October 16th has been designated National Feral Cat Day, a day founded by Alley Cat Allies to raise awareness about the humane treatment of feral cats, promote Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs throughout the country, and to recognize the animal rescuers who give their time and resources to help feral cats.
What is a feral cat?
You might wonder how a feral cat differs from a homeless cat. While some people use the terms interchangeably, there actually is a big difference. A stray or homeless cat is a cat that was abandoned or became lost but is still tame, friendly or comfortable around people. A feral cat may have either been born and spent his entire life outside, or one that has reverted to a wild/feral state after having been abandoned or having lost his or her home. A feral cat fears and generally avoids human contact, and cannot be handled or petted. The types of free-roaming cats you may encounter range from friendly, owned cats that have been allowed outside to completely wild, unapproachable cats that have never known human contact, and everything in between.
How big is the problem?
While it’s impossible to know the exact number, the ASPCA estimates that feral cats in the United States number in the tens of millions.
What is TNR?
As the name suggests, Trap-Neuter-Release (or Return) programs work to capture feral cats, spay/neuter and vaccinate them, and then return them to their original location. This helps prevent the feral cat population from growing, and is a humane alternative to euthanasia because these cats are typically not adoptable. After altering, the cat’s ear is “tipped” so caregivers can easily identify from a distance the cats that have already been sterilized. Proponents advise that simply removing the cats is not a viable solution as other feral cats will just move into the vacant location, thereby perpetuating the problem; TNR programs actually stabilize the cat population.
What can you do to help?
In order to avoid contributing to the problem, first make sure your own cats are spayed or neutered. Because feral cats are generally not adoptable, it’s important that we also work towards spaying and neutering the feral cat population. The life of a feral cat is unquestionably difficult; feral cats face a daily struggle to find shelter, food and just to stay alive. Feral cats that live in a colony with a human caretaker do much better. If you have the time, dedication and funds, consider becoming a caretaker to a colony of feral cats in your area. Responsibilities in caring for a colony of feral cats include monitoring the health of the cats, catching and transporting cats for spay/neuter, and providing cat food, water and shelter. Becoming a caretaker can be rewarding but it is a big responsibility; it is recommended that you connect with a TNR group to get advice and guidance. You can also help by spreading the word about the importance of spay/neuter and TNR programs in your community.
Feral cats find themselves in this difficult position through no fault of their own. While these cats may never know the joy of a warm lap and a comforting stroke upon their fur, they deserve care, protection and humane treatment.