Feral cats are free-roaming domestic cats who were never socialized by humans or have lived outdoors for so long that they have reverted to a wild state. Adult feral cats typically cannot be handled and are not suitable for placement into homes as companion animals. As a result, cats deemed “feral” are often euthanized once admitted to animal shelters. The kittens of feral cats may be able to be handled and socialized if efforts begin when they are less than eight weeks of age.
Free-roaming cat populations generally consist of a mixture of truly feral cats, semi-socialized cats and lost and abandoned pets. No one knows how many free-roaming cats live in the United States, but estimates are about twenty million. Free-roaming cats, sometimes referred to as “community cats,” are found in all areas of the country and tend to gather together in colonies. Most attempts to eradicate free-roaming cat colonies have failed; cats who are removed are replaced through reproduction, movement of the remaining cats and the addition of lost and abandoned animals, who repopulate the vacated space. Feeding bans are difficult to enforce and are ineffective because cats are generally adept at finding alternate food sources. However, for those cats who have become dependent on food provided by a caregiver, a feeding ban is inhumane, usually forcing cats to subsist on insufficient resources.
At this time the most humane, effective and financially sustainable strategy for controlling free-roaming cat populations is trap-neuter-return (TNR), whereby free-roaming cats are trapped, sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to their colony of origin. A related approach are “Feral Freedom” initiatives, or neuter-return programs in which free-roaming cats taken in by animal welfare agencies are transported directly to be sterilized, vaccinated, and then returned to their original location. Trap-neuter-return programs have the ability to stabilize the population of a free-roaming cat colony and, over time, reduce it (Levy and Crawford, 2004; Robertson, 2008). At the same time, the objectionable spraying, vocalizing and fighting behaviors of cats in the colony are largely eliminated.
In order to stabilize and eventually reduce the free-roaming cat population through attrition, the ASPCA supports the management of free-roaming cat colonies through TNR and, when the resources of animal welfare agencies allow, through “Feral Freedom” programs. It is the ASPCA’s position that truly unsocialized, free-roaming cats are best served by focusing resources on TNR and Feral Freedom programs, distribution of exclusionary devices and deterrents, and public education regarding the humane management of free-roaming cats. Ideally, the management of free-roaming cat colonies should include trapping, scanning for the presence of a microchip, vaccination, sterilization, ear “tipping” (surgical removal of the tip of one ear as a visible sign that the cat has been sterilized) and, when feasible, microchipping.
Recognition by animal control officers and shelter staff that an ear-tipped cat has already been spayed or neutered allows for healthy, unsocialized cats to remain at or to be returned to their origin, rather than be admitted to an animal shelter. TNR and Feral Freedom programs should only return cats to their origin if they are receiving adequate food, water and shelter, and if the environment is conducive to successful outdoor living. The programs should also advocate for the well-being of the cats, mediate cat-related neighborhood nuisance complaints and assist with installation of exclusionary measures or deterrents to limit cats’ presence in dangerous, ecologically sensitive or contested areas.
The ASPCA advocates placing well-socialized free-roaming cats and kittens in new homes when feasible. Testing for feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia, while not practical for feral cats in general, is recommended for any kittens or adult cats who are to be placed for adoption or who are showing signs of illness; a positive test result should be confirmed by subsequent testing in order to rule out false positive findings.
The ASPCA does not support managed colonies in ecologically sensitive areas; in areas where demolition or development is impending; where cats are being subjected to harm or abuse; or, where despite best efforts, nuisance complaints cannot be satisfactorily mediated. In such cases, the ASPCA recommends re-location of the colony according to the guidelines outlined by Alley Cat Allies (2005), the adoption of sociable animals and the placement of unadoptable animals into legitimate, humane sanctuaries. In addition, after the cats are removed, exclusionary measures and deterrents can be put into place to prevent immigration of new cats to the area.
Levy, J. K., & Crawford, P. C. (2004). “Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populations.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 225(9), 1354-1360.
Robertson, S. (2008). “A review of feral cat control.” Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 10, 366-375.
Alley Cat Allies (2005). Guidelines: Safe relocation of feral cats. Bethesda, MD.