These frequently asked questions and their answers are borrowed from our friends at Alley Cat Allies. They have loads of excellent on their website for anyone wanting to learn more about feral cats and their care.
What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?
Stray cats are socialized to people and can be adopted into homes, but feral cats are not socialized to people and are happy living outdoors.
A stray cat:
-Is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her indoor home, as well as most human contact and dependence.
- Can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles.
- Can under the right circumstances become a pet cat once again. Stray cats that are re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to re-acclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people.
A feral cat:
- Is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans or her contact with humans has diminished over time. She is not socialized to people and survives on her own outdoors. Most feral cats are not likely to ever become lap cats or enjoy living indoors.
- Can have kittens who can be socialized at an early age and adopted into homes.
Find out more using this guide: Feral and Stray Cats—An Important Difference.
Where do feral cats come from?
Feral cats are not a new phenomenon. Outdoor cats are part of our rich history in this country and worldwide.
Cats have been living among us here in the U.S. for hundreds of years. Feral cats are domestic cats. Feral cats thrive in every type of environment, urban, suburban and rural. Some feral cats are offspring of house cats. Yet, not until the last two decades has there been accessible and affordable spay and neuter services for cats. Domestic cats came into existence about 10,000 years ago, when humans began farming. According to scientists, cats are one of the only animals who domesticated themselves—choosing to live near humans to feed on the rodents attracted by stored grain. Evolutionary research shows that the natural habitat of cats is outdoors in close proximity to humans—and that is how they have lived ever since. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s—and the invention of cat litter—that "indoors only" for cats was even a concept.
What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?
Trap-Neuter-Return is the humane, effective approach for feral cats. Feral cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped (the universal symbol of a neutered and vaccinated cat), and then returned to their outdoor home. Socialized cats and kittens are adopted into homes. The colony’s population stabilizes—no more kittens! Trap-Neuter-Return improves their lives and their relations with the community: the behaviors and stresses associated with mating stop.
Read the scientific evidence showing the benefits of TNR.
Learn how to conduct TNR.
What is an 'eartip'?
We use the word “eartip” to describe when a small portion of the tip of a feral cat’s left ear is surgically removed during neuter surgery, to denote that the cat has been neutered and vaccinated. Eartipping is done while the cat is anesthetized and is not painful for the cat. Eartipping is the most effective way to identify neutered feral cats from a distance, to make sure they are not trapped or undergo surgery a second time.
Isn’t it unsafe for feral cats to live outside?
The outdoors is the natural habitat for feral cats, and empirical evidence indicates they can live long and healthy lives: a 2006 study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery
found that of 103,643 stray and feral cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states from 1993 to 2004, less than 1% of those cats needed to be euthanized due to debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases.
In addition, the lifespan of feral cats compares favorably with the lifespan of pet cats. A long-term study (published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
in 2003) of a Trap-Neuter-Return program noted that 83% of the cats present at the end of the observation period had been there for more than six years—meaning that the cats’ lifespans were comparable to the mean lifespan of 7.1 years for pet cats.
Feral cat caregivers can take steps to make feral cats more comfortable, like neutering them, feeding them, and providing shelter. These steps promote the cats’ well-being, improve their relationships with neighbors, and assist the people who live nearby to understand and co-exist with the cats. But most feral cats don’t require intervention beyond Trap-Neuter-Return.
Learn more about feral cat health.
Why can’t feral cats be socialized and then adopted into homes?
A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with people or her contact with people has diminished over time. They are not socialized to people and cannot be touched, except sometimes by a regular caregiver.
The ideal window for socializing feral kittens is 12 weeks of age or younger—beyond 12 weeks, feral cats may never socialize completely or at all. As a result, we do not recommend attempting to socialize feral cats older than 12 weeks—it is dangerous and stressful for both you and the cat. Feral cats live healthy lives in their outdoors homes and the best thing you can do to help them is Trap-Neuter-Return. Outdoor cats that are friendly and socialized to people are called stray cats, and they can be re-homed.
Why doesn't removing feral cats from an area work?
Animal control’s traditional approach for feral cats—catching and killing—is endless and cruel, and it does not keep an area free of cats. Cats choose to reside in a location for two reasons: there is a food source (intended or not) and shelter. Because of a phenomenon called the vacuum effect, when cats are removed from a location, survivors of the catch and kill effort and new cats who have moved in breed to capacity. Cats have been living outside alongside people for 10,000 years—a fact that cannot be changed.
Learn more about the vacuum effect.