A cat born and raised in the wild, or who has been abandoned or lost and reverted to wild ways in order to survive, is considered a free roaming or feral cat. While some feral cats tolerate a bit of human contact, most are too fearful and wild to be handled. Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats. But stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a very important way—in their relationship to and interactions with people.
The inarguable reality is that people, not cats, have most significantly damaged the environment, habitats and ecosystems and have done far more to endanger and eliminate bird species and wildlife. Even at its worst imagined, the effect of cats on wildlife and bird populations is minute compared to the effect of people.
According to wildlife biologists, the reproductive and offspring mortality rates of free-roaming cats are similar to wild carnivores. One female cat averages six kittens per year and 75% of her kittens die before reproductive age. When using these criteria, math experts calculate that one female cat and her offspring will produce 100 cats in seven years, assuming that all adult cats remain alive for all seven years. Although still an overestimate, this figure is far less daunting and realistic.
Basic Facts about Feral cats
- A feral cat is a wild animal, not to be confused with stray and free-roaming cats that are, or once were, someone’s pet.
- Feral cats are afraid of humans. They do their very best to stay away from people.
- A feral cat cannot be safely held or picked up, and they need to be trapped in order to transport them safely. Sometimes, after a relationship is long established, caregivers can touch a feral cat, but not actually pick it up.
- Some feral cats have a notch or a small straight slice of their left or right ear missing. This is called an “ear-tip”. Veterinarians use an “ear-tip” as a permanent marker to distinguish that this cat is spayed or neutered before the cat is returned outdoors.
The Life of a feral cat
A feral cat is “any cat who is too poorly socialized to be handled … and who cannot be placed into a typical pet home.” According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, there are between 60 million and 100 million feral cats in the U.S. They are usually the offspring of cats who were lost or abandoned by their owners, and they grow up not socialized to humans.
The scientists found that the feral cats had home ranges that stretched across large areas; one male kitty’s range covered 1,351 acres (2.1 square miles). They roamed over a wide variety of habitats, most often in urban areas and grasslands, including a restored prairie. In winter, they preferred urban spots, forests and farmland, all places that would provide greater shelter from bad weather and help them keep warm. Cats that had owners, meanwhile, tended to stick close to home, with their range sizes averaging a mere 4.9 acres.
They should not be confused with stray cats which were raised as pets but have since been lost or abandoned. Although stray cats can be scared of people due to their experiences, they can often be rehabilitated and go on to live life as a pet again. Sometimes farm kittens will have been handled and treated well by farm workers and children – enabling them to adapt to life in the home. These kittens would also not generally be considered feral.
Unlike pet cats which often don’t get on with other felines, feral colonies will often naturally develop. These are usually made up of groups of related females and the size of the colony is directly related to the availability of food, water and shelter.
What Is the Average Lifespan of a Feral Cat?
The lifespan of a feral cat is often stated as only 2-3 years. Not in our experience. Many caretakers know of free-roaming cats that reach 12 to 15 years of age. Long-term studies are underway to determine longevity. If a feral cat survives kittenhood, his average lifespan is less than two years if living on his own. If a cat is lucky enough to be in a colony that has a caretaker, he may reach 10 years.
Preliminary data reveal that tom cats live the shortest, but neutering them increases their lifespan to that of a spayed female cat. Not all colony cats live to a ripe old age, but many live far longer than the urban myth projects.
Where do feral cats live?
Feral cats typically live in a colony – a group of related cats; and take refuge wherever they can find food—rodents and other small animals and garbage The colony occupies and defends a specific territory where food (restaurant dumpster or a person who feeds them) and shelter (beneath a porch, in an abandoned building) are available. Since feral cats typically fear strangers, it is very likely that people may not realize that feral cats are living nearby because the cats are rarely seen.
Feral cats often live in vacant lots, dodge cars, and eat from trash cans; face infection, disease, and an endless cycle of pregnancy; and suffer extremes in treatment and weather. The life of a feral, stray, or abandoned cat is often short, sometimes lasting for just two or three years. They will also try to seek out abandoned buildings, deserted cars, even dig holes in the ground to keep warm in winter months and cool during the summer heat.
Caring for feral cats
Some people view feral cats as pests. Thankfully, many more – particularly farmers, stable owners and smallholders – value them for their role as working mousers that protect grain and feed. A healthy feral colony can really help to keep the vermin levels down. Despite their wild nature, feral cats still benefit from a certain level of care, including:
Neutering: This has major health benefits and keeps the colony size under control. Feral cats will need to be trapped in a humane cattrap before they are neutered because they are too wild to be handled. Once a feral cat is sedated or under anaesthetic, the vet can give it a health check and treat it for parasites. After neutering the cat is released back into its territory as quickly as possible – this is so the cat does not lose the communal scent and end up being rejected by other cats in the colony.
Regular feeding: Many feral cats are very resourceful and find adequate food, but it may be helpful to offer them extra help, especially in winter. Only offer food if the feral cats have been neutered. This is important because feeding unneutered cats increases the number of kittens that are born. It is also not in any cat’s interests to become fat and this is particularly true of feral cats as it affects their agility and chance of survival – so avoid overfeeding. Contrary to popular belief, regularly fed feral cats are better hunters than hungry ones.
Observation: It is helpful to observe colonies, so that any new unneutered, sick or injured cats can be promptly trapped and taken to the vet. Only minor ailments can be treated in feral cats and sometimes they have to be euthanased on welfare grounds if they have significant illness or injury.
Difference Between a Stray Cat and a Feral Cat
Feral cats are the offspring of lost or abandoned pet cats or other feral cats that is the result of pet owners’ abandonment or failure to spay and neuter their animals, allowing them to breed uncontrolled. A feral cat is primarily wild-raised or has adapted to feral life, while we define a stray cat as someone’s pet who has become lost or has been abandoned.
Stray cats are usually tame and comfortable around people. A stray cat is a pet cat that is lost or abandoned. Stray cats are accustomed to contact with people and are tame. They will frequently rub against legs and exhibit behaviors such as purring and meowing. In contrast, feral cats are notably quiet and keep their distance. Stray cats will also often try to make a home near humans—in car garages, front porches or backyards. Most are completely reliant on humans as a food source and are not yet able to cope with life on the streets.