Feral cat

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Feral cat with a tipped ear indicating it was neutered in a trap-neuter-return program

A feral cat is a domestic cat who has been born and raised without contact with humans, or a cat who has not had contact with humans for a significant period of time and has become unsocialized. It is distinguished from a stray cat, which is a homeless socialized cat who could potentially become comfortable living in a home again.


The meaning of the term feral cat varies between professions and countries, and is sometimes used interchangeably with other terms such as free-roaming, street, alley, or community cat. Some of these terms are also used to refer to stray cats, although stray and feral cats are generally considered to be different by rescuers, veterinarians, and researchers.[1][2] Stray cats are socialized cats who no longer live in homes, but could potentially be successfully reintroduced to a home environment.[3]

A 2013 article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that rescuers and veterinarians in the United Kingdom tended to distinguish feral cats from domesticated cats based on traits such as their levels of socialization, ownership, and confinement, and on the amount of fear of, interaction with, and dependence upon humans. They found that rescuers and veterinarians tended to agree that feral cats were cats that had not had much human contact (particularly before eight weeks of age), would try to avoid humans, and would prefer to escape rather than attack a human. However, veterinarians and rescuers disagreed on whether a feral cat would tend to hiss and spit at or attack a human during an encounter, and disagreed on whether adult ferals could potentially be tamed. The article provided a composite definition of a feral cat as a cat that would choose not to interact with humans, could survive with or without human assistance, and would hide or defend itself when trapped rather than allowing itself to be handled.[1]

A survey of rescuers and veterinarians in the United States found that there was no widely-accepted definition of a feral cat. Many facilities used waiting periods to evaluate whether a cat was feral by observing whether the cat became less afraid and evasive over time. Other indicators included the cat's response to touch with an inanimate object, and observation of social behavior from the cat in varying environments (in response to human contact, with a human nearby, or when moved to a quieter environment).[4] The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals defines feral cats as either cats who were born in the wild, or domestic cats who have lived in the wild sufficiently long to develop wild behavior to survive.[5]

The Australian government categorizes cats who have no interaction with or assistance from humans as feral, and unowned cats who rely on humans as semi-feral or stray.[6][7]


Although scientists do not agree on whether cats were originally domesticated in Egypt or if they were introduced there after domestication, the spread of cats throughout much of the world is thought to have originated in Egypt, where they were popular and effectual at controlling mouse populations. Traders from Phoenicia brought them to Europe to control rat populations, and monks brought them further into Asia. Roman armies also helped with the spread, eventually bringing them to England.[8] Since then, cats continued to be introduced to new areas, often by sailors or settlers. Cats are thought to have been either introduced to Australia in the 1600s by Dutch shipwrecks, or in the late 1700s by English settlers.[6][9] These domesticated cats began to form feral populations after their offspring began living away from human contact.[9]

Feral cats have been intentionally introduced to some areas as a pest control strategy. In the 1800s, thousands of cats were introduced near settlements in Australia that had developed near gold dig sites and farms as an attempt to manage populations of mice, rabbits, and rats.[9]


There are some behaviors that are commonly observed among feral cats, although there is some disagreement among veterinarians, rescuers, and researchers on the prevalence of some. In a free-roaming environment, feral cats avoid humans. They do not allow themselves to be handled or touched, and back away or run from humans when they are able to do so. If trapped, they may hiss, growl, bare their teeth, or strike out.[10] They remain fairly hidden from humans, and will not approach them, although some feral cats gradually become more comfortable around humans who feed them regularly.[11]


A colony of feral cats

Feral cats often live in colonies, groups of feral cats that live together in one territory, often near food sources and shelter.[5] There is disagreement among researchers over the existence, extent, and structure of dominance hierarchies within feral colonies.[10][12] Different types of hierarchies have been observed in feral colonies, including despotic and linear hierarchies. Some colonies are organized in more complex structures, such as relative hierarchies, where social status of individual cats can vary based on their location, the time of day, or the activity the cats are engaged in (particularly feeding and mating).[13][14]

When a human decides to care for a feral colony, it is often referred to as a managed colony. The care given can include regularly supplying food and water to the cats, providing shelters, helping with trap-neuter-return programs, providing continued veterinary care, finding foster homes for cats that can be socialized for eventual adoption, and working to educate people who live in the neighborhood.[5][15]


