Wherever you live, there’s sure to be a large population of feral cats around, even in your neighborhood! Cats are natural hunters, which comes into play every day of their lives.
But how do feral cats survive when they don’t have a regular source of food? What do they eat and drink on a regular basis? What are their hunting habits, and how much food might they get in a day? We explore these questions and more.
While feral cats don’t interact with humans, they are still living creatures that deserve the opportunity to live their lives for as long as possible.
A Quick Word on Feral vs. Stray Cats
There is a world of difference between stray and feral cats. Feral cats have usually had very little or no human contact. They typically have never been a pet or lived in a home, so they tend to fear people.
Strays are cats that have usually had owners at some point in their lives. Strays are trying to survive, just like the feral cats, but they are more likely to seek out help from humans. However, a stray cat can eventually become feral if they have no interactions with people for too long.
How Feral Cats Live
Most feral cats live in colonies of females that are related to each other. They seek shelter, defend their territory, take care of their young, and search for food together. Most neighborhoods are not even aware that they have a colony of feral cats living among them, since these cats stay away from people and are more active at night.
Favorite Food for Feral Cats
Feral cats will eat whatever they can to survive, but if they have a choice, they prefer small rodents like mice and rats. They will also go after hares, rabbits, squirrels, bats, shrews, and moles.
Even Insects and Reptiles
It might surprise you to learn that feral cats eat a fair number of insects. Grasshoppers and spiders are easily found and usually easily caught, making for an unproblematic meal. Feral cats are also known to go after snakes and small lizards.
Then There Are the Birds
Here is where a great deal of controversy arises. What most people believe about this subject is probably untrue or at least exaggerated. Cats are not responsible for decimating entire songbird populations!
Countless studies have shown that cats hunt what they see and that mammals show up three times more often than birds. In fact, birds could be considered prey by chance rather than as a part of a feral cat’s regular eating habits.
Garbage and Humans
Some feral colonies are supported and fed by caregivers and communities. These colonies will typically spend less time hunting and more time enjoying the food that is provided and obviously easier to obtain. Many neighborhoods can produce enough garbage to feed multiple colonies of cats!
The average feral cat could kill and eat about nine mice over the course of a day, which doesn’t include any unsuccessful hunts that they engage in. They usually eat many small meals scattered throughout the day that are high in protein and fat but low in carbohydrates.
Most feral cats will wait for prey outside of burrows or garbage, where they will carefully stalk and pounce on it. This process is easier and much more successful than stalking and chasing birds.
In general, while cats do spend time hunting, they prefer to eat the food that is easiest to come by: garbage and scraps.
Feral cats will find water wherever it accumulates, particularly after it’s rained. Whether they drink from puddles, birdbaths, or the dripping water from air conditioners, cats are resourceful and can find water in various ways. They can also draw water from their prey, which is helpful when fresh water is in short supply.
The Importance of the Feral Cat in the Ecosystem
When cats are taken from an area, it has a negative impact on the ecosystem. Some people believe that feral cats wreak havoc on wildlife and birds and prefer to see them trapped and removed or eradicated. However, it’s been shown that any birds that these cats hunt tend to be already diseased and weaker, and consequently, feral cats truly do not impact the bird population.
This study examined the effects of the removal of feral cats from an island, all in the name of protecting endangered species. This caused the rabbit population to grow unchecked, ravaging the vegetation, which negatively impacted many animal species. All of this was followed by at least 130,000 rodents that moved into this ecosystem. Overall, the entire exercise caused considerable alarm in the conservation community.
This is not the only incident where removing cats created a disastrous effect on an ecosystem, which only goes to show that cats are more important than what many people give them credit for.
Cats will eat whatever is easiest and most accessible. They are opportunistic hunters and will use their wiles and senses to find their food, whether it’s garbage, an insect, or a rat.
You can also consider feeding feral cats yourself. Always pick the same time of day, and provide feeding stations for shelter and protection against the elements. However, keep in mind that you need to make other arrangements if you can’t make it out there to feed the cats. This is a long-term and serious commitment.
Feral cats are resourceful and they enjoy rodents best. They have proven to be essential members of our communities and ecosystems and deserve our gratitude and respect.
Featured Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay