Feral cats are domesticated cats returned to their wild state. It can be difficult or impossible to distinguish them from strays. Strays are pets that have been abandoned or lost, or ownerless cats who maintain social contact with people. Ferals are sometimes cats who previously had owners, but more often were born to strays or other feral cats, and they do not engage in social contact with humans. Strays are tame, feral cats are not.
Population Control of Ferals
Until recently, standard practice with feral cats has been trapping and euthanization. Many cities and counties continue to exterminate them, but this practice is changing. Obviously, many people are morally and ethically opposed to trapping and killing cats, but the method is being abandoned for practical, not emotional reasons. Extermination is an expensive, time consuming, and completely ineffective means of reducing feral populations. It may even produce results opposite of the desired effect.
Trap, Neuter, Return Programs
The new standard for controlling feral cat populations is commonly referred to as trap, neuter, return or simply TNR. The method is just what it sounds like. Rather than trapping and killing ferals, the cats are sterilized and returned to their area. This immediately begins the process of reducing the population. The spayed or neutered cat will no longer add to the population by producing kittens, but will defend its territory. Rather than creating an opening for another fertile cat, the infertile cat discourages other cats from moving in, and discourages reproduction. As all the cats in one area are caught and sterilized, the population ceases to grow.
Colonies and Caretakers
Most TNR programs rely on volunteers who trap the cats, and watch over the colonies, providing food, shelter and, in some cases, medical attention. Many veterinarians offer discounted spaying and neutering services to caretakers of feral cats. Of course, caretakers exist at all different levels of involvement. Some merely provide what food they can afford. At the other end of the spectrum are caretakers who provide many acres of land, shelter with regularly refreshed bedding, and a comprehensive trap, evaluate, vaccinate and neuter program for every cat.
Ear Tipping to Identify Altered Feral Cats
Organizations all around the world provide education, traps, support and standards for TNR programs. When feral cats are sterilized, a small section of their left ear is removed. This is the universal sign of a spayed or neutered feral, and it prevents unnecessary trapping and surgery.
Socializing Feral Cats
Feral kittens, under about five months old, can be socialized with patience and care. Kittens are in their prime stage of social development from three to nine weeks of age. The best results are seen in kittens introduced to people by the age of eight weeks, and kittens up to twelve weeks can still make great candidates for taming and re-homing. Older kittens can be socialized quite well, but may not make good candidates for adoption.
Most adult feral cats cannot be tamed. A few will establish a friendly, but cautious, relationship with people. Due to the high failure rate of socializing and re-homing adult ferals, it is often best for them to live in colonies with other cats without the stress and dangers of trying to force them to live in people's homes.
Ferals in Society
No one knows for sure how many feral cats live around the world, but feline experts estimate more than 70 million live in the United States alone. While some see these cats as a nuisance, others recognize the practical benefits they provide to civilization.
In the Dark Ages, the spread of the bubonic plague was caused by mass killings of cats. With the cats out of the environment, the rodent population responsible for carrying the disease surged. Even today, a reasonable population of wild, free-roaming cats remains a necessary part of balance in relation to controlling pests and keeping some diseases in check. However, the life of a cat on its own is difficult. Without human intervention, the feral life is often marked by starvation and disease. By reducing feral populations through TNR programs, humans can help reduce suffering without destroying the feral population.