A feral cat is a wild, unsocialized, unfriendly outdoor cat. While some people refer to any wandering, stray, or unowned cat as a feral cat, this isn't correct.
The term feral refers to cats who are fearful of humans and who will flee from direct hands-on contact with humans. There are millions of feral cats in the USA, most of which are descendants of owned or abandoned free-roaming pet cats who were not fixed.
For comprehensive and definitive information on feral cats, visit alleycat.org, communitycatspodcast.com, or neighborhoodcats.org.
However, here's an overview of feral cats:
Ferals may approach you, especially at feeding times, and feral cats are not a threat to people — unless you try to capture them with your hands, then you could be badly bitten or scratched. Always seek immediate medical care if you are bitten by a feral cat.
Ferals are cats who've not been exposed to human contact, or if they have, it has been in the distant past.
Feral adult cats can seldom be socialized and will likely never become pets. A stray cat who was previously friendly to humans may appear feral, or may turn feral if left without human contact. Alleycat.org presents an excellent illustrated section on how to tell the difference between a feral cat and a frightened stray cat.
Feral kittens can be socialized and acclimated to humans if the process starts early, preferably by 4-6 weeks. After about 3 months of age, it is difficult and stressful for the cats if you try to socialize them at that point to be pets.
Feral cats are often the descendants of owned pets who were not fixed and were allowed to roam freely outdoors. If you allow your cat outdoors, make sure he or she has been fixed and doesn't contribute to this issue.
Feral cats cannot be adopted into "good homes" because they are fearful of humans, and pretty much no one wants a wild cat as a pet they cannot touch or handle.
Feral cats generally live in colonies and bond with each other. Fixing feral colonies and then returning them to their site is the most humane, sustainable, and low-cost method of management. Catching and euthanizing the cats only allows more cats to move in and doesn't stop the root cause. Birth control surgery of all the cats ends the reproduction, and over time the colony will fade away with their life cycle. This process is known as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). Get great information about TNR and community cats at communitycatspodcast.com.
Relocating feral cats is difficult, time consuming, stressful to the cats, and isn't always successful even when everything is done right. That's why experts recommend that the colonies be fixed and remain in their territory and only be relocated as an absolute last resort, for example, when a building they inhabit is to be demolished.
Relocating feral cats means finding a willing barn or location for them and a caregiver who'll be able to feed, water, and monitor the colony daily. First all the cats MUST be fixed. Never gather up fertile cats and dump them in a new location. After recovery from surgery the cats must then be confined in their new location for about three weeks. Simply releasing feral cats in their new location after surgery means most will never be seen again because in their confusion they will flee and subsequently die from trauma. It's difficult to find new caregivers who are willing to work through this three week transition with the cats. Even then, some of the cats may still flee after confinement in their new location.
Feral cats should have the tip of their ear (usually the left ear) removed while they are asleep for spay/neuter surgery. This allows instant identification of sterile, fixed cats. It avoids female cats having to have their bellies cut open again to make sure they've been fixed. It proves to animal control officers, veterinarians, and observers that the cat is sterile. It helps the colony caregiver note if a new cat moves in, since it can be hard to tell cats apart at times if they are similar colors and sizes.
Humane trapping: Feral cats are captured for surgery using humane traps. HARP volunteers who trap cats are certified in humane trapping methods and we've been doing it over 25 years. Stress to the captured cat is reduced by keeping the traps covered during transport. The ferals are anesthetized by being pushed into the back of the trap with a trap divider, and the anesthetic is injected through the trap opening. After surgery, the cats are returned to the traps for recovery, then typically returned to their colony the next day.
Feral cats need food (not water) withheld for about 24 hours before the trapping is planned, and a vet with experience in feral cat care must be on standby to receive the cats for surgery after trapping. Wily cats may require different types of traps, so HARP keeps some specialty humane traps to meet just about any trapping need. Do not release a feral cat from a trap before it is fixed. While it can be disturbing to see a frightened cat in a trap, if the cat is released before surgery it's going to be really difficult to catch the cat again. Cover the cat with a towel or sheet after it is in the trap and take it to a quiet, safe place for transport.
Feral cats coming into our care receive a three year rabies shot to protect their health and our community's health.
Feral cat resources:
We'll do our best to help you get the wild feral cats on your property fixed.
These are feral cats. They come close for food, but flee if anyone attempts to touch or pet them.
Tip of left ear was removed while these kittens were asleep for spay surgery. It signifies that both have been fixed and cannot reproduce. Ear tipping eliminates having to anesthetize and re-operate to see if female cats have been spayed. These kittens are caged to rest after their spay surgeries and while we work on socialization.
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