Feral cats have been the focus of a controversial debate for at least the last decade. Already this year they’ve found themselves the focus of the federal court, while bird and cat advocates in New York battle over their shared use of Jones Beach State Park. Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, if you’re a cat owner, it’s important that you know the truth about feral cats and how to keep your cat safe.
How many feral cats are there?
It’s difficult to estimate the number of feral cats in the United States. In 2014 Peta reported that there are between 60 and 100 million feral cats in the country, however this estimate leaves a large amount of room for error. Feral cats tend to be wary of humans and it’s difficult to establish from sight whether a cat is owned, feral or a stray – making the counting process difficult.
Feral cats are also quick to reproduce. Cats are typically pregnant for only 9 weeks and they often produce big litters. One cat could have multiple pregnancies in a year, which is all the more likely for an unneutered feral cat. Therefore it’s hard to keep tabs on the exact size of the population.
We do know, however, that the feral cat population can be linked to humans. Feral cats are more prevalent in urban areas, because of the opportunities we leave behind for scavenging. From garbage to the food we leave out for our own pets, feral cats often have plenty of culinary options living in a city.
So what is a feral cat?
A feral cat is a cat that is born and lives in the wild. Feral cats are often unused to human interaction and as a result can be unfriendly. Whilst feral cats are not dependent on humans they often make use of our leftovers when living in towns and cities. Because of their wildness, feral cats are usually unneutered and can carry diseases.
A feral cat is different to a community cat. Community cats usually begin life as feral or stray cats but are later picked up and vaccinated by a local authority, before being re-released into a safe environment. Whilst they won’t have a fixed home, they are cared for by a community of owners, who keep an eye on them. Unlike feral cats they will have experienced some human socialization and may be dependent on them for food.
Feral cats are also different to strays. Stray cats usually begin life as domestic cats, who have become separated from their home. Because of their beginnings, stray cats are usually comfortable being approached and handled by humans as they are often on the hunt for a new home.
So are feral cats a problem? Should you be concerned about how they affect your own cat? And what should you do if you come across a feral cat? We caught up with Veterinarian Denise Petryk to get her take on things.
Are feral cats a problem?
“It is so different from community to community. Generalizations are tough. Yes, an out of control feral cat population can be invasive, especially if the community has no plans or programs in place to capture-spay/neater-release. There are troubles with the birds they eat [and] there are troubles with wildlife/vermin that are attracted to areas where kind hearted people feed the feral cats. [However,] some think they do eat rats and can help control the population of those yucky critters.”
Can a feral cat be rehomed?
“If they are truly feral, they often cannot be “rehomed” because they have never had a home. They are basically wild and their behavior might be unpredictable if homed. There is so much variation from cat to cat and many cats thought to be feral, are truly domesticated and just out-of-doors and homeless because they have been dumped or abandoned. These cats can often successfully be re-homed. Trouble is there is often no way to tell the difference between a feral cat and a long-term homeless cat. Cat rescue experts should be consulted. Many communities have active cat rescue groups and/or a Humane Society or animal control agency that might have incredible expertize in this area.”
What should you do if you find a feral cat?
“Start with thorough research – is it really feral or an abandoned or lost house cat? What is your local community/shelter/animal control doing with feral cats? Are there local experts you can talk to about your local feral cat population and are there action plans or recommendations in place? Is there a big disease problem in your local feral cat population?”
How do feral cats affect me and my cat?
“Cats can be very territorial so an “invading” feral cat population can lead to fights with pet cats and the transmission of infectious disease.”
Can I protect my cat by keeping it indoors?
“Indoors only makes for a much, much safer and consistent environment for the cat ….that being said we do see many health issues related to boredom and obesity. The obesity is obviously related to lack of exercise which goes hand-in-hand with boredom and an indoor-only life.”
What should I do?
There is no easy answer to this question and there are other factors as well as feral cats that could pose a risk to your pet. If you’re not sure whether you should let you cat outside, Dr. Denise says you should ask yourself these questions:
- Do you live near a busy street?
- Is there a large feral cat population in your neighborhood?
- Have there been problems with urban coyotes or raccoons in your neighborhood?
- Do you have neighbors that are avid gardeners or bird watchers that are potentially cat haters?
- How savvy is your cat and can they defend themselves? Breeds such as Persians have a compromised ability to fight.
What you can do…
Keeping your cat indoors
If you decide to keep your cat indoors make sure they have the full run of the house – vertical space is just as important as horizontal space too. Make sure you provide things for them to climb on and explore. This will make them stay active and keep them entertained. Provide plenty of toys and introduce new things for them to do regularly – even simple things like a cardboard box can be a week’s worth of entertainment. You can also use treat toys to make them work for their food to prevent obesity.
It’s still important to protect your cat if they live indoors. Indoor cats are particularly susceptible to obesity, which can bring on other conditions such as diabetes. Plus they can still get up to lots of mischief living inside. For instance, fun playthings such as hairbands and yarn can be easily ingested when you’re not looking. Our feline friends are also very quick and they might make a run for it if they spot an escape-route. Indoor cats are unlikely to be street-savvy and they could easily get lost. Identification and microchipping is a must and you should still consider insuring your cat to protect against unexpected costs.
You can find out more information on caring for an indoor cat from the Ohio State University Indoor Pet Initiative.
Letting your cat go outside
There is no question that outdoor cats are more vulnerable to threats from other cats, diseases and humans. Despite our best efforts cats are not road-savvy, but you can be a responsible owner by thinking about where you live and your proximity to traffic. You can also protect your cat from diseases with vaccinations and regular check-ups. Whilst free-roaming cats are more vulnerable, it’s in their nature to be curious and they enjoy being out of doors. Ask yourself Dr Denise’s questions – if you feel comfortable with the answers then it’s fine to let your cat outside. For added protection you should insure your pet to cover unexpected injuries and illnesses.
Overall, each cat is different and it’s important you make the right decision for the both of you. Feral cats should not be seen as a direct threat, but be considered as one of many key elements in creating a safe environment for your pet.