Humane Solutions for Controlling Feral Cat Populations

Photo Courtesy Layla Morgan Wilde

Photo Courtesy Layla Morgan Wilde

Feral cats aren’t a new issue; they existed for thousands of years – likely since the domestication of cats somewhere between 5,300 to 9,000 years ago.

And that same old problem is still around. 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 as owned cats. There are 74 million owned cats in America. So, using any formula, there’s no shortage of feral cats.

Feral cats are both beneficial and cause problems.

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 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, while uncommon, it does happen

In some big cities, feral cats do today what they did in Europe in the 1600’s by participating in organized programs to control rats, using spay/neutered colony cats to help control the vermin.

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 diet. However similar to the way cats were unfairly maligned in the 1600’s, those unreasonable attacks continue even today.

Some bird conservation groups contend cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds annually in the U.S. (Loss, Will, and Marra 2013).  However, these estimates have some major flaws. The first problem is that the total number of birds that cats are estimated to kill is farfetched (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 about half to 100 percent of the U.S. birds each year. If that situation was reality, the entire U.S. bird population would be 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 animals 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 diving at restaurants and bars or receiving goodies from cat lovers, life can be pretty nice for some urban feral cats. Some are even overweight.

The truth is that many feral cats have no interest in catching birds. And even feral cats who eat birds aren’t always so 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.

Of course, feral cats do kill some birds. However, another fact is 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 places, people even shoot at feral cats, or poison them. Sometimes kittens have a fifty fifty shot (or less) of surviving into adulthood.

Cats usually overcome these obstacles because they are induced ovulators, which is a fancy way of saying they literally breed like rabbits which makes them really effective at maintaining population numbers. They grow their numbers fast because, in part, 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 also helpful.

Here’s how fast cat can populate: 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, in all, over 10,000 kittens.

Even most animal lovers concede feral cat population should be controlled, for the benefit of the cats and the communities where they live, as well as addressing wildlife issues.

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 shooting 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 shot his mother-in-law, he maintained in error.

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 eons, the above methods have been attempted – if they worked, then 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, known as TNR. It doesn’t eradicate cats overnight, but 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, and I mean truly terrorized. 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 volunteer caretakers then watch over the cat colony, supplementing them with food and provide 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 indeed adopted. Remember the goal of TNR (trap-neuter-return) 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 spay/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 spay/neutered” and instead advocate for poisoning or trapping and killing – methods that for hundreds of years have done nothing to lower population 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 very long time. It’s about time – long overdue – that cat conservation and bird conservation groups work with one another to support what’s best for the cats, birds the community and the environment.

Steve is a certified animal behavior consultant, and the author of several books, including ebooks “Good Cat!” and “Good Dog!” He’s a co-editor of “Decoding Your Dog” (by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists” which Victoria wrote the foreword. He’s the host of several radio shows, including nationally syndicated Steve Dale’s Pet World, and can be heard on WGN Radio, Chicago. He has a long list of TV credits., from Oprah to Animal Planet shows, including his current appearances on “HouseSmarts TV. He serves on several Boards, including Winn Feline Foundation.
His website/blog: www.stevedalepetworld.com.


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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is www.stevedale.tv


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One thought on “Humane Solutions for Controlling Feral Cat Populations

  1. Simo

    Whilst I love this method and have seen it work effectively in Turkiye with both feral cats and street dogs. Tourists and visitors too other countries cause major problems to these programmes. They arrive for their summer holidays and see dogs/cats bring treated differently than they are used too and spend their 1 or 2 week feeding them, giving the impression to those not spayed or neutered that food is plentiful so time to breed, so during the winter months when they are all back in their own countries the country they visited are over run with kittens and puppies, often without the resources to trap, spay, neuter and return.

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