What to Do With Feral Cats?

One of my roommates calls every cat that appears in the vacant lot next door “feral,” even though it’s usually just the black-and-white from one of the houses in the next block.

Apparently this little piebald pet has established hunting rights in that grassy lot.

Sometimes, when the black-and-white isn’t around, another cat – a solid light brown, with semi-long fur – slinks around the edges of the field. I’ve never gotten a good look at it.

That cat could be feral – unowned and wary of people – even though I haven’t heard of any cat colonies around here.

It appears to be lean but not starving, and it certainly can move quickly when necessary.

There is an emotional controversy swirling around such a cat. Does it deserve to live, like any healthy animal (and if so, what should we do with all the feral cats)?

Or should we treat it as a pest and get rid of it?

The questions are simple, but the discussions they trigger usually shed more heat than light. Something about cats triggers strong “pro” and “anti” feelings in many people, and debates about feral cats are usually polarized.

It doesn’t help that there is “a lack of sound scientific data on which to base credible conclusions.” (Levy and Crawford)

There is no shortage of studies, but they are limited to indirect methods like owner surveys and estimates based on what few data are available.

The feral cat is very difficult to assess directly.

For one thing, definitions are a problem – what some people call “feral” others call “free-roamer” (like the black-and-white next door) or “stray.”

For another, counting cats that so skillfully avoid people is extremely difficult.

Too, the situation out there is fluid – when cats die or are removed, others always move into the empty territory.

These may already be feral, or they may have been abandoned by people who either didn’t care or who cared enough to mistakenly think they were giving the cat a better chance at survival than it would get in a shelter.

In reality, cats need to be around us, no matter how aloof they may appear at home. If an abandoned cat survives its unfortunate transition, it will stay near humans despite the risks of persecution, accidents, and threats from other pets that this involves.

Shelters are crowded, but they do protect the animal and screen the humans who get near it.

Worse, in the long run, that abandoned cat, if not already desexed, will reproduce at a geometric rate, leading to many more feral cats very quickly.

Three major approaches to dealing with all of these unwanted cats are:

  • Doing nothing. This is what usually happens, and it doesn’t work.
  • Euthanasia. In some places, the policy is either to kill feral cats where they are found, with poison or introduced viral diseases, or to trap and remove them first. There is a lot of public resistance to this. In theory (Andersen and others), it can work if fifty percent or more of a feral population is culled each year. In practice, local people tend to undermine the program; as well, more cats move in from elsewhere.
  • Trap-neuter-release. Theoretically, this can work if seventy-five percent or more of the cats are treated annually. (Andersen and others) In the real world, nobody has had the money, time, and manpower yet to attempt such a widescale program. Smaller efforts have worked, usually over a decade – and sometimes they haven’t worked.

What to do with feral cats is one of the biggest feline welfare issues today. A new approach that concerned people are now proposing is to concentrate less on eradication and more on shaping the human behaviors that have led to and now sustain the problem.

That’s extremely difficult, too, but it’s worth trying.

After all, most cat owners desex their pets, but feral cats keep having litters of up to ten kittens at least once a year. That’s basically natural selection in favor of the unowned, wary cats who live, mostly unseen (if not unheard) all around us.

It’s ironic that, while our ancestors domesticated the wildcat, we now are basically reversing that process.

Through inaction – and by not working hard enough to come up with a clear-cut solution to the dilemma that feral cats present – we are unintentionally but inevitably dissolving the ties that have bound humans and domestic cats together for thousands of years.


Featured image: Stray cats, Airman First Class Thomas Spangler, Nellis Air Force Base. Retrieved from http://www.nellis.af.mil/News/Features/Article/665541/stray-animals-pests-find-shelter-from-summer-heat/ . (Modified by BJD)


Cited and uncited sources:

Andersen, M. C.; Martin, B. J.; and Roemer, G. W. 2004. Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 225(12): 1871-1876.

Hiby, E.; Eckman, H.; and MacFarlaine, I. 2014. Cat population management, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 215-230. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Levy, J. K., and Crawford, P. C. 2004. Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 225(9):1354-1360.

Robertson, S. 2008. A review of feral cat control. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 10:366-375.

Rochlitz, I. 2013. Feline welfare issues, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved fromhttps://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=m-NRAgAAQBAJ


This is one of the chapters in my upcoming ebook “50 Facts About Domestic Cats (and Where They Come From).”


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