You spot them near a restaurant dumpster. They are crouched down, silent, and unmoving. They watch you, wide-eyed, preparing to dart away into the night.
What are they? Feral cats.
What are the characteristics of feral cats? How do these cats survive outside? What problems do they cause? Can they be tamed? Can you adopt one?
Here’s everything that you need to know about feral cats.
What is a Feral Cat?
A feral cat is an outdoor domestic cat that exhibits antisocial behavior from living a large amount of its life with minimal or no human contact.
Feral cats often live in groups called colonies. They share a territory and its food sources. They have a loose social order and will protect their area from strange cats.
Feral cats are not pests, but they’re not wildlife either. The vast majority of them rely on humans for their food sources and shelter, albeit often indirectly.
Feral vs. Stray
Even though people often use the terms interchangeably, ferals are not the same as strays.
While they are both outdoor domestic cats, they differ in behavior.
Feral cats exhibit wilder behavior, showing they have little to no trust in humans. Strays are cats that have escaped or been abandoned by their owners and still exhibit human-socialized behavior.
If strays live on their own for long periods, they often become feral.
You can often tell the difference between ferals and strays by the traits they display.
Feral Cat Traits
Feral cats typically act in the following manner :
- Hide at all costs rather than be seen by a human
- Crouch low to the ground while stationary or moving
- Rarely maintain eye contact
- Are typically not vocal and will not answer to a human voice
Stray Cat Traits
Strays will have qualities similar to house cats such as
- Meowing in response to a human voice
- Holding eye contact
- Begging for attention or food
- Walking upright when a human is around
Alleycat provides an excellent breakdown of feral vs. stray characteristics. I highly recommend checking it out.
Feral Cat Quick Facts
- While figures vary by source, there are an estimated 50 to 160 million feral cats in the US.
- Community cats are not necessarily feral. They may be friendly towards people and cared for by many members of society.
- Outdoor cats, including ferals, kill around two animals a week, according to the wildlife society and American bird Conservatory.
How Long Do Feral Cats Live?
Feral cats can live as many as ten years or more if they have a well-established colony and a good source of food. Feral cats living on their own rarely survive for more than two years, according to the ASPCA.
We often think of cats as being solitary animals, but in fact, they depend on a social group. For house cats, this group is people. For ferals, this group can be other cats or people.
So cats that live in groups tend to live longer. The group helps watch out for predators, find food, and protect against the elements.
Where Do Feral Cats Live?
Feral cats generally live in colonies, which are usually groups of related cats, according to the Humane Society.
Because they are people-shy but often rely on a human-based food source, they choose places to live where people don’t frequent but are near human establishments.
Typical homes include barns, crawl spaces under houses, sheds, abandoned buildings, and warehouses.
It is surprising how many neighborhoods in the United States sustain a feral cat colony. Feral cat colonies are common across the country, but their primary concentration is in urban areas.
What Do Feral Cats Eat?
Feral cats are opportunistic. Their diets vary dramatically by what is available to their community.
Cats that live near the water may eat a lot of fish heads and other debris from fishing activities.
Cats that live in rural areas around livestock depend mainly on pests like mice and rats. City cats often get most of their food from dumpsters.
Here are a few of the most common food sources for feral cats.
Dumpsters, garbage cans, and other sources of human waste are a primary food source for many feral cats.
To the dismay of home-owners, ferals often make a mess out of neighborhood garbage cans.
As you can imagine, this can be dangerous for cats as well as they may end up eating things that aren’t good for them.
Cats are natural hunters, and given the opportunity, they will stalk and capture prey.
As a rule, cats are ambush predators. They like to wait for their prey to move into range and then leap on it.
Cats will eat any animal significantly smaller than themselves that they can catch, including rodents, birds, insects, etc.
Many feral cats are part of community cat colonies that are cared for by Good Samaritans in the community.
Feral cats may never interact with these people, but they know when food goes out and will come at the right time to get their portion.
Feral Cats and Disease
Most feral cats never receive vaccinations against contagious diseases.
Furthermore, they come into contact with lots of wildlife and other cats, which increases the likelihood of contracting a disease.
