What Is a Feral Cat?

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By Peter J. Wolf

Feral cats have multiple definitions. There is the definition used in a 2003 article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, that says a feral cat is “untamed and evasive; they either were born in the wild and lack socialization or were returned to the wild and became untrusting of humans.”

The more common definition, according to many shelter and rescue workers, animal control agencies and various policymaking entities, uses “feral cats” to mean any cat without a permanent, indoor home — stray, abandoned or truly feral.

How to Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) Feral Cats

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Determining if a Cat is Stray or Feral Isn’t Easy

Pinning down the precise status of these cats is no trivial matter, as the different categories are determined more by context than anything else. A pet cat abandoned when her guardians move away, for example, may soon adopt behaviors we associate with feral cats. Upon reconnecting with humans, though — perhaps by way of handouts from a neighbor — this same cat may well find herself living indoors again.

Indeed, such situations are not uncommon for those involved with trap-neuter-return — a method for managing the population of stray, abandoned, feral and community cats through sterilization — or with the ongoing care of TNR colonies. These cats are ear tipped (a simple procedure in which about 3/8 of an inch is removed from the tip of one ear — usually the left one — done under general anesthesia at the time the cats are sterilized) for easy identification. Newcomers are, as a result, also easily identified. Friendly cats can be reunited with their guardians or re-homed; the others are sterilized, vaccinated and returned to their colony (or, occasionally, relocated to barns or horse stables via “barn cat” programs).

But again, a cat’s temperament can change over time. Many of us have taken in “reformed” colony cats — their tipped ears a constant reminder of previous, wilder lives.

Feral Cat Trap and Neuter Programs are Helping

So, if today’s “feral” cat can become tomorrow”s spoiled house cat, what difference does it make what we call these cats?

Far too many friendly cats brought into open-admission shelters don’t make it out alive; cats deemed feral don’t stand a chance. This is changing, however, with Feral Freedom programs, such as those in Jacksonville, FL, and San Jose, CA. Such programs — which sterilize, vaccinate and return feral cats to the neighborhoods where they were found — are not only better for all cats, but also provide a fiscally responsible alternative to the costly and ineffective lethal control methods used for generations. “There’s no department that I’m aware of that has enough money in their budget to simply practice the old capture-and-euthanize policy,” observed Mark Kumpf, former president of the National Animal Control Association, in a 2008 interview with Animal Sheltering magazine. “Nature just keeps having more kittens.”

Despite the obvious benefits of Feral Freedom programs, and TNR in general, such efforts are frequently opposed by individuals and organizations arguing that feral cats pose a threat to other cats, wildlife and humans. And, just as frequently, their talking points — which can often seem intended to inflame fears — are picked up by a mainstream media eager for sensationalist stories. All of which can leave policymakers and the general public badly misinformed — and feral cats at risk.

How You Can Help Cats

  • If you feed feral cats, be sure to get them sterilized. In many locations, low-cost spay/neuter services are available, and there’s probably a local TNR group eager to help.
  • Know your local laws regarding TNR, and the feeding of outdoor cats.
  • Support TNR in your community by participating in the policymaking process. Attend home owners association and neighborhood meetings, write letters to the editor, and contact local, state and federal agencies when the issue comes up.
  • Get involved with National Feral Cat Day — launched in 2001 by Alley Cat Allies to raise awareness about feral cats, promote Trap-Neuter-Return and recognize the millions of compassionate Americans who care for them.

Peter J. Wolf has been involved in the world of animal rescue and feral cat management since 2007. He currently lives with seven cats and helps manage three small feral cat colonies. To learn more about feral cats, visit Peter’s blog, Vox Felina.

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