The Sad, Secret Life of Feral Cats

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Stray and feral cats are everywhere it seems and doubtless you will run across one at some point. These roaming felines are often misunderstood. Whether you spot them in your backyard, around your office park, or while traveling abroad, misconceptions still prevail worldwide about stray and feral cat. Learning the facts can help overturn the myths and stop the overpopulation and mistreatment of homeless cats.

The Difference Between a Feral and Stray Cat

A feral cat is typically born in the wild or outdoors with little to no human interaction. If you attempt to get too close or try to pet them, feral cats view your hand as a claw that will harm them and will hiss and/or run away. Feral cats are born from other ferals or from stray cats. What is the difference between the two? Well, a stray cat was once a pet cat, until it was either lost or was abandoned by its owner. While they struggle to survive in their new outdoor environment, some strays become fearful of people, even adopting feral behaviors after a period of time, depending on their surroundings. However, most stray cats remember that humans feed them and try to stay near homes, carports, and other areas where people concentrate.

When a regular caretaker notices a stray cat that is friendly, it is recommended to take the cat to a veterinarian to scan for a possible microchip. In lucky instances, the stray cat and its owner are happily reunited.

Anyone Can Become a Caretaker for Stray Cats

Feral cats have a rough life and live, on average, two years on their own. With regular care, which includes reliable shelter and daily feedings similar to the care of barnyard cats, they can live as long as ten years. If you decide to become a caretaker, an important lesson is to never forcefully grab an outdoor cat or make a sudden movement towards it. These cats are fearful of people and tend to run away as strangers approach them. Let the feral or stray cat come closer to you on his/her terms.

Through daily feedings, in time they will let you know if it’s acceptable to touch them. Another helpful hint: If you do decide to become a caretaker, squat or sit on the ground so you’re at their level when you regularly feed them. This approach indicates to the feral or stray cat that you are not threatening.

How Wild is Wild?

In my work with feral cats, I learned that there are varying degrees of “wildness.” Most of the feral cats will not allow me to touch them, but I can come within millimeters to dispense their food. One cat, Lion King, after three years of feeding him, gradually came closer to the feeding bowl; he now rubs against my legs. Recently, I was able to start petting him, but only when he’s facing away from me. If Lion King turns to face me while I am stroking his gold fur, he hisses in displeasure. Pretty Boy and Tabitha allow me to pet them, but nervously jump out of my arms when I attempt to pick them up. The lesson learned: respect their limits.

Raging Hormones Lead to Unwanted Behavior

One recurring statement I hear is that feral cats are a nuisance. The fighting and yowling from protecting their territory or mating is obnoxiously loud. An immediate remedy is to have them spayed/neutered. You can reach out to local nonprofit groups for assistance which will humanely trap the cats and get them spayed/neutered. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have all pet cats spayed and neutered, including indoor cats. You never know when one will escape or get lost.

The Universal Sign of a Sterilized Cat

If you decide to become a caretaker of a feral cat colony, it’s extremely important to ensure they are all spayed and neutered. During the sterilization surgery, the cats are administered a rabies vaccination, and they are also “tipped,” which means that the tip of one ear is surgically removed while the cat is still under anesthesia. Ear-tipping is a universal sign that a feral or stray cat is sterilized, another term for spayed/neutered. This prevents the trauma (an expense) of re-trapping and unnecessary surgery.

History has taught us that overturning misconceptions and prejudices takes time and education. One way to begin the conversation is to abandon the word “feral” and refer to them as “free-roaming” or “community” cats. This removes the stigma associated with “feral” or “wild” cats.

No one likes to be misunderstood, including outdoor cats. It’s up to us to share the facts and keep educating the world.

Many thanks to Christine Michaels, writing for PetMD, for her story contributions.

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Posted by on August 20, 2012. Filed under Animals,CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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6 Responses to The Sad, Secret Life of Feral Cats

  1. E.A. Blair Reply

    August 20, 2012 at 11:04 am

    In 1991, I adopted a cat from a shelter. I was told that he was approximately two years old, and that he had been taken off the streets by a live trap. The adoption agent couldn’t tell me whether he was a stray or feral, but he had an appealing look and strongly resembeled the cat I already had, and for whom he was to become a companion. He had a notch in his left ear, evidence of a fight or other confrontation.

    I named him “Freti”, which is a nickname from Old Norse. His shelter diet had affected him to the point where his litter box use was followed by fifteen minutes of a horrible stench. “Freti” means “little foul-fart” (a change of diet fixed the problem but the name stuck). Whatever his background, it was apparent he had trust issues with humans, as it took him nearly a year before he consented to let me pet him. Once he got past that initial contact, he became a very sweet-natured and even affectionate cat, with certain limitations. He slept with me, played with the other cat and returned affection by rubbing against me frequently and coming to get a cuddle from an extended hand. He did, however, have a lifelong aversion to being held or picked up (making vet trips a problem).

    He finally died in 2008, a little over seventeen years after I took him in, finally overcome sith some kind of infection he could not shake off. His final breath came in a profound sigh as he lay curled up around my feet. To the end, even illness and seventeen years of companionship could not overcome his aversion to being held or even sitting on my lap.

    If he had been a stray, I am guessing that he may have been abused while owned or on the street, but he regained a limited amount of trust in humans. If he had been feral, he made a remarkable adjustment to being an indoor pet. Either way, he was loved in life and is missed in death. I had him cremated, with the remains returned, and I placed them in the urn with the remains of my late wife, who loved him as I did.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      August 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      What a beautiful, touching story. Thanks so much for sharing this with E.A.

