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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.

Trap-Neuter-Return Programs: The Key to Helping Cats

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) endeavors are geared toward reducing the number of unwanted cats by catching and then neutering or spaying them. Also called trap-neuter-spay-return or trap-neuter-vaccinate-return, they are endorsed by both the ASPCA and Humane Society.

According to web site of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, stray and feral cats are “humanely trapped, examined, vaccinated, and surgically sterilized by veterinarians.” Feral cats are then returned to their familiar environment and, hopefully, cared for by volunteers, who may provide food and shelter, and monitor them for sickness.

Proponents say the advantages include:

  • Benefits for feral cats. Neutered cats tend to gain weight and have fewer health problems -- such as breast, testicular, and uterine cancer. Spaying also reduces the risks that go along with pregnancy. Fewer females in heat also means fewer toms attracted to an area, and so fewer risky cat fights. 
  • Benefits for people. Spaying and neutering feral cats offers population control. Behaviors like fighting and marking are also reduced, while benefits such as rodent control continue. Ultimately, less cat suffering also means less human suffering in the face of dying or injured cats. 

Not everyone is a fan of TNR. Some fish and wildlife advocates maintain that re-releasing feral cats after neutering simply constitutes re-abandonment and doesn’t permanently address the larger problem.

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