Topic Thread:      Pets & Companion Animals   »   Feral Cats & Animals

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Feral Cats & Animals

CAUTION:  Children and those who are especially sensitive may not want to read the following segment. In this case, skip to The Feral Animal Problem below.

Imagine this ...

You are alone and afraid. You are hungry. It has been days since you have eaten. The hunger gnaws at you, but you are too weak now to chase after prey. It grows colder with each passing day. A long time ago it felt cold like this, but you were healthier then and it did not bother you so. Now you suffer from malnutrion and are plagued by worms and parasites that infest your body. You are not aware of them, only of the nearly constant pain that makes it difficult to move. Sometimes the pain is more bearable than usual; it is during these times that you forage for food. To do so, you must venture closer to people, for this is where you find food. Your fear grows when you do this, because you feel vulnerable and exposed. You fear the people now, although you once trusted them. You do not reason why; the fear is just there.

Things were OK until that one night. It was the night you were confronted by another of your kind, larger and stronger than youself. You tried to withdraw, but he sprang upon you. In the ensuing fight you were badly mauled and lost an eye. You left that place and did not return. It hurt where you had been bitten, you were unable to run, and the damaged eye did not heal. You had difficulty seeing, but were still able to find food. You kept yourself groomed and for a while things seemed to be getting better, even though you had to rub your face a lot because your eye was oozing constantly. This was uncomfortable. Then infection set in. You were not aware of this, only that you felt different and that you were no longer able to do the things you once did. You groomed yourself less frequently; it just didn’t seem so important and, besides, it took too much energy. Things hovered around you and landed on your fur. This was uncomfortable too. You tried to rid yourself of them, but they kept bothering you for a long time. Others of your kind no longer approached you. It was because of your smell, the smell of injury and infection, but at least they no longer attacked you. You still managed to find food, but you ate less and less.

You are so tired. You will just stay here for a while and try to sleep. Sleep no longer comes easily because the pain chases it away, but tonight is different. The pain slowly fades, you close your eyes, and sleep comes at last. You dream. It is a dream of a time long past, something you had nearly forgotten. You lived with the people once, with special people who took care of you and loved you and played with you. They were your clan. It was a good place, and you were happy. But then things changed. Suddenly the people did not want you any more. They let you go outside. You liked being outdoors, but when you tried to return they would not let you in. They fed you for a while and things were not too bad, but then they stopped feeding you. You stayed close by for a long time, but roamed farther and farther from home as you sought food. One day you simply did not return. The dream fades.

In the morning you do not awake. You are gone, your body frozen stiff in the chill winter air.

The Feral Animal Problem

Feral cats and other feral (wild) animals that were formerly domesticated have become a national epidemic in the U.S. and in other countries. Many people, such as bird lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, frequently complain about feral cats, yet few are willing to take the steps necessary to address the problem. Feral dogs, while not as prevalent as feral cats, present a greater risk to people because they tend to run in aggressive packs and have been known to kill humans, especially children, as well as other domestic animals. For this reason, communities normally take active steps to eliminate feral dog populations.

Feral Cat Rescue

Feral cats often form colonies where extensive breeding takes place. Unlike feral dog packs, which threaten humans, feral cat colonies are threatened by humans and are occasionally the targets of barbarous cruelty, despite the fact that animal protection laws can result in stiff fines as well as prison sentences. Some animal protection agencies have been established that care for feral cat colonies; a feral cat rescue agency typically refuses to divulge the locations of feral cat colonies it administers in order to insure the safety of the colony.

One of the main responsibilities of any feral cat rescue agency or group is to humanely reduce the feral cat breeding population. A highly successful method for doing this is to trap, neuter, return and manage. Once a feral cat is trapped, it receives a veterinary examination. Cats that are found to have contracted diseases that are highly contagious among cat populations, such as feline leukemia virus (FeLV), are humanely euthanized. Those in good health receive vaccinations, are spayed or neutered, and are then released back to the feral cat colony. Members of the feral cat rescue look after the safety of the colony, provide food, and may even provide shelter if necessary.

Taming Feral Cats

While taming feral cats is difficult, it is often possible to tame feral cats if sufficient care and patience is exercised. Taming or redomestication of a feral cat is a time-consuming process usually undertaken by one or more members of the feral cat rescue directly involved with a feral cat colony. These members must have frequent interaction with colony cats to gain their trust. Those felines which display a greater affinity for human companionship may eventually be reintroduced to domestic habitation and the human environment. Even when redomesticated, former feral cats may still display certain habits established while feral, such as scent marking.

Why Is There a Feral Cat Problem?

The feral cat problem is not the fault of the cats; it is people who are to blame. We all share responsibility for the feral cat problem, but individuals who abandon pets or allow their pets to breed indiscriminately are those most responsible. Simply put, feral cats are domestic animals which have found it necessary to survive outdoors. The emphasis here is on the phrase domestic animals. While feral cats have, in the eyes of many, gone wild, they are not animals accustomed to living in the wild. We have over thousands of years bred out many survival instincts and biological tolerances necessary to permit our domestic animals to survive in the wild. Most domestic animals that have been lost or otherwise released to the outdoor environment (abandoned) do not have the survival skills required to survive and are subsequently killed by wild animals or die of disease or starvation. The remainder manage to survive but are frequently malnourished and in poor health. These survivors breed prolifically, further swelling the ranks of feral cat populations.