Socialization of a stray kitten over three weeks

Feral kittens can be trapped and socialized, then adopted into a home. The age at which a kitten becomes very difficult to socialize is not agreed upon, but suggestions generally range from seven weeks to four months of age.[4][16][17] Although older cats can sometimes be socialized, it is a very long and difficult process, and the cat rarely becomes friendly and may remain fearful.[1][17]

In a 2013 study of participants from the United Kingdom, rescuers tended to be more willing than veterinarians to attempt to tame adult feral cats. Veterinarians tended to be more opposed to this practice, with some expressing concerns for the welfare of such a cat in a home environment.[1] In a 2010 study of veterinarians and rescuers in the United States, 66% of responders had socialization programs for kittens, and 8% for adult cats.[4]


Diet and predators[edit]

Feral cats can be effective hunters of small animals.

Feral cats primarily subsist on food scavenged from garbage when it is available to them.[18] Feral cats living in managed colonies are fed cat food by volunteers.[19]

Domesticated and feral cats have been observed to prey on a wide variety of both vertebrates and invertebrates. Cats typically prefer smaller animals with body weights under 100 grams (3.5 oz), particularly mammals, birds, and lizards.[20][21]

Feral cats in Australia prey on a variety of wildlife. In arid and semi-arid environments, they eat mostly introduced European rabbits and house mice. In arid environments where rabbits do not occur, native rodents are taken. In forests and urbanized areas, they eat mostly native marsupials (particularly the common ringtail possum) and rodents.[20]

Feral cats may be mesopredators or apex predators in some local ecosystems.[22] In others, they may be preyed on by animals such as feral dogs, dingoes, foxes, coyotes, and wedge-tailed eagles.[23][6]

Life span and survival[edit]

Feral cats in managed colonies can live long lives. A number of cats in managed colonies in the U.K. died of old age.[24]:522 In the U.S., the last cat in a managed colony in Washington, D.C. died at age 17,[25] and Zorro, the last cat of a colony at the Merrimack River in Newburyport, Massachusetts, died in 2009 at age 16.[26]

A long-term study of a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program in Central Florida found that despite widespread concern about the welfare of free-roaming cats, 83% of the cats studied had been present for over six years, with almost half first observed as adults of unknown age. These time spans compared favourably to the average lifespan of 7.1 years for pet cats reported in a 1984 study,[27]:45 and to the finding that only 42% of the pet cat population in the U.S. is more than 5 years old.[28]:1358

Without human assistance, feral kittens are expected to have a high death rate, approximately fifty percent within the first year.[27]:45

Adult feral cats without human assistance have been found in surprisingly good condition. In Florida, a study of feral cats admitted to a trap-neuter-return program concluded that "euthanasia for debilitated cats for humane reasons is rarely necessary".[29] A further study of over 100,000 community cats (feral and stray) admitted to TNR programs in diverse locations of the U.S. resulted in the same 0.4% rate of euthanasia for debilitating conditions.[30] Rates of feline leukemia virus infection and feline immunodeficiency virus antibodies in feral cats studied in North Carolina and Florida were similar to those of owned cats.[31] The body condition of feral cats entering a TNR program in Florida was described as "generally lean but not emaciated".[32] However, many community cats had suffered from parasites such as fleas and ear mites before entering TNR programs.[28]

Disease prevalence[edit]

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are among the most common infectious diseases of cats. FeLV and FIV belong to the retroviridae family, and both cause immunosuppression in cats. Research has shown that the prevalence of these viruses among feral cat populations is low and is similar to prevalence rates for owned cats in the United States.[31] Cats are the only complete host of the parasitic protozoan Toxoplasma gondii. Exposure can lead to toxoplasmosis, a potentially fatal disease. It also can cause fetal deaths and severe birth defects. It is known to spread easily to most warm blooded mammals.

