Feral cats have been around for centuries, and they can have an interesting relationship with humans. There are approximately 60-100 million feral cats in the US.1 Feral cat colonies exist in major cities and can also be found in suburban and rural areas. They can make a significant impact on the environment as well as impact the health and well-being of housecats and other pets.
Feral cats are unowned domestic cats that are unsocialized and not used to human contact. Having a proper understanding of feral cats can help us come up with better ways to coexist with them and treat them as humanely as possible.
What Are Feral Cats?
Cats are resilient animals that can survive in even the toughest environments. So, it’s no surprise that the domestic cat, Felis catus, has found ways to survive as both indoor cats and outdoor cats.
They live outdoors in all kinds of settings and neighborhoods and can form colonies. Feral cat colonies are usually formed near food sources and places with ample shelter. Sometimes, a colony can form near a residential area if a resident chooses to lay out food and water for outdoor cats.
Feral cats are typically fearful of humans and prefer not to interact with them. They’re unsocialized and may not ever adjust to living as pets.
What Are the Different Types of Houseless Cats
There are some differences between outdoor cats, stray cats, and feral cats. Outdoor cats can refer to pet cats that live partially outdoors and indoors. They usually spend their days roaming outside and return to their homes to rest for the night. Since they have owners and a home that they consistently return to, they’re not houseless cats.
Stray cats are types of cats that don’t have homes. They could have been abandoned or lost. Many stray cats have had owners and interactions with humans, so they’re usually sociable. These cats can end up in animal shelters and be adopted or rehomed and can adjust to living comfortable lives as pet cats. Stray cats can end up becoming outdoor pet cats or live completely indoors.
If a stray cat has diminished contact with humans, it can become feral and fearful of humans. If a stray cat gives birth to a litter of kittens, the kittens can quickly grow to become feral cats if they learn to be afraid of humans from their mother. Some feral cats may have started off as strays, but some have never had contact with humans and never lived in a home.
Feral cats that don’t become socialized are usually deemed unadoptable. If they’re caught by wildlife control or animal rescues, they may go through a trap, neuter, and return (TNR) program. They’ll either get neutered or spayed, vaccinated, and then released back to the area they had been found.
Where Do Feral Cats Live?
Feral cats can live just about anywhere. They can live in urban settings as well as grasslands, forests, and farmlands. These cats are usually shy and don’t like to be disturbed. They prefer staying away from humans, so they’ll inhabit spaces where there are fewer chances of them running into a human.
Most feral cats will prefer to live solitary lives. However, some can form colonies. The majority of feral cat colonies are made up of female cats and their offspring. Female cats in colonies will work together to raise kittens and protect their territory. Male cats can also be a part of a colony, but colonies typically only have one male cat. Male feral cats tend to have larger territories and may have a few subordinate cats that follow them around from place to place.
Advantages of Feral Cats
Cats are versatile and skilled hunters. They can eat small mammals, birds, fish, and insects. Some cities with rat issues, like New York City and Chicago, have released feral cats to reduce their rat populations. While feral cats may not always catch rats, their presence can discourage rats and other rodents from inhabiting an area.
Some cat rescues also have programs that enlist the help of volunteers to keep an eye out for feral cats that have gone through their TNR program. These volunteer caretakers may set up food stations for feral cats and also help cat rescues find feral cats that haven’t gone through the TNR program yet. This arrangement can be a good option for people who want to care for pets but don’t have the capacity to bring one into their own homes.
Disadvantages of Feral Cats
Unfortunately, coming in close contact with feral cats can be unsafe. Feral cats host transmissible diseases and parasites. While they usually prefer to avoid humans, some may be aggressive and attack if they feel threatened.
Feral cats can also do damage to natural ecosystems. They can hunt small native wildlife and severely put some animal populations at risk. For example, Australia faces significant issues with feral cats as they threaten the population numbers of over 100 native species.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Should I feed a feral cat?
Most experts in the field discourage feeding feral cats. While it sounds cruel, consistently feeding feral cats can lead to bigger problems in the future. Leaving food out for feral cats will make them become dependent on your food, and they’re less likely to hunt. They’ll usually start congregating near your home, which can cause property destruction and spread disease. The higher concentration of feral cats near your home can also increase breeding and only increase the feral cat population in your area. This can cause animal shelters to fill up too quickly.
It’s important to remember that feral cats are different from stray cats. While both may be skittish at first, a stray cat can warm up to you eventually and even become a pet. In contrast, a feral cat will not get used to humans and cannot become a pet.
Are feral cats risks to humans?
Feral cats don’t pose a direct threat to humans. However, they can spread certain diseases and parasites. Some diseases and parasites that they can transmit to humans include campylobacteriosis, cat scratch disease (CSD), tapeworms, hookworms, and Giardia. Feral cats can also be infected with rabies, but it’s much rarer for feral cats to pass on rabies than other animals, like bats and raccoons.
What is the lifespan of a feral cat?
Feral cats have a relatively shorter lifespan than indoor cats, and they usually live for about 2-3 years. The reason for their short lifespan depends on several different factors. Feral cats have more exposure to infectious diseases and don’t have access to any treatment. They also don’t typically eat high-quality, nutritious food on a consistent basis.
While feral cats are predatory animals, they do have some competition. They can be attacked by larger animals, like foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and weasels. Feral cats that live in urban areas are at risk of getting hit by vehicles. They may also ingest food that’s been poisoned.
Feral cats are a complex part of urban life and natural ecosystems. There are advantages and disadvantages to their presence, and addressing feral cat issues requires plans that include thorough assessments and careful consideration of the nuances attached to feral cats.
When approaching feral cats, it’s important to consider the most humane way to treat them without letting them cause damage or danger to the environment. It will be interesting to see how different programs and initiatives will continue to work to find a solution for a healthy co-existence with feral cats.
Featured Image Credit: Ure, Shutterstock