Feral Cats: What they are and who they are. (This article was submitted by Laura Payne, OMHS Board member.)
A feral cat is a domesticated cat that has returned to the wild and is unused to human interaction. These cats are very fearful and run to hide when approached. A stray cat is a pet cat that has been lost or abandoned, while feral cats are born in the wild. The offspring of a stray cat may be considered feral. These felines can be seen in and around abandoned buildings, parking lots, alleys, and other places where regular food and water can be found.
Feral cat colonies consist of mama cats, kittens, young adults, and a few intact males. Colony numbers can vary, usually consisting of five to twenty-five cats. The feral cat cycle generally begins with abandoned or lost unaltered pet cats. With little or no human interaction, these cats become wary and skittish. As they reproduce, each new generation becomes less tame. Some "barn cat" colonies may become feral over time.
Large cat colonies can have negative impacts on the environment. When large groups of cats congregate, there is often fighting between the intact males. Some are wounded in mating-fights, resulting in painful infection and fatality. Still other males and females eventually contract feline immunodeficiency virus or feline leukemia due to the transmission of blood and bodily fluids via fighting and sexual activity. These diseases can quickly spread though the colony. In addition, heavy flea infestation can cause cats to be anemic, and both fleas and contaminated food sources can cause intestinal microorganisms such as coccidia, giardia or bacteria overgrowths. Other parasites such as roundworms, tapeworms, and hookworms are spread from mother to kitten and from the soiled environment. Ear mites, ringworm, and upper respiratory infections are common. While many of these illnesses are quite treatable, human intervention is necessary to prevent them from becoming fatal.
Despite being protected under Wisconsin’s anti-cruelty laws, feral cats are often the victims of scorn and even abuse. Please consider the following to help break the feral cat cycle:
Alter your pets. Making sure all pets in your home are altered is the first step to stopping the feral cat cycle. Please talk to family, friends and neighbors about spaying and neutering their pets. Do not let unaltered pets outside. Even under supervision, "accidents" happen, resulting in unplanned pregnancies. Make sure your windows and doorways are secure, and take precaution when going in and out of the home. If you know of someone allowing unaltered pets outside, talk to them about not doing so. Many cities and counties have rules and ordinances pertaining to pets and their welfare such as leash laws. If you do not feel comfortable approaching someone with your concerns, consider discreetly placing literature in their mailbox.
If your pet cat gets outside, take action immediately. Look for the cat, and alert your neighbors. Call local agencies with a description and contact information.
Never purposely release cats onto the streets for any circumstance. This is not acceptable. If you or someone you know can no longer care for a cat because of behavior, health, or a personal situation, contact a veterinarian service or a local humane society for assistance.
Contact local humane societies or a humane officer. It is sometimes difficult to determine if a cat is a stray or feral cat. Please contact your neighbors, local humane society, veterinary services, or humane officer when you find a cat or become aware of a colony. If an owner cannot be found, ask the appropriate agency for help. It is important to let humane societies and local shelters know if cats appear feral because many of them are not equipped to handle feral animals. If the organization is unable to assist with the situation or if it only offers alternatives that you are not seeking, ask for contact information for other groups that may be able to take the cats. The Internet is a good resource to find information about organizations and programs.
Unless you plan to commit to caring for feral cats, do not begin feeding them. Feeding cats will almost definitely ensure that they will stay in the vicinity—and, in time, may attract more cats, resulting in a colony situation. It is important to note that, when caring for feral cats, other unforeseen issues may arise. Again, only start feeding feral cats if you plan to commit to caring for them long-term. This is often a difficult, complex decision to make. For many, feeding and caring for feral cats is a humane and gratifying experience. Feed the cats at a set time, during daylight hours. This prevents other wildlife from joining the cats. If you live in a residential or urban area, find out if neighbors are already feeding the cats, and, if they are, ask them to do it on a regular schedule. Make sure water is accessible in all seasons. Consider the type and quality of food being offered; never offer spoiled food, and make sure that spoiled food is promptly removed from the vicinity. Secure garbage receptacles, and make sure that out-buildings, garages, porches, and gardens are not accessible to the cats.
Feeding feral cats can become expensive. Inquire about local food programs. An individual may have a chance to access the situation and individual cats’ temperament more carefully during regular feeding times. Injured or ill cats can be monitored and possibly trapped for treatment. Some cats and kittens may become less frightened and socialized with time. Never try to physically handle frightened or injured cats as they may accidentally harm you when trying to get away.
Consider Trap-and-Release to control the feral cat population. Trap-and- Release (TNR) is considered the most humane alternative for population control. Trapped cats are altered and vaccinated, at which time deworming medications and parasite control can be applied. By stabilizing the cat population, many behavior issues, such as fighting and spraying are significantly reduced. Many illness and diseases are also prevented or at the least reduced, greatly improving the cats’ health and quality of life. Cats may be relocated for their safety or placed in a homes at this time. TNR can be done one cat at a time, a few cats at a time, or on a large scale. Consider contacting people with similar concerns or a neighborhood association to plan and pool resourses.
Often, well-meaning people trap first and ponder what to do with the cats later. Please do not do this! Have a plan. To ensure the long-term success of your project and to minimize stressful problems, make sure everything is in place before trapping any animals.
Contact local humane societies and agencies to see if TNR clinics are established in your area or if financial support/reduced fees are available. Consult someone with trapping knowledge and experience. Consider transportation. Find out all of the costs involved; this may include renting one or more traps.
If there is no TNR program in your area, consider starting the project on a smaller scale. Small steps can equal great success! It may be easier to trap cats in an established feeding area. Many people in your community may be unaware of the issue or don't know how to deal with it. You may be surprised how many people will follow suit or offer assistance and resources when they see success. Be sure to contact a veterinarian facility and involve them in any plans to make sure that they are able to accommodate the situation. It is often difficult to schedule spay and neuters in a traditional manner when live-trapping. Ask about all fees and get an estimate. Inquire about facility protocols, so there are no surprises later. Make sure you let the facility know if you are using any vouchers or coupons. Inquire about vaccines and parasite control. Arrangements will need to be made for the cats to recover. Recovery may include keeping the cats in the trap or another secure kennel with food and water overnight. Please get specific directions from the attending veterinarian.
Altering cats in a colony makes finding homes for healthy and less "wild" kittens and cats easier. With patience, some of these cats may be tamed. Shelters may take the more approachable cats once they are altered. Consider contacting local farms or a rural property owners about taking altered cats as "organic" pest control. In the meanwhile, even if a home cannot be found, at least the altered cats can no longer reproduce.
Currently OMHS does not have a staffed TNR program or clinic in place. However, financial assistance is available for individuals willing to tackle feral cat and barn cat colonies. Vouchers can be used at several veterinarian services. Please see Spay and Neuter Voucher Program for more information.
Other Spay and Neuter Clinics or Programs are in the Area. Please contact the organization in your county or region first and also check out the following websites for information about feral cats and TNR information.
Alterations CATsNIP Clinics: 1-608-629-6887, www.alterationswi.org;
Dane County Humane Society: Mt. Horeb spay/neuter clinic, 1-608-437-1135; www.giveshelter.org;
Dane County Friends of Ferals: Spayathon Clinics 1-608-467-4067; www.daneferals.org;
SpayMe! Clinics, 608-834-2700.