A wonderful cat lover with several star patients at LazyPaw Animal Hospitals recently asked a great question about feral cats. Namely, could she try to adopt one?
To answer, it’s important to define what a feral cat is. Feral cats are born and raised in the wild, or perhaps have been lost or abandoned and become more wild to survive. Some “free” feral cats can handle a small dose of human contact, but most are too fearful to be handled. They often live in groups (aka colonies) near places they can reliably find food, such as garbage dumps or alleys with rodents and trash.
According to the ASPCA, many feral cats don’t survive kittenhood, and those that do have an average lifespan of less than two years. If they are part of a colony that has someone looking after the group, they may live as long as ten years.
Life as a feral cat is tough, so it’s understandable that our friend might want to consider improving their plight. However, having a good heart doesn’t mean what you hope for is necessarily a great idea. Pet clinics don’t generally recommend trying to take feral cats. They may look just like pets, but they are happier outdoors in groups, and they are usually too afraid of human contact to enjoy domestic life.
However, that doesn’t mean people who love cats can’t help feral cats at all. Organizations such as Alley Cat Allies have lots of resources for anyone looking to become a caretaker for a feral cat colony. Caretakers can feed cats and create outdoor shelters for bad weather, but they also help save feline lives in other ways.
Caretakers participate in a program called TNR, or Trap-Neuter-Return. They humanely trap feral cats and take them to a vet clinic where they are spayed or neutered to prevent birthing more homeless cats, vaccinated against rabies, and returned to their colonies. Cats who have had this treatment should have their ears tipped, or humanely clipped at the corners, to avoid the unnecessary stress of recapture.
Colony caretakers also save lives by keeping an eye out for kittens, who have a low chance of survival and can usually be happily socialized and adopted. Kittens should be allowed to nurse until they are four weeks old, which can be done in captivity. By providing food, compassionate care, and patience as well as following some basic guidelines for domesticating feral kittens, caretakers can raise young cats that can be adopted into loving families.
If you’re interested in helping feral cats but don’t have the time or resources to become a caretaker, you can still become a kitty advocate. Write letters to local newspaper editors about the cats in your community to raise awareness, talk to local vet clinics and businesses about sponsoring TNR programs, help raise funds for local and national TNR groups, and lobby the local government for TNR support.