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Helping Feral Cats Is Up to You

National Feral Cat Day is about increasing public awareness and improving treatment of feral cats. Get your education right here.

Nancy Peterson  |  Oct 16th 2014


When you encounter a cat outdoors, you may wonder who he belongs to or where he comes from. Is he a pet cat allowed to go outside? An indoor cat who accidentally slipped out and can’t find his way home? An abandoned pet? Maybe he’s a feral cat who has always lived outdoors.

You may even be unsure of what the term “feral cat” means. Now is a good time to learn more. That’s the goal of National Feral Cat Day, which takes place on October 16 and includes hundreds of events nationwide. National Feral Cat Day was launched in 2001 by Alley Cat Allies to increase and improve the public’s awareness and treatment of feral and stray cats.

So, what is a feral cat? Feral cats tend to be extremely fearful of people and are generally not suitable for adoption. That’s because as young kittens they aren’t socialized, which means they aren’t taught to like people. Feral cats are the offspring of other feral cats, including former pets who have become fearful of people, or stray cats, friendly lost and abandoned pet cats.

Most feral cats live in groups, called colonies, of related females, and their kittens and survive on small prey and food scraps from dumpsters and garbage cans. People also provide food for feral cats.

When people first encounter feral cats, the cats may only approach if they’re extremely hungry. They won’t allow people to touch them and will only eat food that’s offered after people have moved away. A cat is probably feral if he’s still unapproachable after several days of feeding.

Over time, feral cats may come to trust the people who feed them, but they hide from people if they are made to live indoors. However, feral kittens younger than eight weeks of age can be socialized (tamed) and adopted into homes.

Although people feed feral cats to help them, what really helps is to stop the cats from reproducing. If you’re already caring for a colony of spayed and neutered feral cats, thank you! You are part of a volunteer workforce that may represent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dedicated individuals.

If you or someone you know is feeding unsterilized feral cats, or if you’d like to help feral cats but don’t know how, you can learn about a strategy known as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). TNR is a humane and effective strategy that reduces reproduction, stabilizes or reduces populations, and honors our commitment to care for cats ÔÇô- all cats. Many organizations and municipalities support TNR and may provide low-cost spay/neuter services, loan traps, have cat food banks, and more.

Once feral cats are sterilized, rabies vaccinated, and ear tipped, they are returned to their outdoor home. Ear tipping involves the surgical removal of about 1/4 inch of the cat’s ear tip while the cat is under anesthesia for spaying or neutering. If you see a cat with an ear tip, you know that the cat is sterilized.

Following sterilization, the cats’ health won’t be compromised from reproducing over and over, and a lot of the nuisance behaviors associated with non-sterilized cats, like yowling, fighting and spraying, will be reduced or eliminated. Their health improves because diseases like feline immunodeficiency virus, which are transmitted through deep bite wounds when cats fight, and diseases like feline leukemia virus, which are transmitted from mother to kitten, are reduced or eliminated. Public safety also improves because the cats are vaccinated against rabies.

In addition to TNR, there are many other ways people can help feral cats, such as advocating for policies that promote the practice of TNR, providing a holding space pre- and post-surgery for feral cats, fostering and socializing feral kittens, building feral cat shelters, volunteering for an organization that helps feral cats (there are lots of opportunities that don’t involve hands-on work), writing articles and letters to the editors for local newspaper and magazine articles about feral cats and TNR, and donating to an organization that helps feral cats.

In addition to TNR, pet owners play a critical role in combating cat overpopulation. Spaying and neutering pets before they can reproduce at four months of age saves millions of lives, keeping pets indoors protects cats as well as wildlife, and providing pets with a safety collar and visible identification increases the chance that lost pets will be returned to their homes.

They’re counting on us whether they live in our homes as pet cats or they live outdoors as feral cats. All cats deserve the best life we can give them.

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