Feral Cats and How to Help Them
15 August 2019
What are feral Cats?
Feral cats are the same species of cat (Felis silvestris) as our pet cats, but are not socialised to humans or the domestic environment. This means that while they are the same species as pet cats, they behave like wild animals and therefore have completely different needs to those kept as companion animals.
They can never be tamed and this should never be attempted because they are very fearful of people and it would seriously compromise their welfare.
Feral cats live alone, or in groups called colonies, and are found in towns, cities as well as rural areas. The best solution for feral cats is for them to be neutered and returned to their familiar environment.
What makes a cat feral?
Cats learn what is normal when they are very young kittens and their brains are developing. The point in a kitten’s life when it is aged between 2 and 8 weeks old is known as the ‘socialisation period’. Young kittens which have had positive contact with people and are handled during this critical time can form a bond with humans and enjoy living as pets.
Feral cats are the offspring of stray, feral or abandoned domestic cats and have missed out on these early positive experiences with people.
They should not be confused with stray cats which were raised as pets but have since become lost or abandoned. Although stray cats can be scared of people due to their experiences, they can often be rehabilitated and go on to live life as a pet again.
Helping feral cats
Some people view feral cats as pests. Thankfully, many more value them for their role as working mousers that protect grain and feed. A healthy feral colony can really help to keep vermin levels down.
Despite their wild nature, feral cats still benefit from a certain level of care, including:
Neutering: This has major health benefits and keeps the colony size under control. Feral cats will need to be trapped in a humane cat trap before they are neutered because they are too wild to be handled. Once a feral cat is under anaesthetic, the vet can give it a health check and treat it for parasites. After neutering the cat is released back into its territory as quickly as possible- this is so the cat does not lose the communal scent and end up being rejected by other cats in the colony.
Regular feeding: Many feral cats are very resourceful and find adequate food, but it may be helpful to offer them extra help, especially in winter. Only offer food if the feral cats have been neutered. This is important because feeding unneutered cats increases the number of kittens that are born. It is also not in any cat’s interests to become overweight and this is particularly true of feral cats as it affects their agility and chance of survival- so avoid overfeeding. Contrary to popular belief, regularly fed feral cats may be better, more patient hunters than hungry ones.
Observation: It is helpful to observe colonies, so that any unneutered, sick or injured cats can be promptly trapped and taken to the vet. Only minor ailments can be treated in feral cats and sometimes they have to be euthanased on welfare grounds if they have significant illness or injury.
Why not just remove feral cats?
Catching and removing feral cats may temporarily reduce the numbers, but this leads to what is known as the ‘vacuum effect’. Any cats left behind will continue to breed and others will move into the area which is clearly a good source of food and shelter.
The solution is to trap, neuter and return (TNR) the cats. Over a period of years this will reduce the size of the colony. A controlled, healthy and stable colony will deter other feral cats from moving in and will keep vermin levels down.
How you can help feral cats in your area:
If you would like to help feral cats in your area, why not enquire about becoming a TNR volunteer? It is a very rewarding and direct way to help cats in need and you will see the benefits for yourself!
Full training and support will be provided by Cats Protection. If you are interested, please either read the role description under ‘Volunteering' or contact Laura Hopkins, Volunteer Team Leader at firstname.lastname@example.org.