Monday, February 28, 2011

What is a feral cat?

Feral Cats: What exactly is a feral cat?—by Louise Holton

Any domesticated animal such as a pigeon, pig, horse, dog, or cat who lives away from human contact can revert to a wild state. These animals are called “feral.” Feral kittens are the offspring of a feral mother cat, or they could be born to a domestic mother who has become lost or abandoned, or chooses to have her litter away from humans. In order for kittens to become friendly and completely domesticated, they should be handled from a very early age—before they are two weeks old. Feral mother cats teach their young offspring to be wary of humans and to run and hide if they feel threatened.

Young kittens who have not been handled by humans will spit or hiss when you approach them. Older feral kittens will be wary of humans and flee when approached. A stray domestic cat who has had to survive on her own for a while will initially be wary of humans. However, she will regain her confidence fairly soon after re-establishing contact. There are varying degrees of wariness and shyness among both ferals and other cats who have been abandoned to fend for themselves. It requires a certain amount of experience working with stray and feral cats to be able to properly judge just how feral a cat may be, or if the cat is feral at all, or just a frightened domestic cat. Many domestic cats are killed merely for acting fearful and defensive in a frightening situation—assumed to be feral..


 In Prince George’s County, Maryland, a yellow eight-month-old housecat cat  was picked up by animal control officers along with a few other stray cats at an apartment complex. The cat, Hunter, had been neutered and vaccinated just two weeks earlier, and had apparently escaped from the apartment when someone accidentally left a door ajar. The cat was examined by two experienced veterinary technicians and an animal control officer, and was deemed “feral.” He was destroyed that same day. When the family went to claim their cat they were told that he was destroyed because he “was attacking, spitting and hissing, and trying to bite the officer through his gloves.” The agency said they held most cats for three to five days but often destroy “fractious” stray cats sooner. 

Defining and predicting feral cat behavior can be somewhat murky territory. If a domesticated, friendly cat becomes lost and has to fend for himself for a while, he could temporarily revert to some instinctively wild behavior. Some older feral cats can become fairly tame in time, yet other ferals, even when trapped as young as four months of age, may remain feral forever. Some ferals bond with their original caretaker but may never bond with a new person. During my many years of working with feral cats, I have experienced a wide range of situations with hundreds of ferals. I’ve seen them in a wide variety of circumstances--in my home, at the veterinary clinic, in city alleys, and at the Alley Cat Rescue office with our own adopted feral office cats. The only conclusion one can reach from these combined experiences is that no two feral cats are alike and one can never predict how any feral cat will react to human contact.

The domestic cat is one of the most adaptable mammals on earth and, as we have said, can become feral very quickly. When a household cat is lost or abandoned, she will immediately try to find a food source and shelter. She may find a home with humans—30% of Americans obtain their cat as a stray who arrived on their doorsteps. Or she may find some old boxes behind a convenience store where other ferals have formed a colony, and join this colony. Thirty to 60 percent of lost cats , or cats who wander away from home, will eventually come to live in a feral colony. If she is not sterilized—and most abandoned or lost cats are not--she will soon be pregnant. Usually around half of her kittens will become ill with treatable illnesses, such as upper respiratory infections, and most will die. She will teach her remaining kittens to be feral, teaching them survival behaviors inherited from her wild ancestors.

Most tame domestic cats suffer greatly and cannot survive when they find themselves on their own. But some survive quite well, which is the reason there is such a large population of feral cats all around the world. Even if only meager scraps of food can be found many will survive and breed, sometimes forming large colonies. There is generally an abundance of food discarded in bags, trash cans, and dumpsters in cities and suburbs. Feral cats are opportunistic feeders and scavenge relentlessly for food. They learn very quickly the locations of potential food sources and which households, restaurants, or hotels put out food for them to eat. Often they lie patiently waiting at dumpsters for bags of garbage containing discarded scraps.

British biologist Peter Neville has studied cats and feral cat colonies for decades. He explains them this way: “There is perhaps no such thing as a feral cat, a domestic cat reverted to the wild. Instead all cats--feral, stray, and pet--can be viewed as being the same species as their African Wildcat ancestor, and the pet cat is simply exploiting an attractive opportunity. The ‘normal’ lifestyle is living around and with man, but not necessarily to the height of luxury that we offer him as a pet. Then the success of the cat ‘living rough’ and away from the direct care of man is that much easier to comprehend.”

Obviously, many of those who work in humane organizations would not be willing to admit this. It seems to many that, in order to discourage household cats from being abandoned to the streets to “fend for themselves,” they are loathe to admit that any cat, even a feral cat, can survive on her own. This is where the myths and misinformation begin and theories about what constitutes the proper way to protect feral cats become muddied. Yet, in defense of those who feel that all cats are helpless on their own, they have usually witnessed a tremendous amount of suffering and neglect among the animals they have dedicated themselves to protecting. Many cats have been abused, relinquished to shelters for euthanasia when they become inconvenient, and some are  treated appallingly by humans. But for every person who treats an animal badly there are many more who care properly for their animals, many who treat their companion animals as part of the family. And many who care for and feed feral cats to whom they have no obligation, except that their compassion dictates that they must.

Those who believe no cat can survive on her own face contradiction when colonies of ferals are seen to be surviving quite well. And when the cats have been trapped and sterilized, provided with shelter, food, and water, the cats actually thrive. It may seem contradictory to admonish people that is cruel to abandon cats to fend for themselves while saying that many cats can survive quite well on their own. However, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to care for the animals that we have domesticated, whether by taking them into our homes, or by making their life in our alleyways a little easier. We do not condone leaving any cats to survive on their own. We believe it is in the best interests of feral cats that they be sterilized and that their lives be made as comfortable and stress-free as possible, with a caring person who provides shelter and daily food and water.

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