Feral cats are relatively prevalent all over the world, but they aren’t often seen due to what is often a shy and reclusive nature and avoiding most people.
Feral cats were born in the wild or outdoors and they have little or no human contact. This is as opposed to stray cats which used to have an owner and have either been abandoned or run away from home and gotten lost.
Stray cats still usually remember that humans are a source of food and so are more likely to be seen in places where they can get it like carports, garages, and backyards.
Stray cats can take on feral behaviors if they are left without an owner for too long. Feral cats on the other hand are often found all over the place, eking out survival wherever they can.
Feral cats carry a lot of baggage and misconceptions which can cause them a lot of harm. What should you know about feral cats and how best to help them if you have a colony living nearby (or even just one)?
Identifying Feral Cats
Feral cats are simply the descendants of domestic cats and therefore, they can look like any other cat. Feral cats can be any breed (or crossbreed) and usually have a similar shape and size to each other.
Some of them can end up fairly large and muscular, while others are thin and small – it all depends on available food sources and how much fighting they have to do.
Males that are well-fed tend to be large and older ones tend to be heavily scarred. They are rarely spayed or neutered, and males often have a spiky coat.
Feral cats are likely to be very active at night and they actually create colonies for the protection of territory and hunting rights. Pairs of feral cats go hunting together in ‘hunting parties’ which lets them be successful in bringing food back.
Feral cats also bury food they catch in the morning to eat later, so if you’re finding buried dead rodents in your yard, you could have a feral cat lurking around.
Feral Vs Stray Cats
At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be much difference between feral and stray cats – after all, they are both cats found on the streets with no owner. But there are some key differences between them that become critically important when it comes to care and wellbeing.
The main difference is the level of socialization. Stray cats had owners at one point and so they are what is known as ‘socialized’. A cat that is socialized has learned that humans are ok and that they can expect food, comfort, and safety around them.
Even if the cat has spent some time in the streets due to being abandoned or run away, they still have that core of remembering that humans meant something.
If they spend too long out in the streets, they can slowly become feral, but they can also become re-introduced to the idea of living with humans. Stray cats are more likely to approach people, houses, porches, and cars, they tend to live alone, be more vocal with humans, and are out and about during the day.
Feral cats on the other hand have never been around humans or had any contact with humans (or it has diminished a great deal over time). As a result, they are scared of people and survive alone or in a colony.
They are not likely to become domesticated pets, but they will sometimes consent to a ‘caretaker’. Very young kittens can be socialized, but over four months, it becomes less likely.
Feral cats are more likely to be nocturnal, are found in groups, avoid people, and tend to crouch and slink, rather than walking tall. A huge difference is that strays tend to be found alone whereas ferals tend to be found in groups of at least two or three.
The Health Concerns of Feral Cats
Stray cats are simply cats that have run away from home or been abandoned, but they tended to have been vaccinated and have had checkups at some point in their life.
Feral cats are different: they have never seen a vet and have never been vaccinated for anything in their lives. This means that they have both unique health problems.
Feral cats can have health problems such as:
- Rabies (this is the one that can get humans quite sick if they aren’t careful, but it is extremely rare and surprisingly, about on par with domesticated cats)
- Fractures, broken bones, and other physical injuries
- Teeth problems
- General infections
- Dehydration and malnutrition
- Female cats get quickly worn out from repeated pregnancies
- Run-ins with wildlife such as crows, foxes, coyotes, and bears, as well as run-ins with domesticated dogs
- Very short life expectancy of two to three years
Feral cats generally live a short, hard life, especially in places with more extreme climates such as extreme cold or extreme heat. Both of these things can be a killer for cats as well.
Feral cat problems literally multiply: cats can get pregnant at an age as young as sixteen weeks and they can have two to three litters a year. In seven years, a single female cat and its kittens can produce over four hundred thousand cats.
They can then go on to live in a variety of ecosystems like vacant car lots, old buildings, sheds, and other places. They spend their entire, and rather short, life in a fairly brutish existence.
Dealing with Feral Cats
Feral cats cannot usually be adopted, tamed, or otherwise ‘taken in’ unless you get a kitten at a very young age or happen to get a very placid feral cat (unlikely). Feral cats are basically wild animals and should be treated as such, which means calling in experts if you have a colony.
But feral cats also shouldn’t be relocated or eradicated. Relocation tends to cause a vacuum where another colony will move in, or the relocated cat will try to return home and get injured or killed on the way. And of course, eradication is completely distasteful, not to mention ineffective in solving the problem in the long run.
