Shy and elusive, feral cats are those that have been born in the wild and have never been socialized to humans or have escaped from domestication and reverted to a wild state. Some feral cats are loosely or marginally owned. Barn cats, stadium cats, alley cats, and porch cats congregate wherever there is food and shelter.
Colonies of feral cats can be found behind shopping malls, in abandoned buildings, in parks, rural areas, and on college campuses and military bases. Wherever there are places where there are transient populations of people and/or a food supply, you are going to see free-roaming cats, says Nathan Winograd, executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA in Ithaca, New York.
Feral cats live a precarious life at the edges of human communities. While it is possible for shelters to find homes for strays or formerly owned cats, feral cats are often trapped and taken to animal shelters where they are euthanized because they are too wild to handle.
Nonetheless, an effort is being made by many shelters and cat rescue groups to reduce the number of feral cats through reproductive intervention and community outreach. Proponents of Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) programs believe this is the most humane and effective solution to feral cat overpopulation. Cats are humanely trapped and then transported to a veterinary clinic or animal shelter where they are given a health examination, are spayed or castrated, and are vaccinated.
Sterilized animals are identified with a permanent visual mark (the removal of one-fourth inch of the left ear) to prevent recapture. After an appropriate recuperative period, cats are returned to their colony. Winograd is careful to explain that TNR programs are not a quick fix. However, with proper management, feral cat populations can stabilize and decrease in number.
Managing free-roaming cats
Feral cat colonies are managed by community volunteers, either alone or with the aid and support of animal protection societies and local veterinarians. Feral cat caretakers provide the colony with food and water and often pay for sterilization and vaccination procedures as well. In some communities, feral cat welfare groups or humane societies donate traps, offer free sterilization, and provide information and guidance.
People who are neutering and feeding cats are not creating the colonies, stresses Winograd. They are trying to clean up a situation that already exists. Reliable estimates of the feral cat population will be available when more studies are completed, but the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 15 million Americans feed free-roaming cats.
Public health authorities worry about the spread of zoonotic diseases (diseases shared by humans and other animals) from feral cat populations.
In states where rabies is rapidly spreading and widely diffused, free-living cats have an increased likelihood of coming in contact with wildlife species, such as raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, that are carriers of the disease. Recently, more rabies cases have been diagnosed in cats than in other domestic animals.
Advocates of TNR programs believe feral cat populations that have been vaccinated for rabies will decrease the risk of human exposure by creating an additional barrier between wildlife and people and their pets. Some public health authorities are skeptical and are concerned that TNR programs may not provide long-term rabies control within a managed colony unless a system to revaccinate cats is implemented.
Neutering and vaccinating feral cats address some of the problems of overpopulation and some public health concerns. Community education is key. People must be encouraged to neuter their feline companions, and act responsibly for their welfare.