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October 16 was Feral Cat Day, and from some of the reactions to our articles and social media posts, it seems there are many misconceptions about feral cats. So we’ve set out to explode a myth or two.

28b892d0fb840665209b389fc90b91a2Why should you care about cats that are nobody’s pet? The answer is: Because as a person who cares about animals you are likely to have to call in help for an injured, trapped or sick cat or kitten that you suspect is wild, or you might come across what seem to be kittens abandoned under a bush.

Here’s what you need to know:

What exactly is a feral cat?

A stray cat is a pet who has been lost or abandoned, is accustomed to contact with people and tame enough to be adopted. A feral cat is the offspring of stray or other feral cats and is not used to human contact.

Do you know how to tell the difference between a socialised and unsocialised cat? Take this quiz to find out.

What is the life of a feral cat like?

Most feral cats live in a colony – a group of related cats. They occupy and defend a specific territory where food (this could be a factory dumpster or a person who feeds them) and shelter (maybe an abandoned building) are available. Although feral cats may be seen by people who feed them, strangers may not know that feral cats are living nearby. Stray cats tend to be much more visible, may vocalize and may approach people in search of food or shelter. Stray cats may join a colony or defend a territory of their own.

Is the life of a feral cat essentially a bad thing?

73c83b8a72e748a2c9da24e435ae8d55_mdFrom a person’s point of view, feral cats urinating and defecating in their garden, sleeping on someone’s car and upsetting an owned cat, are the greatest concerns.

From the feral cat’s point of view, as long as he is healthy and fed, his life is one of freedom and movement and he would enjoy many of the things domesticated cats enjoy – sleeping in the sun, exploring his world and tucking into his food.

Animal welfare is most concerned with overpopulation. Although there are no comprehensive SA stats to go by, in the United States, according to the Humane Society of the United States, about 2% of the 30 to 40 million feral and stray cats have been spayed or neutered. These cats produce around 80% of the kittens born in the USA each year.

What is being done to manage feral cats?

Spaying or neutering community cats using Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) reduces their numbers. TNR is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving their quality of life. It involves:

  • Humanely trapping feral and stray cats.
  • Transporting them to TEARS’ Community Clinic for sterilisation and/or treatment.
  • Vaccinating them against rabies.
  • Surgically removing the tip of one ear (a “tipped” ear is the universally-recognized sign of a cat who has been spayed or neutered).
  • Returning the cats to their home.

The benefits of TNR help reduce more than overpopulation along:

  • The cessation of sexual activity stops the noise associated with mating behaviour and dramatically reduces fighting and the noise it causes.
  • They roam less so become less visible and far less prone to being hit by a car.
  • Smells are reduced because neutered male cats stop producing testosterone which, if unsterilised, would combine with their urine to produce a strong, pungent smell when they spray.
  • When the colony is then monitored by a caretaker who removes and/or TNRs any newly arrived cats, the population stabilizes and gradually declines over time.

Does TEARS treat strays differently to ferals?

If it is discovered that a cat is tame, TEARS will attempt to find the cat’s guardian. If attempts fail, TEARS will try to find an adoptive home for the stray.

kittensIf the cat is feral, unapproachable and wary after several days of feeding, once TNR-ed, a dedicated caretaker provides food, water and shelter, monitors the cats for sickness or injury, and TNRs new feral cats who arrive. Ideally, kittens young enough to be socialized and new tame cats who arrive are removed from the colony for possible adoption.

Many dedicated caretakers pay for food to supplement the diet of feral colonies so donations of dry food are always welcome. Feral cats that are part of TNR programmes are healthier than cats in unmonitored colonies and can live life spans exceeding 10 years.

In TNR, the kitties are caught, transported to veterinary or spay/neuter clinics, sterilized, ear-tipped for identification purposes, vaccinated against rabies, and returned to their colonies.

Why doesn’t TEARS adopt out adult feral cats?

It can be difficult for animal lovers to understand why a feral cat that looks just like their pet can’t be adopted into a home and live as comfortably as their own pets. The reality is that the survival instinct of feral kitties drives them to avoid human interaction. If their basic survival needs are met, feral cats do much better living outside on their own turf.

Jesse Oldham of the ASPCA describes his own experience with ferals this way: “I, like many first-time rescuers, tried to socialize a feral cat. He remained under my bed for over a year before I could even touch him. With so many adoptable domestic cats and kittens who are truly happy being indoors, socialising a feral cat should not be the goal.”

What should I do if I find a litter of kittens?

Tiny kittens seemingly alone in the world and completely vulnerable are hard to resist, but resist you must, at least temporarily. Before you gather up those kittens and take them home, the first thing you should do is try to figure out how old they are. If more than a few weeks old, it may be too late to turn them into pets that can live comfortably with people.

cat-stray-feeding-kittensThe next step is to wait to see if the mother cat comes back. The litter you’ve found may or may not be abandoned by their mother. She could be out hunting or hiding in the shadows waiting for you to leave. It’s best to wait awhile, at least an hour or two, to see if the mother returns to her babies.

If she does return, and you’ve called our feral cat team at TEARS, we’ll leave the kittens with their mom until they’re weaned. If it turns out that mom is an approachable stray, we will trap her, collect the kittens, and bring her back to our cattery, or place in foster care, until the kittens are at least eight weeks and can be adopted.

If mom is feral, we will provide her with food, water and outside shelter if she and her kittens are exposed to the elements or in an unsafe area. When the kittens are weaned, they will be brought in with a view to finding them homes. Mom will become a first-rate candidate for TEARS Feral Cat Project’s TNR programme.

If mom doesn’t return and the kittens have not yet been weaned, we will place them in foster care where they will get round-the-clock care in order to survive.

What can I do to help feral cats?

Resist the urge to scoop up all those cute tiny kittens. They may not belong to the same litter – TEARS has encountered situations in which a cat was taking care of several litters in addition to her own – which means some may be diseased and others healthy. Placing all the kittens together could mean that healthy babies are infected by sick babies and may even die.

To become part of the solution to the ongoing challenge and brave fight for our ferals, you can find specific ways to help that will cost you little in time or money.