New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL 2004


Ferals and Strays: The Forgotten Felines

by Nancy Marano

Have you seen them darting across a street at night, loitering in alleyways behind a restaurant, in a barn, or near a dumpster? These are the homeless cats nobody claims. To most people they are invisible.

These free-roaming cats do worry some people, though. Animal people often want the cats socialized and adopted. Business owners want to get rid of them, as they can be a nuisance to their customers. Some people believe they are a threat to birds and other wildlife. Many cities, caught up in complaints about free-roaming cats, treat the cats as a public health problem that is best solved by trapping and euthanizing them.

Which of these approaches is correct? Can these cats be socialized? Are they a health hazard or a threat to wildlife? What is the solution to this feline fact of life?

The term “free-roaming” applies to any cat not living in a home whether feral or stray. Although you hear the terms “feral” and “stray” used interchangeably, feral and stray have quite different meanings. Feral cats have never lived in close proximity to people. They have grown up on the streets or in the barns. Their behavior is similar to cats in the wild, and they have developed superior survival techniques. Stray cats are those who were raised with people but who have been abandoned or lost. If you see a loose cat during the day, it is most likely a stray. Ferals do not usually appear during the day. These are the night prowlers who hunt their food wherever they can find it. They stay away from people, whenever possible, and live in a cat colony that has a definite social structure.

Rarely can feral cats be socialized. Their home is the outdoors. In this respect they are similar to other wildlife. In contrast, strays, who were domestic cats originally, often can be reintroduced successfully into a domestic situation. Feral kittens under 10 weeks of age also can be socialized and placed for adoption. The older they are the more difficult this becomes.

The appearance of a feral and a stray is usually different. Strays are likely to look dirty, malnourished, and have ragged claws because they haven’t learned to cope with life of the streets yet. Ferals, who have adapted to living outside, are usually sleek, healthy, and well groomed. They are the street wise cats who can survive almost anywhere. A stray cat is much more likely to approach you or allow you to pet her. She might even let you pick her up. A self-respecting feral would not allow such familiarity without a fight. How large is the free-roaming cat problem? It is estimated that there are as many non-owned cats in the United States as there are owned cats. As many as 70 million cats may be roaming the streets and countryside--a significant number!

Feral colonies often have human caretakers who make sure fresh food and water is available for the cats every day. Food is put out during the day and removed before dark to keep other animals from coming into the colony. This is a labor of love for the caretakers since it is time-consuming and can be expensive.

Community animal groups will help a cat colony caretaker provide trap/neuter/return (TNR) for the ferals. TNR is a proven method of gradually and humanely reducing the size of a colony. Cats are humanely trapped once a month, taken to the veterinarian for neutering, and then returned to their original colonies. The most vocal national proponent of this solution is Alley Cat Allies ( This advocacy group is a resource center for information on every aspect of feral colony management. In Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Cat Action Team (A.C.A.T.) and New Mexico Animal Friends both have ongoing feral cat programs.

National animal welfare groups have weighed in on the question of free-roaming cats. The most extensive guidelines come from the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), who issued a position statement this year on “Free-Roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats.”

The statement cautions that, “Public policies for addressing the free-roaming abandoned and feral cat situation should take into account the lack of public awareness about the seriousness of the problem, the bonding of caretakers to unowned cats, and the growing societal opposition to euthanasia.” Their recommendations explore how to provide public education, what the role of veterinary professionals should be, the components of good public policy, how feral cat colonies should be managed, and the role of research in solving the problem.

Clearly free-roaming cats can’t be ignored. It is necessary to develop humane and workable public policies that take these cats’ rights into account. They aren’t simply disposable nuisances. More enlightened policies are possible, but it takes cooperation on the part of the community government and the people most involved with feral cat care.

An example of such cooperation can be seen in Los Angeles where Venice Animal Allies, a rescue group, has relocated feral cats to the city’s flower market, a school, and one of the police stations to handle the rat problem at each of these locations. The cats are happy doing what comes naturally, and the people are thrilled to be rid of the rats. What could be better?

For further information on feral cats and their management check these resources:

Alley Cat Allies,

American Association of Feline Practitioners,

American Veterinary Medical Association,

Cat Fanciers Association,

Humane Society of the United States,

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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