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Helping Stray and Feral Cats

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The Problem With Relocation and Eradication

Some people advocate relocating or “putting down” feral cats instead. Relocation may sound like a humane solution, but it is ultimately ineffective due to the “vacuum effect.” Feral cats gather where there are resources: food, water, and shelter. When an existing colony is relocated (or eradicated), before long a new flock of feral cats will discover the same resources and move in to “fill the vacuum.”

Relocation is unappealing for other reasons. Because cats are very territorial, a relocated cat may try to find its way home, suffering accident or death on the way. The relocation area may already have an established colony or it may lack food, water, or shelter. Unless a colony’s life is in danger, most experts agree that relocation is almost always a bad solution.

Most people are not willing to support eradication, either. With a TNR effort, “people will give their time, money, and resources,” says Slater, author of Community Approaches to Feral Cats. “But if you’re catching and euthanizing cats, in most cases you just won’t get volunteers to do that.”

She also sees TNR as a teaching tool. “It gets people to think about how we can prevent cats from ending up on the street and how we can manage cat populations.”

Why Feral Cat Adoption Is Not an Option

Many experts agree that feral adult cats simply can’t be tamed. They are wild animals, like raccoons. They tend to stay away from humans, hide during the day, and when adopted, are very difficult to socialize. Just like you would never try to handle a raccoon, you should never try to pick up a feral cat. Call for assistance from the humane society or other animal welfare center. 

The ASPCA advocates adopting the many available domestic cats and kittens rather than trying to tame feral cats.

However, feral kittens -- especially those less than 8 weeks old -- often can be socialized. Abandoned and lost cats can also be reintroduced to domestic living.

How can you tell a stray from a feral cat? Lost or abandoned felines are usually comfortable around people and will frequently attempt to live near humans -- under porches, or in garages, sheds, or backyards. 

Still, Slater maintains that TNR is the most humane and effective long-term solution. “What we’ve done historically hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” she says. “We need to try something different. We’re not talking about neutering cats and then dumping them. What we’re really talking about is managed colonies, with a human feeding the cats, caring for them, getting them health care, providing them shelter.”

5 Ways You Can Help Stray and Feral Cats

From little to big, there are many ways to help stray and feral cats. Here are some, beginning with one you can do at home:

  • Don’t contribute to the problem. “It goes without saying that you should spay and neuter your own cats,” says Linda P. Case, MS, author of Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends. She also suggests keeping your cat indoors -- not only for her safety, but also to prevent her from getting lost and ending up part of a feral colony. 
  • Don’t feed and forget feral cats. Feeding feral and stray cats is generous, but they need health care as well. If you can’t manage ongoing care, “at the very least, get the cat neutered,” suggests Case. 
  • Show you care with cash. A little money can go a long way to help a cat. Spay/neuter surgeries may cost as little as $17 for shelters to perform, so a single $20 donation can dramatically change the life of a feral cat. Contact your nearest Humane Society to find out if they’ve got a TNR program; if they don’t, they’ll know who does. You can also donate money to animal welfare groups through an estate or will. 
  • Volunteer your time. TNR and similar programs are often run by nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteer help. If you can’t aid in a clinical setting, you can be involved at the community level -- contacting local veterinarians and businesses, writing letters, fund-raising, or staffing a booth at a community event. 
  • Become a colony caretaker. “In a managed colony, cats can live to be 12 to 16 years old,” says Slater. In fact, she adds, studies of 100,000 managed feral cats in TNR programs found that most were in good health. If you think you can provide ongoing shelter, food, or health care to a group of feral cats, contact your local Humane Society, veterinary hospital, or other animal welfare group to find out how to get started. But before you do, understand that committing to care for a colony is a big responsibility. The colony will become dependent on you, just as a domestic cat would be. If you go away or move, it’s vital you find someone else to care for the cats in your absence.

“As part of living in a civilized society, it is our obligation to look after those who are weak, sick, or powerless,” says Slater. “Our responsibility includes our domestic animals, whom we took from the wild and made dependent on us.”

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on March 24, 2013
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