What Can Be Done to Decrease Feral Cat Populations?

We have a responsibility to decrease populations of feral cats and other domestic animals that have become feral and to do so in a humane and ethical manner. We also have the responsibility to care for our pets and provide for their welfare. There are a number of ways to do this:
  • First and foremost, never obtain a domestic animal if you are not aware of its needs and willing to accept full responsibility for its care and well-being for the length of its projected lifespan. Dogs in good health can typically live from 10 to 20 years, while cats can easily survive from 15 to 25 years with proper care and if kept indoors. Some birds and reptiles have even longer lifespans.
  • Have your pet spayed or neutered at the proper age if this has not already been done. This eliminates the ability of the animal to breed and may also result in behavioral benefits and extended lifespan.
  • Do not give in to the allure of a puppy or kitten when your child or sweetheart begs you for one. Puppies and kittens grow up to become dogs and cats with grown-up needs. Consider that, if you obtain an animal for a family member or friend, you may be the one who inherits responsibility for the animal if the person for whom it is intended grows tired of it or does not appreciate it. For this very reason, reputable animal adoption agencies will not permit you to adopt a pet for someone else. Never surprise someone with an animal as a gift; instead, make it a family project to determine the type of pet your family wants, to become educated about that animal’s needs, temperament and potential health problems, and finally to choose your actual pet together.
  • Do not purchase animals from pet stores. This encourages continuance of disreputable and inhumane breeding practices such as puppy mills, and frequently results in a pet with health or behavioral problems. Instead, consider obtaining a pet from a pet rescue and adoption agency or from an animal shelter. Pet rescue and adoption agencies will usually take back an adopted pet if you discover that for some reason you cannot or do not want to keep it, and may actually require that it be returned to them if you cannot properly care for it.
  • Microchip your pet so that it can be identified if it becomes lost and is found by a good samaritan or by local animal control. Always have your pet wear a collar with identification tags, and be certain that it is properly registered with your municipality. Do not consider a collar with ID tags to be a substitute for microchipping, as collars can be rubbed off (especially by cats) or can otherwise be removed. ASIDE:  I was in a vet’s office when a man came in with a dog he had found running loose in the street. The vet had a microchip reader (Most vets do.), the dog had been microchipped, and within five minutes the dog’s owner had been identified. Happy ending.
  • Never abandon a pet. The idea that domestic animals can care for themselves in the wild is patently false and just so, so wrong! Pet abandonment is considered to be a criminal offense in many states. Just don’t do it! If you really don’t want your pet any more, find a responsible friend or a pet adoption agency that will accept it and, for heaven’s sake, don’t get another one!
  • If you feel your pet may survive you (especially true if you are elderly), make provisions in advance for its care and placement, such as in your will, in the event of your demise or incapacitation. Anyone who has a pet should be willing to insure its future well-being, just as you would do for a child. Conversely, being elderly is no reason to avoid having a pet, especially a cat, provided that you are physically and financially able to care for it and make provisions for its care if you become unable to care for it.
  • Seek friends and family members who are willing to care for your pet if something unexpected happens to you.
  • In an unfortunate circumstance in which you do have to give up a pet, seek a pet adoption and rescue agency or no-kill animal shelter that can assure you the animal will not be euthanized. Turning your pet over to the local animal shelter is almost certain to result in termination of its life, unless it is extremely fortunate, due to the large number of animals that shelters receive and their limited space and budget. Be prepared to pay to have a rescue agency or no-kill shelter accept your pet, although this is not always required.
  • Support feral cat rescue agencies, either through monetary donation or by volunteering time or services.
  • If you are aware of a feral cat in your neighborhood, report it to a feral cat rescue agency. If your community does not have such an agency, report a feral cat to your local humane society, S.P.C.A. or animal control facility. You may be provided with a humane trap which can be used to capture the animal. Be aware that, if animal control takes charge of the animal, it is likely that it will be euthanized.
    CAUTION:  For your own protection, never attempt to capture a feral cat without the use of a humane trap, and always wear protective gloves if for some reason you must handle one. Feral cats are frightened of humans and behave as wild animals. You could be severely scratched or bitten.
  • If you are especially ambitious and care about cats, you may wish to establish a feral cat rescue if one does not already exist in your community. Your local humane society, S.P.C.A. or animal shelter should be able to provide guidance and may provide limited assistance. Grants may also be available, although they will almost certainly be hard to come by, especially for a startup organization. Neighbors may object to a feral cat rescue being located in the neighborhood, even if a feral cat population already exists; this is the NIMBY factor at work (Not In My Back Yard). You may need to convince your neighbors that such a project will be beneficial by limiting cat foraging and bird catching (the latter being not really as big a problem as bird lovers believe it is) and ultimately reducing the feral cat population.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 26 September 2005, updated 19 June 2006.

Follow links to the right to learn more about feral cats, feral animals and feral cat rescue. At the left margin, Related Links address topics of interest pertaining to locating a pet, protecting your pet’s well-being and health, and maximizing your pet’s quality of life. If you desire to become a pet owner, check out Pet Adoption & Rescue. If you already own a pet, you may be especially interested in Pet Care & Pet Health and Pet Products & Supplies. View the Pets & Companion Animals SiteMap for a complete list of pets and companion animals topics.

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