  2. Woodsman Reply

    August 21, 2012 at 3:06 am


    FACT: Trap & Kill failed because cats cannot be trapped faster than they exponentially breed out of control.

    FACT: Trap & Sterilize (TNR) is an even bigger abject failure because these man-made ecological disasters cannot be trapped faster than they exponentially breed out of control, and they also continue the cruelly annihilate all native wildlife (from the smallest of prey up to the top predators that are starved to death), and the cats continue to spread many deadly diseases that they carry today — FOR WHICH THERE ARE NO VACCINES AGAINST THEM. Many of which are even listed as bioterrorism agents. (Such as Tularemia and The Plague — Yes, people have already died from cat-transmitted plague in the USA. No fleas nor rats even required. The cats themselves carry and transmit the plague all on their own.)

    FACT: THERE IS ABSOLUTELY _NOTHING_ HUMANE ABOUT TNR. Nearly every last TNR’ed cat dies an inhumane death by road-kill, from cat and animal attacks, environmental poisons, starvation, dehydration, freezing to death, infections, parasites, etc. And if very very lucky humanely shot to death or re-trapped and drowned (the two most common methods employed on all farms and ranches to protect their gestating livestock’s offspring and valuable native wildlife dying from cats’ Toxoplasmosis parasites). This doesn’t begin to count the thousands of defenseless native animals that cats skin alive and disembowel alive for their daily and hourly play-toys. The only difference in destroying cats immediately and humanely instead of trapping, sterilizing, then releasing them to an inhumane death; is that money isn’t going into an HSUS or SPCA board-member’s pocket, veterinarian’s pocket, cat-food company CEO’s pocket, or a drug-company CEO’s pocket. And that’s the ONLY difference!

    FACT: Cats are a man-made (through selective breeding) invasive species. And as such, are no less of a man-made environmental disaster than any other caused by man. Cats are even worse than an oil-spill of continent-sized proportions. They not only kill off rare and endangered marine-mammals along all coastlines from run-off carrying cats’ Toxoplasma gondii parasites, they destroy the complete food-chain in every ecosystem where cats are found. From smallest of prey gutted and skinned alive for cats’ tortured play-toys, up to the top predators that are starved to death from cats destroying their ONLY food sources. (Precisely what cats caused on my own land not long ago.)

    FACT: Hunted To Extinction (or in this case, extirpation of all outdoor cats) is the ONLY method that is faster than a species like cats can exponentially out-breed and out-adapt to. Especially a man-made invasive species like these cats that can breed 2-4X’s faster than any naturally occurring cat-species.

    FACT: In _TWELVE_YEARS_ Alley Cat ALL-LIES of NYC have only reduced feral cats in their own city by 0.08% to 0.024% (as the months go on that percentage becomes more insignificant), allowing more than 99.92% to 99.976% to exponentially breed out of control. Here’s how Alley-Cat-ALL-LIES’ deceptive math works: If you TNR 4 cats and 3 get flattened by cars this translates to 75% fewer feral-cats everywhere. Alley Cat ALL-LIES can’t even reduce cats in their own city, yet they promote it as a worldwide solution. Then even bigger fools fall for it and promote it.

    FACT: When researching over 100 of the most “successful” TNR programs worldwide, JUST ONE trapped more than 0.4%. Oregon’s 50,000 TNR’ed cats (the highest rate I found) is 4.9% of all ferals in their state. Yet, by applying population growth calculus on the unsterilized 95.1% they will have trapped only 0.35% of all cats in their state sometime this year. <0.4% is a far cry from the required 80%-90% to be the least bit effective.

    FACT: Their mythical "vacuum effect" is a 100% LIE. A study done by the Texas A&M University proved that any perceived "vacuum" is just the simple case that CATS ATTRACT CATS. Get rid of them all and there's no cats there to attract more. I proved this myself by shooting and burying hundreds of them on my own land. ZERO cats replaced them FOR OVER 2 YEARS NOW. If you want more cats, keep even one of them around, more will find you. That university study also found that sterilized cats very poorly defend any territory. Non-sterilized cats, being more aggressive, take over the sterilized cats' resources (shelter & food if any). If there is any kind of "vacuum effect" at all, it is that sterilizing cats cause non-sterilized cats to restore the reproductive void.

    FACT: During all this investigation I have discovered something that is unfaltering without fail. Something that you can bet your very life on and win every last time. That being — IF A TNR CAT-HOARDER IS TALKING THEN THEY ARE LYING. 100% guaranteed!

  3. njknkjnkjnkjmnknk Reply

    November 20, 2012 at 1:11 am


  4. PJ Reply

    January 12, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    Wow, Woodsman, hate cats much?

  5. Tabatha Hibbs Reply

    February 12, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Woodsman–you hate cats. We get that. But every one of your FACTS is simply an expression of your hate and/or your ignorance of feline behavior (domestic or otherwise). Tell the world you hate cats. It’s a free county; you have that right. However, do not pretend to share information as a justification of spreading your hate and your belief in inappropriate and inhumane behavior.

    And if you need to kill something, join the military so that whatever it is your shooting at has at least a half a chance to defend itself.

    BTW, how’s the rodent problem where you live?

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