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Feral Cats


Feral Cats in General            

Feral cats are cats that have reverted to the wild.  A feral cat may have orginally been a housecat who was abandoned and left to fare on her own or she may have been the offspring of a cat living outdoors.

It is estimated that there are about 60 – 100 million feral cats in the United States.  Some are being cared for by people.  There may be about 17 million people feeding about 35 million feral and stray cats in this country.

Cats who, by necessity and through no fault of theirs, live outdoors learn survival skills that enable them to live.  They become nocturnal animals and are very wary – even afraid – of  people.  They pass these fears onto their offspring in attempt to keep their offspring safe.  Therefore, the kittens develop a fear of people from a very early age. 

Feral cats can be partly, or occasionally even significantly, domesticated if they are placed in the company of people, however, in the case of adult cats, this domestication process may take as long as several years depending on the temperament and age of the cat, the length of time that she was living outdoors and the amount of contact she has with people during the taming process.  It is best to start taming feral kittens before 8 weeks of age.  It is progressively more difficult to tame a feral kitten the older she is.

Feral cats are often found in fairly predictable areas.  They are found on college campuses and on military bases where students or military personnel abandon their cats when they move.  In addition, virtually every large city has feral cat colonies formed when negligent owners abandon their cats and leave them to wander the streets.  In addition, many farms have feral colonies to the control rodent populations.  Finally, vacation resorts and areas around hotels, parks and campgrounds also frequently have feral cat populations because of the constant food sources there.

Feral Cat Colonies

Feral cats often live in fairly stable colonies.  Because feral cats are difficult to domesticate and because they can live long lives if they have sources for food and shelter, caring for the colony is a humane, compassionate and effective way to provide for these cats.  By trapping the cats and having them spayed/neutered and then returning them to their colonies, the number of feral cats will, over time, decrease as the older cats in the colony die of natural causes.  Hopefully all cats in the colony can be trapped in order to have them spayed/neutered.  However, at times, kittens may be born before all of the colony members are altered.  In communities where all homeless kittens are able to be adopted, an attempt should be made to rescue the feral kittens in order to tame them.  The kittens born in feral circumstances should be separated from their mothers as soon as they are weaned and at least by 8 weeks.  They can then be tamed and adopted to homes.

This method of caring for feral cats is called trap-neuter-return (TNR).  The cats are trapped, then spayed and neutered and then returned to feral colonies.  TNR was pioneered in the United Kingdom about 3 decades ago and is now the preferred method of control for feral cats.

Excellent information about TNR, how to care for a feral colony and how to tame feral kittens can by obtained from Alley Cat Rescue (http://www.saveacat.org) and from Alley Cat Allies (http://www.alleycat.org).    


Basics of TNR


You should not attempt to pick up a feral cat with your hands or by wrapping a towel or blanket around the cat.  Feral cats will interpret such an effort as your attempting to hurt them and they may bite or scratch in order to protect themselves.  The best way to catch a feral cat is by using a humane trap.  Such a trap can be obtained from many shelters or humane/rescue groups.

Such traps lure the cat in with food and then, when the cat is in the cage, snap shut.  You should never leave a cat in such a trap when she might be threatened by other animals, people or inclimate weather.  When the cat is trapped in the cage you should immediately cover the cage with a towel or blanket to calm her down.


Before trapping a feral cat you should make plans with a veterinarian so that the vet can be ready to spay/neuter the cat within 24 hours.  The cat can be tranquilized through the bars of the cage and then placed back in the cage after surgery. 

Feral cats should also have their left ear tipped (notched) so that they can always be recognized as altered cats when back in the colony.  The cats should also be vaccinated at the same time as the spaying/neutering.

After surgery, male cats should be kept overnight in the trap before being released to the colony.  Because spaying is more complex and invasive than neutering, female cats should be kept for 2-4 days in their trap before release to ensure that there are no postoperative complications.  She can be fed by putting food in the trap through the back door.

Maintaining the colony  

Maintaining the colony requires daily food and water, providing shelter and watching the cats for signs of illness.  The shelter should be insulated, have straw and have a waterproof covering.  Dusting the bedding with flea powder will prevent flea infestations.  Outdoor “litter boxes” can be built and should be kept clean.

Taming feral kittens                  

Kittens born to feral mothers or born to stray (but not feral) mothers who have been abandoned, should (in communities where all kittens are able to find homes) be removed from the colony and tamed.  The feral kittens should be separated from their mothers after they are weaned – and definitely by at least 8 weeks of age.

Taming these kittens is a time-consuming, but rewarding undertaking.  Depending on the age and temperament of the kittens and on the amount of human contact the kittens have had, taming the kittens can be accomplished easily and readily, or can take significant effort and time.  Taming a feral kitten may take just a few days or may take many weeks or months.

If you have never tamed a feral kitten before, we suggest that you contact someone with experience in doing this before you start.  Many “tricks of the trade” have been learned by those who have gone before you and these will save you and the kittens much stress and wasted effort.

The key to taming a feral kitten is to provide her with a maximal amount of human contact in a situation where she cannot totally escape or hide.  You can put the feral kitten in a small room, such as a bathroom, and then have someone in that room several hours per day. You can also start out by placing the kitten in a large cage and then putting the cage in a busy room of the house. 

Your goal is to show the feral kitten that she can trust you.  You can gradually get closer to her by giving her treats and using toys (such as feather stick toys) to play with her. 

You can then slowly begin to pet her and then gradually advance to picking her up and holding her for progressively longer periods of time.  When petting her or picking her up it is best to approach her with your hands in back of her.  Moving your hand toward her face or even moving your hand quickly away from her face may be interpreted as threatening and evoke a fear or aggression response.  When working with a very fearful feral kitten, it may be necessary, when attempting to handle her, to wear thick gloves to avoid being bitten or scratched.   

There are other tricks that can also be helpful.  Having the feral kitten be around or see domesticated cats can be useful.  By observing normal human-cat interactions the feral kitten will start to emulate some of the behaviors of the already-domesticated cat.  Also, playing a radio or TV in the room with the feral kitten may also help the taming process.


Of course preventing the situation where cats are forced to live and fend for themselves outdoors is the first, best policy.  Many of these cats were abandoned for no fault of their own or are the offspring of cats that were abandoned.  Preventing pet overpopulation and providing help to those who are having trouble keeping their pets will, in the end, help to decrease the feral cat population.  Every individual can help to decrease the feral cat population by:

  1.  Having their own cats spayed and neutered

2.  Talking to friends and neighbors about having their cats spayed and neutered – especially if they allow unaltered cats to roam unsupervised

3.  Discouraging friends and family from breeding their household pets

 4.  Supporting their local shelters and humane/rescue groups

These groups make low-cost spay and neuter services available to those who need assistance.  They also provide assistance to those who are having problems keeping their pets by providing information about correcting pet behavior problems and information about housing and allergies that will allow them to keep their pets.  Also, by providing adoption services for homeless animals as an alternative to having the public purchase animals from people who breed animals for profit, the pet overpopulation problem can be decreased. 

We are indebted to Alley Cat Rescue for providing some of the background information in this section about feral cats.




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