Control and management[edit]

Main article: Trap-neuter-return

Trap-neuter-return (TNR) involves trapping feral cats, spaying or neutering them, and then returning them to the place where there were originally trapped, where ongoing care is provided by caregivers.[33] When neutered, the cats receive vaccinations against rabies, and attention to other medical needs, such as dental care and flea treatments.[34]:115 TNR programs are prevalent in several countries, including England,[24] Italy,[35] Canada and the United States,[36] supported by many local and state governments. Various long-term studies have shown that TNR is effective in stopping reproduction and reducing the population over time.[24][27][37] TNR results in fewer complaints, as nuisance behaviors diminish following neutering,[37]:16 and the quality of life of the cats is improved.[28]:1359[32] The practice is reported to save money[37]:294 and garner more public support and better morale than efforts that involve killing cats.[37]:297[38]:49

The International Companion Animal Management Coalition advocates for TNR as a humane method of controlling feral cat populations.[39] In the U.S., the practice is endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States[40] and the National Animal Control Association.[41] While the United States Department of Defense does not formally advocate TNR, it provides information to military installations on how to implement TNR programs,[42] with the main message that population control programs must be humane.[43]

The multiple, managed, feral colonies at the Colosseum in Rome exceed 250 cats. Other notable colonies include the Canadian Parliamentary Cats and the cats of Jerusalem.[44]

Low-level killing feral cats in open population areas will increase their population, due to dominant cats being targeted.[45]

Effects on wildlife[edit]

Mice and rats[edit]

For thousands of years, cats have been known for their ability to hunt mice and rats and keep their populations under control. This ability is understood as the reason cats became domesticated.[46]:68 The relationship was more of convenience (or mutualistic) than dependence: "Cats killed mice and rats, and humans provided lots of mice and rats to kill since mice and rats lived in human settlements."[46]:68 A 2014 study examining 5,300 years of cat remains in an agricultural village of Quanhucun, China, provides early evidence of this dynamic, where cats protected grain stores by eating rodents.[47][48]

If they are well-fed, farm cats are more dependable as effective ratters, as they are less likely to stray or hunt further afield.[49]:110 Cats are wary of adult rats, given their size,[49]:111 but are particularly adept at hunting young rats.[49]:110

In 2002, feral cats introduced to a flower market in Los Angeles, California, were noted to have helped lower rat populations.[50] In Chicago's 47th Ward, feral cats were introduced in 2012 to help the city deal with the rat problem there.[51]

Efforts to eradicate feral cats in Ventura, California, were noted in 2002 to have resulted in increasing numbers of rats, which were being monitored for health problems such as bubonic plague.[50][52]


A 2013 study by Scott R. Loss and others of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that free-ranging domestic cats (mostly unowned) are the top human-caused threat to wildlife in the United States, killing an estimated 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals annually.[53][54] These figures were much higher than previous estimates for the U.S.[53]:2 Unspecified species of birds native to the U.S. and mammals including mice, shrews, voles, squirrels and rabbits were considered most likely to be preyed upon by cats.[53]:4

Advocates for feral cats counter that Loss's study and earlier related studies have inflated estimates of wildlife killed by cats in the U.S., based on unscientific research that extrapolates from tiny samples and projects them onto whole nations.[55] One reviewer stated that Loss's study was filled with "numerous major flaws in the statistical arguments made" that in his view made it "unacceptable for publication".[56]:1 It was unclear how predation rates were obtained, and then "applying these estimates to all cats across the country is highly questionable."[56]:3 Extrapolation was also misused when "Based on a small sample of cats over three summer months in one specific geographic area, the authors see fit to extrapolate this predation rate to all cats at all times of the year in all geographic regions in the United States."[56]:3

Perhaps the first U.S. study that pointed to predation by cats on wildlife as a concern was ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush's 1916 report for the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wildlife: Means of Utilizing and Controlling It.[57]

U.K. biologist and cat behaviour expert Roger Tabor states that "studies from all around the world have found that cats catch relatively few birds compared to small mammals."[58]:135 The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds states that there is no scientific evidence that cat predation "is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide."[59] Moreover, city cats have smaller ranges; in his research, Tabor found "the average annual catch of the average London cat to be two items instead of the fourteen of a village cat."[58]:135 Tabor comments about some of the challenges of stalking birds for cats: "From the cat's point of view not only do birds not play fair by flying and having eyes that can see beyond the back of their heads, but they can positively cheat by using loud alarm calls and throw the cat's chances of catching any others."[49]:123

Island settings pose particular challenges for wildlife. A 2001 study identified cats alone as responsible for the plight of some island bird species, such as the Townsend's shearwater, socorro dove, and the Marquesan ground dove.[60][60]:400 The same study identified the greatest cause of endangerment of birds as habitat loss and degradation, with at least 52% of endangered birds affected,[60]:399 while introduced species on islands, such as domestic cats, rats and mustelids,[60]:403 affected only 6% of endangered birds.[60]:399 Other studies caution that removing domestic cats from islands can have unintended consequences, as increasing rat populations can put native bird[61] and mammal species[62][63] at risk.


