When domestic cats live outdoors, fending for themselves, they are classified as feral cats. Feral cats might find shelter in abandoned cars, in a barn, in or under sheds, or in old buildings. Although feral cats usually look about the same as indoor house cats, they have vastly different temperaments due to their lack of connection with humans. Feral cats tend to lead hard lives due to their circumstances, and they can also have a negative impact on their surrounding environment.
Feral Cat Behaviors
Feral cats usually descend from cats that were pets before being abandoned or becoming lost. These cats commonly live in large groups in locations where they can find food and shelter. The adult females in the group care for their young, and most groups will consist of a few adult male cats as well. The female feral cats will have two litters of kittens each year, generally three to five kittens each. The kittens stay with their mothers until they are about eight weeks old.
Common Problems Related to Feral Cats
Feral cats can engage in nuisance behaviors that impact humans. Spraying and defecating in yards is a common problem with feral cats, especially if they are marking territory. Cats may also dig up yards, jump in open cars, hunt wild birds and other wildlife, fight loudly with other feral cats, and upset house cats that see feral cats outside in the yard. These cats may also cause flea infestations in outdoor living spaces. Feral cats that are not spayed or neutered contribute directly to the overpopulation problem. Shelters are often ill-equipped to handle the large number of outdoor cats that need assistance, leading to a high incidence of euthanasia if shelters don’t have room to house them.
Outdoor Barn Cats
Some outdoor cats, including ones with owners, live in outbuildings such as a barn. These cats are often considered free-roaming cats, but they socialize with a specific owner and the owner often leaves out food and water to care for the animals. Barn cats can provide an important service to a farm, helping to control rodent populations. Owners who allow their cats to have free roaming privileges on a property can help with control of the animal population by having their cats spayed or neutered.
What Threatens Feral Cats?
Feral cats that live in mild climates tend to have easier lives than those that live in regions with cold winters. Feral cats virtually never die of old age. Instead, they have accidents or become sick with a disease such as leukemia or infectious peritonitis. Minor illnesses or health issues will often become life-threatening for feral cats as wounds become infected, upper respiratory infections get so bad they interfere with breathing, or ear mites lead to infections.
How to Help Feral Cats
Feral cats are unsocialized and fearful of humans. They display this fear with either very timid behavior or aggressive hissing and growling. It may be possible to socialize a feral cat. A kitten or a young cat may be possible to socialize in only a day or two, but an adult cat that has lived in the wild for years may never socialize. The number of feral generations that separate a cat from socialization will also impact how easy it is to socialize the cat: Fewer generations of feral living generally make it easier to tame a cat. The amount of contact a feral cat has had with humans will also affect the ease with which someone might socialize it.
The trap-neuter-return protocol involves humanely trapping feral cats, spaying or neutering them in an animal shelter, and then releasing them back into the wild after they recover from the surgery. A feral cat that can be socialized might be adopted into a home instead of being released back into the wild. Contacting a local humane association can be an important first step toward helping a feral cat.
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- Managing Wildlife Damage: Feral Cats (PDF)
- Feral and Stray Cats: An Important Difference
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