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Helping Stray and Feral Cats

Feral cats, wild cats, stray cats -- we have many names for the mysterious felines we sometimes see peeking out from under our porch or darting into abandoned buildings. Yet most of them share a single destiny: short, difficult lives.

Fortunately, helping feral or abandoned cats isn’t difficult. WebMD went to the experts in cat health and behavior for tips on how to make a difference in the lives of our feline friends who are living on the edge.

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How the Problem of Feral Cats Multiplies

First, what is a feral cat? According to Margaret R. Slater, DVM, PhD, senior director of epidemiology, animal health services with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a feral cat is “any cat who is too poorly socialized to be handled ... and who cannot be placed into a typical pet home.”

There are about 70 million feral cats -- about the same number as those who have homes. Usually the offspring of cats who were lost or abandoned by their owners, they grow up not socialized to humans.

Because a female cat can become pregnant as young as 16 weeks of age and go on to have two or three litters a year, the feral cat population -- and the problems associated with it -- grows and perpetuates. In seven years, a single female cat and her kittens can produce 420,000 more cats.

Wild in the Streets: The Life and Health of Stray and Feral Cats

Feral cats often live in vacant lots, dodge cars, and eat from trash cans; face infection, disease, and an endless cycle of pregnancy; and suffer extremes in treatment and weather. The life of a feral, stray, or abandoned cat is often short, sometimes lasting for just two or three years.

Of course, feral cats also leave issues on the human doorstep -- including noisy fights, odor, urinating to mark territory (also known as "spraying" or "marking"), flea infestations, and the inevitable breeding that creates even more unwanted cats.

Many experts agree that one of the best ways to help feral cats and cat groups -- called colonies -- is through neutering programs.

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