We’ve all seen them — lean cats with large frightened eyes who move across our yards and parking lots like wind on the water.
Feral cats have never had contact with humans. They’re the offspring of stray or feral cats, not domesticated cats who have gone primal.
Feral cats have short lives — 8 to 9 years as opposed to domestic cats, who, if kept indoors and properly taken care of, have very good chances at making it well into their teens or twenties.
5 Things You Can Do to Help Feral Cats
In the course of those short lives, ferals can add drastically to the cat overpopulation problem. Here are some things you can do to help.
1. Set up a Feeding Station and Shelter
This is compassion in action, putting your money where your mouth is and putting food down where the ferals’ mouths are.
“There is nothing wrong with your helping this free-roaming cat,” maintain the Feral Cat project people. “It actually gives you a feeling of accomplishment and fills your human need to care for those whom we deem less fortunate.”
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When it comes to putting some kind of roof over the cats’ heads, not to worry: Alley Cat Allies has a list describing different options, ranging from the K&H Outdoor Heated Kitty House to a camper-topper-turned-shelter. The group also lists the pros and cons of each.
The camper-topper shelter, for instance, can house ten to fifteen cats, but making the modifications requires a certain amount of technical skill . A 50-gallon storage container can be transformed into a shelter much more easily. But it provides less protection than, say, a wooden shelter.
In a perfect world, all these cats would find good homes. But for some ferals, that may not be the solution, and that’s where trap-neuter-return (TNR) comes in.
The cats are captured in Havahart cat traps, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered. During surgery, the vet will remove the tip of 1 ear from each cat. This way, people will know that the cats are rabies-free and no longer adding to the kitten crop.
The cats are then returned to their original territory where a caretaker will feed them and monitor their health. The caretaker will also TNR any new ferals who arrive on the scene, causing the colony’s numbers to stabilize and eventually shrink.
“There is a realistic concern that TNR may encourage dumping, and that certain situations and climates are unsuitable for TNR,” observes Ellen Perry Berkeley in her book Maverick Cats: Encounters With Feral Cats. Berkeley believes that “negatives attitudes are fading, eroded by the news of greatly reduced homeless populations and greatly lowered euthanasia statistics in cities where TNR has been practiced for almost a decade.”
Don’t have a Havahart trap? Local rescues “can sometimes help with trapping or loan out a trap,” says Robin A.F. Olson of Kitten Associates, Inc. “Some clinics also loan traps for a deposit.”
3. Be a Part of the Solution
Help spay/neuter a feral cat or a feral-cat colony. Donate to a group like Alley Cat Allies that helps ferals. Volunteer at free or low-cost spay/neuter clinic.
You can also be a foster parent. “Kittens that are young enough can be socialized and adopted,” maintains the Feral Cat Project. “Foster parents are always needed to help care for these kittens until they can be altered and placed into adoption.”
4. Got a Barn?
The Feral Cat Program of Georgia (FCPG) of The Humane Society of Forsyth County runs a “Barns Wanted” ad on their website. Instead of dealing with pesticides or traps, you can contact the society and “obtain the perfect mouser” — a spayed/neutered feral cat. This is an ideal way of dealing with those ferals who seem to defy socialization.
5. Is a Feral Cat Adoptable?
A lot of people think not, although I’m inclined to believe that it depends on the cat and human(s) involved. Berkeley and her late husband Roy got to know a number of ferals up at their home in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Over the years, 4 of them — Turtle (the star of Maverick Cats), April, Leona and Roscoe — gave up their feral status and became loving pets.
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So, don’t rule out a feral cat as a possible pet, because you never can tell what difference a permanent home can make.
How to Form Bonds With Feral Cats
Conventional wisdom says you can’t have a relationship with a feral cat — that they will not, as the Tree House Humane Society says, “socialize completely with humans.”
That’s why so many rescue groups advise 1 of 2 options:
1. Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR)
The feral cat colony doesn’t disappear completely. But without regular kitten crops coming in, it shrinks.
There’s a variation on TNR called trap-test-vaccinate-alter-release-maintain (TTVARM).
As Ellen Perry Berkeley points out, both methods have proved “more humane, more effective, and less costly than rounding up cats and killing them.”
What one woman, Sue, does is closer to TTVARM: “As soon as I’m able to present them with a trap,” she explains, “I get them trapped, get them their shots, and get them spayed and neutered.”
She keeps them indoors for 24 hours, then releases them back outside. Sometimes, they disappear for good, “which makes me nuts because you never know if they got an infection. But you have to assume that they said in their minds, ‘This is not a safe place anymore.’”
2. Going Barn Cat
A number of rescue groups now have barn cat programs.
This way, a feral or semi-feral feline can start a new — and better — life after being vaccinated and spayed/neutered by the organization.
The Oshkosh Area Humane Society in Wisconsin has such a program. The farmers don’t get a medically up-to-date mouser for nothing, however. They are required to make “a commitment to providing your new barn cat with a forever home” that includes food, water, veterinary care and “adequate, safe, and warm shelter in a barn, stable, garage, or warehouse/other building.”
The society also advises “adopting 2 barn cats whenever possible.” After all, most feral cats are used to living in colonies.
Bonding With Feral Cats
A feral cat “will usually bond with his/her socializer,” according to the Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County (CA).