A study on 96 feral cats in Canada revealed the following diseases and pathogens in feral cats.
Feline Hemotrophic Mycoplasmas
These red cell pathogens can cause severe anemia, which severely weakens feral cats. This effect can result in death either directly or by making them more vulnerable to predation.
The study tested for three types of these pathogens and found that 11.5 % of cats tested positive.
This organism is a parasite that cats obtain by eating infected rodents, birds, small animals, and even items that have been in contact with the feces from other infected cats.
This parasite causes toxoplasmosis in the cat. Typical symptoms include fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite and can lead to more significant problems such as pneumonia.
This pathogen is transmittable to people. People are most likely to become infected with this pathogen if they come into contact with cat feces or contaminated water.
The study found that 29.8% of feral cats were exposed to this pathogen.
This pathogen may or may not result in clinical disease in feral cats.
Fleas are the leading carrier when it comes to cats. The pathogen also spreads to humans via fleas or when an infected cat scratches or bites a person.
Bartonella spp causes fatigue and chronic pain, inflammation of the nervous system, and chronic inflammation of the lymph nodes.
2.1% of cats tested positive for this pathogen.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
These viruses can affect any cat, although outdoor male cats are most likely to contract the Tpathogen.
Symptoms include pale gums, jaundice, infections, weakness, and lethargy.
It also increases their likelihood of the cat contracting another infectious disease.
8.3% of the cats carried a form of one of these viruses.
Feral Cats and Birds
Despite arguments to the contrary, evidence continues to mount concerning the devastating effect of feral cats on birds.
According to a nature.com review of various studies on the effect of cats on birds and other wildlife, their “estimate of bird mortality far exceeds any previously estimated US figure for cats.
Per their estimates, 1.324 billion birds and 6.32 22.3 billion mammals are killed by cats in the US annually. Unowned feral cats contribute to the majority of these mortality rates.
Pete Marra, the head of the Smithsonian migratory bird center and author of the book Cat Wars, claims outdoor cats are the leading human-influenced cause of dying birds.
There are those, whoever, that think the problem isn’t as bad as it seems. According to Alleycat.org, when cats hunt, which isn’t as often as most people think, their primary prey is rodents and insects, not birds.
While it may be true that birds are not a substantial dietary staple for the majority of feral cats, the fact remains that cats are active predators who kill a significant number of birds in our communities.
Trap, Neuter, Return
Trap Neuter Return (TNR) programs are the Humane Society’s preferred means of handling feral cat populations.
These programs are more humane than other ways of handling community cats, which included mass euthanasia or relocation. Such methods result in cats dying from predation or starvation.
Here are a few of the reasons why TNR programs are preferred to catch and adopt programs.
- Adoptability. Feral cats are difficult to tame and are unlikely to be adopted out to the public.
- Cages are cruel. Most cats don’t like being in a cage, but for a feral cat who has always known freedom and safety in the outdoors, a cage in an animal shelter is like a punishment.
- Not enough room. Unfortunately, the pet overpopulation problem is a big one throughout America. Shelters become overrun with stray cats and unwanted pets. And if a feral cat is in a shelter, it is potentially taking the place of a cat that has a higher chance of being adopted.
- Kindest to the cat. Most feral cats would prefer to stay in the communities where they have been born and lived their lives. Community cats belong to families who are often tightly bonded with one another. So removing a cat from this community, even for adoption, is a significant stressor for the cat.
TNR programs aim to capture feral cats, neuter or spay them so that they cannot create more feral cats. Cats in the program are returned to the area where they were trapped to live out their lives.
When these cats are released, they are given a visual marker, indicating the cat has been spayed or neutered. This marker is usually an ear with the tip clipped off.
TNR Volunteer Opportunities
Community cat populations are managed by volunteers who look out for the welfare of community cats, feed them, and trap them as necessary.
Check out the Humane Society if you want to get involved in helping with TNR.
Hopefully, in time these efforts will eliminate feral cat populations without having to resort to mass euthanasia.
