A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with people or her contact with people has diminished over time. She is not socialized to people and survives on her own outdoors. Most feral cats are not likely to ever become lap cats or enjoy living indoors.
Outdoor cats have existed alongside humans for 10,000 years. They are not a new phenomenon. Feral cats are members of the same species as pet cats—and are therefore protected under state animal anti-cruelty laws. The difference between feral cats and your pet cat is that they have had little or no contact with people, and so they are wary of us, and cannot be adopted. They have a home—outdoors. They live and thrive in every landscape, from the inner city to rural farmland. Since feral cats are not adoptable, they should not be brought to animal pounds and shelters, because there they will likely be killed.
Stray cats are socialized to people and can be adopted into homes, but feral cats are not socialized to people and are happy living outdoors.
A stray cat:
A feral cat:
Trap-Neuter-Return is the humane, effective approach for feral cats. Feral cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped (the universal symbol of a neutered and vaccinated cat), and then returned to their outdoor home. Socialized cats and kittens are adopted into homes. The colony’s population stabilizes—no more kittens! Trap-Neuter-Return improves their lives and their relations with the community: the behaviors and stresses associated with mating stop.
The outdoors is the natural habitat for feral cats, and empirical evidence indicates they can live long and healthy lives: a 2006 study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that of 103,643 stray and feral cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states from 1993 to 2004, less than 1% of those cats needed to be euthanized due to debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases.
In addition, the lifespan of feral cats compares favorably with the lifespan of pet cats. A long-term study (published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2003) of a Trap-Neuter-Return program noted that 83% of the cats present at the end of the observation period had been there for more than six years—meaning that the cats’ lifespans were comparable to the mean lifespan of 7.1 years for pet cats.
Feral cat caregivers can take steps to make feral cats more comfortable, like neutering them, feeding them, and providing shelter. These steps promote the cats’ well-being, improve their relationships with neighbors, and assist the people who live nearby to understand and co-exist with the cats. But most feral cats don’t require intervention beyond Trap-Neuter-Return.
We use the word “eartip” to describe when a small portion of the tip of a feral cat’s left ear is surgically removed during neuter surgery, to denote that the cat has been neutered and vaccinated. Eartipping is done while the cat is anesthetized and is not painful for the cat. Eartipping is the most effective way to identify neutered feral cats from a distance, to make sure they are not trapped or undergo surgery a second time.
A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with people or her contact with people has diminished over time. They are not socialized to people and cannot be touched, except sometimes by a regular caregiver. The ideal window for socializing feral kittens is 12 weeks of age or younger—beyond 12 weeks, feral cats may never socialize completely or at all. As a result, we do not recommend attempting to socialize feral cats older than 12 weeks—it is dangerous and stressful for both you and the cat. Feral cats live healthy lives in their outdoors homes and the best thing you can do to help them is Trap-Neuter-Return. Outdoor cats that are friendly and socialized to people are called stray cats, and they can be re-homed.
Because feral cats are not socialized to people, they are unadoptable as pets. In most shelters and pounds in the US, unadoptable animals are killed. In fact, 70% of all cats who enter shelters are killed there, according to the most reliable data available. That number jumps to close to 100% for feral cats.
Many shelters now realize that allowing feral cats to enter their doors is a death sentence and that Trap-Neuter-Return is the humane approach for their care. In recognition of this, some pounds and shelters have a “no feral cats accepted” policy, as well as a policy of returning eartipped cats to the place where they were initially trapped. Unfortunately, there are more pounds and shelters that still kill feral cats—some as soon as the cat enters the facility. Feral cats live full, healthy lives outdoors, but are killed in shelters.
Animal control’s traditional approach for feral cats—catching and killing—is endless and cruel, and it does not keep an area free of cats. Cats choose to reside in a location for two reasons: there is a food source (intended or not) and shelter. Because of a phenomenon called the vacuum effect, when cats are removed from a location, survivors of the catch and kill effort and new cats who have moved in breed to capacity. Cats have been living outside alongside people for 10,000 years—a fact that cannot be changed.