Feral cats behind a fence

Have you ever seen a feral cat or a colony of feral cats? Many people don’t know these cats exist, yet they can be found in virtually every corner of our communities, from suburban developments to downtown areas to rural farmland.

Feral and stray cats, known collectively as "community cats," have been living among humans for thousands of years, and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates there may be up to 40 million community cats in neighborhoods across the country.

Advocacy groups work to ensure the safety and humane treatment of community cats through education, caretaking programs and other support.

October 16, 2014, is designated National Feral Cat Day by Alley Cat Allies, an organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats.

In honor of National Feral Cat Day, we share some things you should know about this nationwide animal welfare issue.

What’s the Difference Between Feral and Stray Cats?

Feral cats are outdoor cats who have never been socialized to humans. They have never been pets, and most never could be. They’re typically fearful of humans and would not be happy living in a home.

Stray cats, however, were once someone’s pet but were either lost or abandoned and now live on the streets. If a stray cat has been away from humans long enough, she can exhibit feral tendencies, but many strays remain friendly to humans.

The kittens of feral cats are born feral, says Alley Cat Allies, but they can be socialized when they are babies and adopted into loving homes.

Where Do Community Cats Live?

Community cats often live in colonies and become closely bonded with their colony members, according to the HSUS. They choose strategic locations, away from danger and with easy access to food, water and shelter. They keep to themselves. In fact, neighbors may not even be aware of a nearby colony, because most of the cats stay out of sight as much as possible.

What Can We Do for Community Cats?

Most animal welfare organizations agree that the best thing we can do for a colony of community cats is to put a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program in place. TNR is a practice in which community cats are humanely trapped in cages, taken to a veterinarian and spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies and returned to their outdoor home.

While a cat is under anesthesia, the veterinarian will carefully clip off the tip of the cat’s ear or make a small cut in the tip of the ear (called “ear tipping”) to help colony caretakers know which cats have been spayed or neutered.

TNR has numerous benefits, from helping keep the community cat population in check to reducing nuisance behaviors associated with intact cats. In addition to TNR, community cat colonies benefit greatly from a dedicated caretaker who feeds the cats on a regular schedule, provides outdoor shelter, monitors the health of the cats, and keeps an eye on new cats who need to be spayed or neutered.

Are Community Cats Really a Nuisance?

Some people consider community cats to be a problem, according to the ASPCA. Most complaints are about cats digging, urinating and defecating in gardens; yowling or fighting at night; getting into garbage cans; and spraying or scratching fences, doors and more. These activities can indeed be problems. However, experts agree that careful management of cat colonies reduces many of these nuisances.

“When cats are well managed, they are not a nuisance,” says Christine Michaels, founder of Riverfront Cats, a cat welfare organization in Miami. “They love routine and are happy, and it shows,” Michaels explains.

For example, TNR helps eliminate some mating-related behaviors like yowling, fighting and marking. And regular feeding programs can help keep hungry cats from getting into garbage cans.

What Makes Caretakers the Key to Success?

Community cat caretakers work hard for the cats, often spending their own money on food, supplies, spaying and neutering, vet care and more. Caretakers are experienced at keeping the cats safe and from becoming a nuisance. For example, regular feedings keep cats from scavenging for food. Specific feeding times and quantities are important. Caretakers know not to leave large amounts of food out because it attracts other animals or insects, for instance.

As a caretaker, educating the neighborhood is important, Michaels says. Neighbors not familiar with community cats or caretaking can become alarmed or suspicious when they see people feeding or caring for the cats, she says.

Michaels always uses these situations as an opportunity to educate people about the importance of feeding at designated places, TNR and more. “I’m always pleasant and explain to neighbors that we’re dedicated to managing the colonies so we don’t have more cats. We don’t want more! People are relieved to hear that,” she explains.

Chrissy Potts, a caretaker who works with Best Friends Animal Society’s Community Cats program in Philadelphia, agrees that educating neighbors is important. She’s been caring for the cats in her neighborhood for years. “People know me,” she says. “They know that I’m taking care of the cats, so they don’t worry about them.”

During a recent TNR effort to capture a group of feral kittens, for example, her neighbors knew not to disturb the traps and to let Potts do her work.

Caretakers include people of all ages and professions — women and men, police officers and grandmothers, lawyers and public relations professionals, and more. Many of them care for colonies for years.

With ongoing TNR programs, caretakers and more education, community cats can remain safely in their colonies. But it takes caring, dedicated citizens working together. “If everyone does a part, we can help them,” Michaels says.

How Can You Help These Cats?

Whether you are interested in helping a colony, becoming a caretaker or simply would like to help others in their efforts, there are a variety of resources you can tap into. Your local animal shelter can tell you if there is a community cat initiative or TNR program in place in your neighborhood. And in some cities, you can find low-cost spay and neuter opportunities. Check out these animal welfare organizations’ websites for more information:

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