Adopting a Feral Cat
It is arguable whether it is possible to tame a feral cat. Alleycat.org states that a feral cat will never be comfortable indoors. Kittens, older than a few months, will most likely never develop the domestication of a typical housecat.
While they may acclimate to humans and allow themselves to be touched, they may never be truly trusting. That said, people do adopt feral cats every day.
If you are considering adopting a feral cat, here are a few things to keep in mind.
A feral cat who has never built up trust with you, suddenly put inside your home, will most likely panic.
If you want to adopt a feral cat from a shelter, it is best to keep them in a designated room and carefully control their exposure and interactions, gradually building trust.
Can Feral Cats Become Pets?
If a cat has lived its entire life without human contact, especially if it comes from several generations of such cats, it will never behave like a typical housecat.
You can expect the cat to be shy, especially of strangers. They will startle more easily at slight noises, and they have an undying fascination with the outdoors and escape.
Feral Cats and Other Pets
It is doubtful that a feral cat that has lived in a colony will get along with your other pet cats.
Feral cat communities are often related. So they’ve been with their ‘family’ a long time.
When you put a feral cat into your community of unrelated cats, the results are often predictably disastrous.
Keep in mind that if a feral cat gets into a fight with your cat, the chances are good that the feral cat will be the one to cause the most damage, as most feral cats have been in a fight or two at some point in their lives.
And when it comes to dogs… As a rule, dogs are generally nothing other than enemies to feral cats. And despite how good-natured your dog is, it is unlikely that your feral cat will ever accept him.
It will take you a long time to win over the trust of a feral cat. You can expect to invest as many as 40 or 50 hours just to make contact. And some cats will never be won over no matter how much effort you put in.
It can be very frustrating and discouraging to spend so much time trying to win the affection of an animal who seems to want nothing to do with you. Think carefully about whether you are willing to commit to taming a feral cat.
How To Tame a Feral Cat
Here is a set of steps to winning over a feral cat who you have seen around your home or business. Again, these will have varying degrees of success, depending on the cat.
- Create a feeding routine
Feed the feral cat that you are trying to tame at the same time every day. This routine will teach the cat to come at an anticipated time and begin to build their association with your presence and positivity.
- Offer high-value food only when you are present
Offer enough dry food to keep your feral cat coming around and nutritionally satisfied. But when you want the cat to approach you, get out the good stuff. Set out a can of cat food with a strong odor at a distance from you where the cat still feels safe. Wait for her to approach the food and eat it with you present. If the cat doesn’t eat it, take the food away when you go and try again next time.
- Decrease distance
Once your feral cat is comfortable eating the food with you around, gradually move the food closer to you by about a foot every day. If the cat is especially frightened, you may need to leave it in the same position for several days to build confidence.
- Begin Socialization
Once the cat is willing to eat a plate of food within several feet of you, you can begin more active socialization. Talk to the cat while it’s eating. Try dancing a toy around, or do other things to encourage her to interact with you.
- Attempt contact
Before executing this step, make sure of the following:
A) The cat is choosing to stay around you even when it doesn’t have its face deep in a bowl of food.
B) The cat seems to be showing you positive signs like blinking slowly at you or choosing to be near you.
The best way to attempt contact is to offer your hand for the cat to rub against.
- Practice petting
Once the cat is willing to rub up against you, you may begin petting.
The cat may never have been touched before, and it may take some practice before it is willing to accept your touch. So go slowly and be patient.
- Invite inside
If you “trap” a feral cat in your home, it will panic. The best way to acclimate a feral cat to your house is to invite it inside and show it how much better life can be indoors.
- Have an overnight visit
At some point, the feral cat may become comfortable enough in your house to choose to sleep there. Once you are closing the door on the cat at night, it is only a small step to turning it into a full-time indoor cat.
- Increase indoor time
Reduce the time that your feral cat is allowed to go outside, gradually decreasing by about half an hour every day.
- Enjoy your indoor cat!
Finally, you can restrict your feral cat’s access to the outdoors. She may still try to escape at times.. likely lots of times. She also may never be completely comfortable with you, but that’s ok. You can still enjoy each other.