No one knows how many feral cats there are in America. Estimates range from about half as many as there are owned cats to one and a half times as many owned cats. There are 74 million owned cats in America. So, using any formula, that’s a lot of feral cats. October 16 is National Feral Cat Day, first initiated by Alley Cat Allies.
Feral cats aren’t a new issue. They’ve existed for thousands of years, likely since the domestication of cats somewhere around 5,300 to 9,000 years ago.
Feral cats are both beneficial and problematic. Historically, feral cats were tied to superstitions in medieval Europe when the Great Plague occurred. People responded by killing the cats, until eventually it was determined that fleas that traveled on rats were actually responsible for the bubonic plague. Killing cats only allowed the rat population to explode. Ultimately, feral cats helped to save the day, as they were allowed to prosper, and controlled rat numbers.
However, feral cats can carry disease to other cats, and toxoplasmosis to people. Also, feral cats have been identified with rabies–it’s not common; it does happen.
In big cities, feral cats do today what they did in Europe in the 1600 help to control the rat population. Some cities even use spayed/neutered colony cats to help control rat numbers.
Feral cats, though, can be a community problem. Using meticulously cultivated gardens as litter boxes, caterwauling outside windows, and causing commotion by their mere presence outside a window where indoor cats are watching.
The elephant in the room are birds. There’s no doubt that feral cats eat, and birds may be on the menu. However similar to the way cats were unfairly maligned in the 1600’s, those unreasonable attacks continue in 2016.
Some bird conservation groups contend cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds every year in the United States (Loss, Will, and Marra 2013). However, these estimates have some major flaws. As Anne Beall, researcher and author of “Community Cats: A Journey Into the World of Feral Cats,” points out in a guest blog, “The first problem is that the total number of birds that cats are estimated to kill is implausible (Wolf 2013). The current number of birds who reside in the United States is 3.2 billion and in North America, 5.8 billion (Partners in Flight 2013). If cats were killing this many birds, they would be killing 43 to 100 percent of the U.S. birds each year. If that situation were an actuality, the bird population would be entirely wiped out within one to two years.”
Here’s what feral cats do eat: They eat what they can most easily catch, and what they catch depends on what exists where they live. Mostly, though, rodents top the menu, from voles to mice depending on what’s available. Rabbits might also be taken. In urban areas, rats appear on the feral cat menu.
In cities, the truth is that what cats catch the most is trash and handouts. Whether it’s dumpster driving at restaurants and bars or receiving food from cat lovers, life can be pretty nice for some urban feral cats. In fact, some are even overweight.
The truth is that many feral cats have no interest in catching birds. And even feral cats who eat birds may aren’t necessarily be very efficient at hunting them. After all, as quick as cats may be, they don’t fly. However, in limited places where shorebirds nest, cats may be a significant threat to their chicks.
However, number of birds feral cats cats, research shows that light and air pollution as well as habitat destruction are far more damaging to birds.
Life for feral cats can be perilous. They are in the middle of the food chain, and can be attacked by coyotes, and birds of prey can snatch up kittens. Cars are a big enemy, too. Parasites and disease are threats. In some places, feral cats are even shot at or poisoned. Sometimes kittens have a fifty-fifty shot (or less) of surviving into adulthood.
Despite their problems with surviving, cats are induced ovulators, which is a fancy way of saying they are really effective at maintaining population numbers; they literally reproduce like rabbits. And they grow their numbers fast because the average cat has more years to reproduce compared to a rabbit, and this is where living in a colony (with other cats) is helpful.
Here’s how fast: In one year, an average mature cat can have three litters with a total of 12 kittens per year; 10.2 surviving kittens, of which 4.7 are female. The average litter size is four kittens. According to most “cat calculators,” in 10 years one cat will produce more than 10,000 kittens, and together (including the kittens they produce) will have over 57,000 kittens.
Even most animal lovers concede feral cat populations should be controlled, for the benefit of the cats, the communities in which they live, and the wildlife in those areas.
The question is how to do that. Historically, the easiest and only way to control cat numbers has been poison. Of course, there’s a concern that kids or dogs can get into the poison, but it simply doesn’t work. Cats often don’t take the bait.
Some support legalizing the shooting of feral cats. However, where persecuted, feral cats become totally nocturnal; it’s not easy to shoot a cat in daylight, let alone in the dark. There are huge humane concerns since cats typically don’t instantly die because the shooter’s aim can’t be that excellent, so they’re injured and may suffer many days or weeks before succumbing. Also, there’s a realistic concern that owned indoor/outdoor cats will be shot. And, in more than one case, people have been mistakenly shot. One person aiming at a feral cat accidentally shot his mother-in-law.
For many communities, they’ve historically dealt with feral cats via complaints. When people complain, animal control traps as many as they can and euthanizes them. Aside from the cost to the community of euthanasia, this most common method doesn’t work.
Feral cats almost always live in colonies, an excellent survival strategy for many reasons. When the colony population is impacted, either by poisoning or by trapping nearly all the cats, in virtually no time the remaining cats reproduce so quickly that they fill the vacuum, often even exceeding original population numbers.
For many years, the above methods have been attempted. If they worked, I would have no need to write this column. There is one method that does work to control feral cat population numbers: It’s called trap-neuter-return, or TNR. The method doesn’t eradicate cats overnight, but it works over time, and does so humanely (which, according to surveys, most people want).
So, TNR means that cats are humanely trapped, spay/neutered, and hopefully vaccinated for rabies.
Some big-hearted shelters attempt to socialize these caught feral cats and adopt them. However, living in shelters and so close to people, these unsocialized cats are absolutely terrified. The resources and space these cats take then prevent other, far more adoptable cats from being adopted. So, cats are euthanized that are social, while shelters continue focusing on socializing feral cats, a process that takes many months, even years, and many individuals just can’t ever be completely socialized.
Instead, it’s a better idea to spay/neuter the trapped cats, and vaccinate them for rabies (important for public health, and should be, in my opinion, mandated by law), and then released back to where they were caught. It’s exceedingly important for volunteer caretakers to then watch over the cat colony, supplementing them with food and providing shelter from harsh elements (a large storage box from a home improvement store might do).
When cats are caught to be spay/neutered, little kittens and any friendly cats (formerly owned cats) are adopted. Remember, the goal of TNR is to lower numbers of outdoor-only cats. Also, some people only want to adopt a kitten, and shelters can provide the public with what they want this way. Even with caretakers overseeing colonies, returning small kittens to a colony can be a death sentence, just because nature is what it is. Any cats caught to be spayed/neutered that are very ill are humanely euthanized. This is all an indisputably humane approach.
While even cats supplemented with food will hunt some, studies show the obvious: Not needing to hunt to survive, they hunt far less. This fact makes me wonder why bird conservation groups don’t embrace TNR groups.
Instead most bird conservation groups publicly criticize TNR, maintaining that cats are “put back out to kill, even if spayed/neutered,” and instead advocate for poisoning or trapping and killing–methods that for hundreds of years have done nothing to lower populations of feral cats.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that TNR does work. However, if someone has a better idea to deal with feral cats, let me know. Also, I’m not even sure that we want to see all feral cats disappear, at least in places where they do control rodent numbers.
The fact is that feral cats have been around a long time. It’s about time–long overdue, really–that cat conservation and bird conservation groups work with one another to support what’s best for the cats, the community, and the environment.