, such as fighting, all but disappear when a TNR program is implemented. Programs of this type have been very successful over time in reducing the number of feral cats wandering the streets. For example, the Stanford University campus had 1500 feral cats on campus in 1989. Through the commitment of students, faculty, University staff and community volunteers, a TNR program was implemented and the current number of cats on campus is estimated at 200. Attrition by age and natural causes has reduced the population humanely.

If you know of a feral cat colony, or even just one or two cats who appear to be feral in your neighbourhood, contact your local cat rescue group. Like Katie’s Place, most of them are happy to come and trap the cats, spay or neuter them and return them ‘home’ again. We are so lucky to have groups like this who truly care about the welfare and happiness of stray and feral cats.