You’d be surprised to learn that feral cats, also called community cats, might be living right under your nose. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that about 50 million of them roam throughout the country. A feral cat with no caretaker lives, on average, only two years. When a caretaker steps in, a feral cat’s average lifespan increases to 10 years. You can do something to help besides just feeding them.
About Feral Cats
Because feral cats were born to lost or abandoned cats, without human contact, they're wild and are usually too afraid to be handled or touched. Living in colonies with other feral cats, often near a restaurant dumpster or in an abandoned building, they are experts at hiding from people, and usually live a tough, short life. Many die as kittens, females fall ill from the stress of multiple pregnancies, and males often fight and wound each other.
If feral cats aren't spayed or neutered, the female cat can have two or three litters a year. This is stressful to the female and contributes to the feral cat population. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommend a trap-neuter-reform approach. This improves the lives of the feral cat population and reduces future generations. A cat who has been TNRed will be spayed or neutered, given a rabies vaccination and surgically ear-tipped to let caretakers know which cats have already been helped.
What You Can Do
If you have been feeding a cat who is obviously feral -- he won’t let you pet him even after repeated feedings -- determine whether your community has a group that performs a TNR service. If so, after someone performs the TNR function, a caretaker will be appointed to care for the colony by providing food, water and shelter, and by monitoring the cats for sickness. Caretakers also socialize feral kittens to ready them for adoption.
Learn TNR: Trapping
If you are interested in doing TNR and being a caretaker, rent or borrow a trap from the local humane society. Have the attendant demonstrate its use, as proper preparation is essential. Locate the cats and feed them in the same place every day. Leave the trap in the same area and bait it with canned food. Place the food in the back of the trap so the cat will be inside when the door closes. Check the traps at least every hour; never leave them unattended throughout the day or overnight.
If you've found young feral kittens with or without a mother, place them together in a nesting box in a warm room. If the mother won't nurse the kittens, bottle-feed with kitten milk replacement fluid every few hours, depending on their age. Young kittens must also be cleaned after each feeding with a moist cotton ball to stimulate elimination, if the mother isn't attending to this. With good care and gentle handling, feral kittens can be "reformed" far more easily than their adult counterparts and can become excellent pets.
Take the feral cats to the vet as soon as possible. You will likely be expected to pay for their care yourself, but some vets perform some basic services for ferals for a reduced fee or even free of charge. Local or state animal organizations, shelters and county services might also help with the fees.
If you simply trap a feral cat and bring it to an animal shelter, it will probably be euthanized. Shelters typically don’t adopt out feral cats because they often can’t be rehabilitated. By taking an available spot, a feral cat may cause an adoptable cat to be put down. Euthanizing a colony to “clean it up” works only until the next colony moves in. Instead, TNR offers a humane, long-term solution.
Laura Agadoni has been writing professionally since 1983. Her feature stories on area businesses, human interest and health and fitness appear in her local newspaper. She has also written and edited for a grassroots outreach effort and has been published in "Clean Eating" magazine and in "Dimensions" magazine, a CUNA Mutual publication. Agadoni has a Bachelor of Arts in communications from California State University-Fullerton.