“Feral” means to have escaped from domestication or to have become wild. These may include first-generation cats or “strays” from companion homes, or they may have been born to feral cats and may have lived their entire lives outside of human companionship.
The Humane Society of Utah is flooded with calls about well-meaning Utah residents who either allow their indoor cats to continually breed or who provide food to local stray or feral cats around their property, while not taking the responsibility to have them sterilized, vaccinated, or when possible, placing them into good, permanent homes. There are a wide variety of emotional, psychological and ethical issues associated with individuals on all sides of this problem.
Estimates exist that claim there are from sixty to ninety million stray and feral cats in the United States! A female cat can have two to three litters a year, or up to twenty-nine litters in ten years. A male cat can sire as many as 2,500 kittens in a single year. Theoretically, one pair of breeding cats could create around 420,000 cats just over a seven-year period, when taking into account all of their offspring and their offspring and their offspring, Most of the kittens born in litters to these feral and stray felines die before reaching adulthood from disease, hunger, injuries, abscesses, vehicle accidents, being shot, trapped, poisoned, etc.
This over-breeding and lack of veterinary care often results in multitudes of cats with upper respiratory infections (U.R.I.) where the cats’ eyes and nose become crusted over with exudate, subjecting the cat to ongoing respiratory tract infections and difficult breathing and poor vision. It is also highly infectious to other cats.
The lack of sterilization also results in mating behaviors such as fighting, noise and territorial spraying. Another concern is that the stray or feral cat population of animals who haven’t been vaccinated against the rabies virus can contract this disease, which can be carried by bats, foxes and raccoons, and is almost always lethal to exposed humans. Indoor cats can live at least fifteen to twenty years or longer. Outdoor cats may only survive a few years due to disease, environmental hazards, vehicles, other animals, disgruntled neighbors, and weather extremes.
A common problem associated with stray and feral cats is that of being a nuisance to other residents in the area. These nuisances include the ones listed in the foregoing paragraph, as well as the killing of song birds, urinating and defecating in neighbors’ gardens and in sand boxes, and causing damage to vehicles when cats scratch, climb on and track across the upper vehicle surfaces,
An August 2013 article in Pets in the City Magazine, “Look What the Cat’s Dragged In...”, by Chanté McCoy, quoted a 2013 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that indicated that owned outside cats and feral cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds a year in the United States and kill between 7-21 billion wild mammals.
Stray and feral cats have to fend for themselves in our parks, alleys, farmyards, barns, apartment complexes, military bases, college campuses, campsites, abandoned buildings, under porches, inside sheds and outbuilding, inside abandoned vehicles, and inside empty homes. They live from day to day by scrounging in backyards, in garbage cans, in dumpsters, at public landfills, behind restaurants and by killing local wildlife, including mice, voles, rats, birds, snakes, etc.
Since 1980 there have been a number of private organizations and governmental agencies throughout the United States which have been trying to deal with the problems associated with the stray and feral cat problem through what is known as Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR). This involves livetrapping stray and feral cats, having them surgically sterilized, having the veterinarian clip the tip off of one ear to indicate the sterilized nature of the cat if live-trapped in the future, administering a rabies vaccination and then releasing the cat back into the same area from which it was live-trapped.
The Humane Society of Utah doesn’t encourage unplanned breeding of domestic cats, nor does it encourage residents to merely supply feed and shelter to feral cats in the community. While TNR programs stop these sterilized cats from birthing new kittens, it doesn’t address the long-term problems of continued neighborhood nuisances, exposure to extreme weather conditions, vehicular accidents, disease, injuries, death from other animals, leg-hold trapping, shooting, poisoning, etc.
Cat owners must take responsibility for their indoor cats by having them surgically sterilized unless they are part of a quality breeding program of purebred and highly-desired animals for which good quality homes are easily found. All such cats should be maintained in a professional veterinary health program consisting of proper nutrition and preventative vaccinations against common diseases.
If an individual wishes to provide food and care for feral cats in their area, they should first check with their local animal control department to see whether there is an existing TNR program in the area and work with that group to assist the cats in question. If no such group exists, the existing cats should be humanely live-trapped, sterilized, vaccinated, ear-tipped, and released back in the area where they were initially live-trapped. In addition the individual should be prepared to provide food, water, shelter, and necessary veterinary care to the animal(s) throughout their remaining lives. This means taking into account the future possibility of the individual moving, becoming incapacitated and being unable to continue to provide such care, and providing TNR efforts to newly-arrived cats which may migrate into the area.