Written by: Humane Pennsylvania Community Outreach Programs Manager, Alexandra Young
October 16 is National Feral Cat Day! Since I met my first feral cat over 20 years ago, almost every day has been a celebration of National Feral Cat Day for me. Luke was a 4-month-old feral kitten that was basically kit-napped from his familiar outdoor home as part of a grassroots effort to save his litter. Half a year later, he was still terrified of humans. He had no potential adopters, and he no longer had a safe outdoor home. He was really miserable — as were his caretakers.
Luke’s case alerted me to the plight of feral cats and the consequences when good intentions fail. Many outdoor “friendlies” can backslide after being adopted as an indoor pet when their familiar routine and environment disappear. Common pitfalls of failed rescue attempts are:
- Litter box avoidance (indoors or outside)
- Repeated escape attempts (or finally succeeding)
- Aggression or shutting down
Stray or Feral?
“Stray” cats usually refer to those that enjoy physical contact with us and know how to ask for food and attention. One may think the cheek rubs, belly rolls and purrs mean “Please save me!” but this may not be what the cat truly wants or needs. Strays are often lost or abandoned pets, but they may also be indoor/outdoor unsupervised pets.
A “feral” cat runs when approached and deliberately avoids interaction with people. They have had little or no exposure to human contact or confinement, and they will attack if they can’t escape when cornered or handled. They’re often born outside as descendants of multiple generations of ferals.
Many factors influence a cat’s behavior at any given moment, and without a complete history calling one stray or feral becomes subjective. Regardless of its label, there is a way to control the population that respects cats’ nature and virtually eliminates kit-napping scenarios. It’s called TNR, otherwise known as Trap-Neuter-Return.
TNR’d cats are humanely captured, surgically sterilized, vaccinated against rabies and ear-tipped (one-third of an ear cut straight across) before being released back to their original outdoor “home.” Ear tips are universal symbols that a cat:
- Can’t reproduce
- Is rabies vaccinated
- Likely has a feeder (or a few!)
- Is at “home” and should be left alone unless obviously sick or injured
Kittens as young as 2 months old can be safely sterilized by a trained veterinarian. Early sterilization is critical, because a kitten can have her first litter at 6 months old. Many ear-tipped cats are also microchipped so they can be returned home just like your own family pet. Although cats are instinctively solitary, TNR’d cats often live in groups (called colonies) to share resources. Scientifically proven* benefits of TNR include:
- Reduces complaint-inducing behaviors, including fighting, spraying, and breeding
- Stabilizes population
- Frees up valuable shelter/rescue resources to needy pets
- Promotes peaceful coexistence
- Advocates humane treatment of all animals
- Avoids needless euthanasia
Returning sterilized cats to areas where other cats live may seem counterintuitive. However, due to the vacuum effect, new cats move into voids created by the removal of existing cats to take advantage of food, water and shelter. On the other hand, the practice of trapping, removing and killing cats often results in increases in free-roaming cat populations.
Humane Pennsylvania, through its Healthy Pets Initiative, offers the following services to assist you with free-roaming cats:
- Bottle Baby Kitten Kits
- Low-cost or free TNR surgeries for free-roaming cats
- “Pay-what-you-can” neighborhood vaccine and microchip clinics
- Free cat food to community cat caregivers through Spike’s Pet Pantry
- Free winter cat shelters made by volunteers
- Community cat and TNR guidance and advice
Be the Change
Humane Pennsylvania is building the best community anywhere to be an animal — including a community cat. And every person can be a part of the solution. Here’s how you can help:
- Become a foster parent for kittens, either on your own or through Humane Pennsylvania
- Volunteer to distribute pet food, make cat shelters or help at vaccine clinics
- If your municipality offers TNR services, thank your council and use the services!
- Attend council meetings and encourage elected officials to support TNR, offer a trap loan program or set aside funding to subsidize TNR surgeries
- Donate to Humane Pennsylvania to support our community cat programs
By working together as a community, we can improve the lives of free-roaming cats and the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Using the right approaches, we can save lives, decrease problems associated with unsupported community cats and have healthier, happier communities!
* Resources for scientifically validated benefits of TNR: