There are numerous reasons why cats become homeless. They get lost. Their owners die or lose their jobs and can no longer afford to take care of them. Or people become tired of looking after a cat once it's no longer a cute kitten. Free-roaming feral cat colonies and stray cats multiply rapidly and pose significant problems, but there are solutions, including some that are compassionate.
A feral cat is one with little exposure to humans and socialization—it's wild and free but doesn't have the cushy life of a housecat. This lack of socialization tends to happen when owners abandon a cat that subsequently has babies. The kittens will grow up in non-domestic settings, and the lack of familiarity with people causes fear and potentially aggressive behavior towards would-be rescuers. Stray cats are domestic cats that are used to humans but leave home, get lost, or are abandoned. Ferals mainly avoid humans, but stray cats often approach for food.
Cat colonies are akin to lion prides and comprise females often connected by blood. The queens work together to groom, protect and nurse their babies, defend their territory, and guard the group against outsiders, but hunting occurs alone. Colonies increase the life expectancy of feral cats from two to ten years and conflict typically only occurs when there's a shortage of food or when male kittens reach sexual maturity and are encouraged to leave.
Colonies often form around scavenging and shelter opportunities, but a single pregnant cat can spawn a colony within a couple of years because kittens become sexually mature after four months. Free-roaming female cats can produce up to 18 kittens a year, but many of these babies die within the first year. Still, it's easy to see why feral cat numbers are so high.
A stray cat may be allowed group membership after numerous encounters, but colony numbers generally don't exceed 15 cats, and groups are often smaller if resources are in short supply. The females have friendly interactions with known male cats, but the colonies usually have no-boys policies except for offspring and one or two older males.
Feral cats resist humans and are difficult to pick up and handle. Adoption is unlikely and even discouraged, and animal shelters have limited space and resources, so they focus on adoptable cats. In addition, homeless free-roaming cats become highly stressed when in shelter cages. A cat shelter may refer you to feral cat support groups or be able to loan you a trap to remove a street cat from your property humanely.
First things first—feral cats are a problem because of humans. They can become a nuisance when they're loud during fighting and mating. Unneutered males spray urine to mark their territory and leave unpleasant odors behind. They're also efficient hunters that threaten local wildlife, ruin gardens, and upset domestic pets.
Cat colonies have become a significant environmental issue, and the large numbers of feral cats ensure that many have a poor quality of life and experience visible suffering. This is why neutering is so important. Trap Neuter Return programs aim to reduce feral cat numbers humanely by returning neutered and vaccinated cats to human-supported colonies.
In 2016, there were approximately 500 feral cat colonies in New York, but gentrification and city development displaced many of these cats or killed them with traps and rat poison. Human caretakers continue to struggle to find new habitats. In Chicago, however, some homeowners have courted feral cats to deal with rat problems.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of abandoned cats are on an island off Brazil's southeastern coastline called Ilha Furtada. Due to a lack of resources, there's a shortage of animal shelters and support in the developing world. Brazil is still trying to get to grips with the situation.
Meanwhile, feral and stray cats in Australia kill about two billion animals annually. The ecological damage has led to a push for mass euthanization, but environmentalists and avian enthusiasts are in contention with humane groups.
Alley cats with previous socialization and healthcare pose less risk to household members and other pets and are the best candidates for home adoption once you've taken them to a vet. You'll need to use calming aids and slowly introduce them to family members, including animals. Feral cats may have various spreadable infections, including ringworm and rabies. And even if they're well, they're unaccustomed to humans, so you'll need to limit care to feeding outside.
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