Instead, the Trap-Neuter-Return program which is run all over the US and Canada, and other places, is shown to be the most effective.
In this program, feral cats are carefully captured, neutered, or spayed, and then returned to their colony.
Feral cats benefit from this process because they tend to gain weight and have fewer health problems, they can get a check-up and be vaccinated for diseases, it reduces cat pregnancy, offers population control, and behaviors like fighting and marking territory are also reduced. It also makes cats feel safer since they are then returned to familiar territory.
Regular people can become feral cat ‘caretakers’ as well. The feral cat won’t be a pet, but a caregiver can provide a number of helpful things for a feral cat to live a bit better. These can include:
- Protein-rich food and fresh water
- A warm enclosed area to sleep such as a sturdy Tupperware bin with a hole cut for a doorway (really good in the winter to help cats stay warm)
- Try to get cats under your care spayed and neutered, as well as checked up for other health problems
- Try to keep track of your colony of cats and monitor them (as best you can) for new injuries or health problems to bring to the attention of a vet.
- If you find a feral cat with a ‘notched’ ear, it was probably already part of a TNR program as giving a cat a slight ear notch lets people see easily that the cat is neutered or spayed.
Smaller things you can do include:
- Donating money to local shelters that provide these services
- Reporting colonies to pet shelters
- Working as a volunteer
It is not a good idea to try to adopt a feral cat as they cannot be very domesticated at all, but many people have successfully had feral cats trust them enough to get them checked by a vet and make sure they get fed properly.
Are Feral Cats Pests?
Many people would consider feral cats to be a pest animal, and there are many misconceptions that they are dangerous pest animals that spread disease. The disease part isn’t really true – while feral cats can spread rabies, it’s extremely rare and as long as you don’t allow yourself to get bit or scratched, you aren’t in any danger anyway (though if you do see a rabid cat, call your local animal control right away).
Feral cats have also been accused of spreading parasites like tapeworms and roundworms, which are more of a danger to your pets than you (keep your pets indoors and away from a colony!)
And finally, cats do spread toxoplasmosis, which sounds scary, but is really only dangerous to pregnant women and babies (which is why pregnant women should never clean a cat box).
If you have ever owned cats, you may have already been infected with it and never realized it – healthy adults, at worst, tend to have headaches and mild flu symptoms over the first few weeks of infection and then recover.
The main nuisance aspect of feral cats is their loud fighting and ‘singing’ when they are in heat, as well as the fact that males spray to mark their territory. Fighting at night can get very loud, which keeps many people awake, and the spraying is usually smelly.
Many people also find that feral cats get into their garbage, making a mess, and can get into old buildings, making them even more useless for human use. And of course, feral cats, when cornered, may bite or scratch, causing injury. Feral cats can also do a lot of damage to a local songbird population.
On the other hand, feral cats are good at keeping local rodent populations down by hunting mice and rats. They will hunt birds as well, but many birds will escape them. They can also keep down the populations of bugs and squirrels, so depending on where you live, a local small colony can be useful pest control in its own rights.
The noisy and destructive behaviors can be reduced or even eliminated by having the cats spayed and neutered, which generally makes males calmer and less likely to spray and stops females from ‘singing’ when they are in heat since they won’t get into heat anymore.
Some people would certainly consider feral cats to be pests while others would consider them to be neighbors, and usually, pretty good ones once spayed and neutered since they are shy, keep rodent populations down, and are rarely seen during the day anyway.
Although it may be tempting to try to adopt a feral cat, it’s usually not a good idea. They are basically urban wild animals like raccoons and will behave as such.
The best way to help feral cats is to make sure they get spayed or neutered and if you really have the ability to commit, become a feral cat colony caretaker to ensure they get their medical needs met, are fed, given water, and have safe, warm places to stay when it gets cold outside.
If you see evidence of feral cats, it’s best to contact your local animal shelter and let them know so that they can send professionals in to help the cats get healthy and become better neighbors for humans. And of course, keep your own cats and dogs away from the colony and make sure your cat is spayed or neutered as well.
Feral cats often have a bad reputation for spreading disease, being destructive, and of course, being noisy. But they are still animals that are worthy of thoughtful care and attention, just on their terms which means helping the colony thrive rather than trying to take any of the cats in as pets. When they are respected and given the help they need, a feral cat colony will generally keep to itself and keep your rodent population in check.
Just like any other animal, feral cats are simply trying to survive in a world that is fairly hostile towards them.
Have you ever had feral cats nearby? What was your experience like?
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.