In fact, “if you have decided that it is in the best interest of the cat to be adopted by someone other than yourself, it is important to integrate that person into the cat’s environment once the cat is comfortable with you.”
In other words, a feral cat is capable of forming a relationship with a person.
At least, that’s what writer Andrew Bloomfield discovered when he and his roommates began looking after a colony of feral cats outside the house they were renting.
It started with Tiny, a calico kitten who’d essentially been abandoned at birth by her feral mother. Bloomfield and his roommates saved the little kitten and started looking after the other cats. They fed the ferals, got them fixed and fended off predators (coyotes and raccoons) when possible.
Bloomfield in particular became “part of the equation,” as he puts it in his book Call of the Cats: What I Learned About Life and Love From a Feral Cat Colony.
As time went by, he realized he “couldn’t fully understand outside unless I joined the colony,” metaphorically speaking. So he began sitting outdoors at night and studying the ferals.
Over time, a bond developed.
Watch this feral cat, who has become used to the human who feeds her after much interaction:
When Feral Cats Trust Humans
Bloomfield ended up raising and keeping some kittens indoors, but even those who remained outside with the colony seemed to understand he meant well. The feral mothers presented their kittens to him.
One male, Beige, was very playful with Bloomfield: “Though feral, he loves chasing a toy mouse on a string, as does Marble [an alpha female]. When they see me bring the toy outside, they’ll go into a deep downward-dog yoga stretch, then be ready to play.”
But the most curious thing was how “whenever a cat we cared for escaped or was missing from the colony, we would ask the others for help. Usually within hours, they would bring the missing cat, though sometimes it took as long as a day.”
Can all ferals be tamed or “homed”?
But then I think of Berkeley, who “redomesticated” 4 formerly feral cats over the years.
“A feral cat may become redomesticated if it feels like it, and if it has a human being available,” she writes in the 2001 update of Maverick Cats. “A cat may become feral if it feels like it, or if it has no other choice. The cat goes back and forth — into ferality and out of ferality — more easily than perhaps any other animal.”
Can a Domestic Cat Turn Feral?
Scrabble, Sushi and Kenya were unexpected arrivals at my house, courtesy of a friend. Chantal and her husband had to foreclose on their home, and they couldn’t take the animals with them.
Because of the circumstances, I agreed to foster the cats. My plan was to take one in at a time so that our felines wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the 3 strangers suddenly descending upon them.
Kenya, the male, came first and lived in my study. Scrabble and Sushi, the 2 females, remained in a room in the basement of their soon-to-be-sold home.
Chantal went over to feed them but was too heartbroken over the situation to visit with them long. As the weeks went by, the female cats lost whatever socialization they’d had.
Kenya, the male, became extremely territorial. Thanks to the efforts of another friend, he ended up in a home where he was the only cat.
Scrabble and Sushi arrived soon after (we had to speed up our original plan). By “arrived,” I mean they scooted down to the unfinished part of our basement and refused to have anything to do with us or the other cats.
Domestic Cats Turned Feral
Poor Scrabble and Sushi. The time alone in their old home had turned these domestic cats feral with a vengeance.
At first I wasn’t too concerned. I’d worked with a number of stray and feral cats over the years. Given shelter and affection, all of them had settled down relatively quickly.
Sushi pretty much followed this script. Yes, she bit my thumb and peed on my foot the first time I brought her to the veterinarian. But she was, on the whole, a good-natured cat and mellowed out even more after Circe, our own cat, befriended her. Circe was a very sociable girl, and some of that seemed to rub off on Sushi.
Scrabble, however, was another story. She growled, hissed and swatted anyone who came near her.
The Cat Who Came With Baggage
Scrabble had been born in a basement.
She had been left behind when her feral mother decided to move the kittens to a less peopled place. Scrabble’s right hind foot wasn’t fully formed, and that made her a liability in the world that her mom was returning to.
Chantal had adopted the abandoned kitten, bottle-feeding her and giving her the mothering she needed. So losing Chantal had been just one more abandonment to the rotund little cat.
Spirited away to a strange place with new humans and other cats, Scrabble moved into the built-in workbench shelf. I put her food and water up there, and she left it only to use the litter box or to swear at me from the shadows.
Socialization had never gone very far with Scrabble, I learned. For all intents and purposes, I might as well have been dealing with a feral cat.
The fact that she was also 9 years old and clearly set in her ways meant that the task in front of me was going to be all that much harder.
Starting From Scratch
I talked with my friend Bernadette, who has fostered countless cats and kittens over the years.
“Whenever I’ve had a cat like that,” Bernadette remarked, “I’ve just talked to it.”
They get used to you and the sound of your voice that way, she explained, and tame down in spite of themselves.
So, as I puttered around the cellar, I talked to Scrabble. I made no effort to touch her.
Then, one day when I was in the cellar, she came out of nowhere and rubbed against my ankles. After that, she began to hop down and greet me whenever I came to the cellar. She still occasionally swatted at me, but she kept her claws in.
She and Sushi are still with us. We still can’t pick either of them up, and they still have to be tranquilized when they go to the vet’s office. But Scrabble spends more time out in the open now and sometimes even ventures out into the finished part of the basement.
And just a few months ago, I headed down to the cellar only to see Scrabble coming slowly up the steps toward me.