Feral cats in Australia have been linked to the decline and extinction of various native animals. They have been shown to cause a significant impact on ground nesting birds and small native mammals.[20] Feral cats have also hampered any attempts to re-introduce threatened species back into areas where they have become extinct as the cats have hunted and killed the newly released animals.[64] Numerous Australian environmentalists claim the feral cat has been an ecological disaster in Australia, inhabiting most ecosystems except dense rainforest, and being implicated in the extinction of several marsupial and placental mammal species.[65]

New Zealand[edit]

The fauna of New Zealand has evolved in isolation for millions of years without the presence of mammals (apart from a few bat species). Consequently, birds dominated the niches occupied by mammals and many became flightless. The introduction of mammals after settlement by Māori from about the 12th century had a huge effect on the indigenous biodiversity. European explorers and settlers brought cats on their ships and the presence of feral cats were recorded from the latter decades of the 19th century.[66] It is estimated that feral cats have been responsible for the extinction of six endemic bird species and over 70 localised subspecies as well as depleting bird and lizard species.[67]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the U.K., The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds states that there is no scientific evidence that cat predation "is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide. This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease, or other forms of predation. There is evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds ... Those bird species that have undergone the most serious population declines in the UK (such as skylarks, tree sparrows and corn buntings) rarely encounter cats, so cats cannot be causing their declines. Research shows that these declines are usually caused by habitat change or loss, particularly on farmland."[59] This evidence is despite the common practice in the U.K. of allowing owned cats access to the outdoors,[68] which is recommended to prevent feline obesity (p. 138) and behavior problems and other health problems arising from confinement stress (p. 121).[58]


Consequences of introduction[edit]

The Stephens Island wren became extinct within two years of the introduction of cats to Stephens Island.

Many islands host ecologically naive animal species; that is, animals that do not have predator responses for dealing with predators such as cats.[69] Feral cats introduced to such islands have had a devastating impact on these islands' biodiversity. They have been implicated in the extinction of several species and local extinctions, such as the hutias from the Caribbean, the Guadalupe storm petrel from the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the Stephens Island wren; in a statistical study, they were a significant cause for the extinction of 40% of the species studied.[70] Moors and Atkinson wrote, in 1984, "No other alien predator has had such a universally damaging effect."[69]

Feral cats, along with rabbits, some sea birds, and sheep, form the entire large animal population of the remote Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Although exotic mammals form the bulk of their diet, cats' impact on seabirds is very important.[71]


Because of the damage cats cause in islands and some ecosystems, many conservationists working in the field of island restoration have worked to remove feral cats. (Island restoration involves the removal of introduced species and reintroducing native species.) As of 2004, 48 islands have had their feral cat populations eradicated, including New Zealand's network of offshore island bird reserves[72] and Australia's Macquarie Island. Larger projects have also been undertaken, including their complete removal from Ascension Island. The cats, introduced in the 19th century, caused a collapse in populations of nesting seabirds. The project to remove them from the island began in 2002, and the island was cleared of cats by 2004. Since then, seven species of seabird that had not nested on the island for 100 years have returned.[73]

In some cases, the removal of cats had unintended consequences. An example is Macquarie Island, where the removal of cats caused an explosion in the number of rabbits, rats, and mice that harm native seabirds[74][75][76] even if the eradication was positioned within an integrated pest management framework.[77] The removal of the rats and rabbits was scheduled for 2007 and it could take up to seven years and cost $24 million.[78]

Hybridisation with wild felids[edit]

Feral cats have interbred with wildcats to various extents throughout the world, the first reported case occurring more than 200 years ago. The significance of hybridisation is disputed. Older documentation suggests that the wildcat was a separate species from the domestic cat, but modern genetic analysis[79] has shown that the domestic cat is a domesticated version of the near-eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). In some locations, high levels of hybridisation have led to difficulties in distinguishing a "true" wildcat from feral domestic and domestic hybrid cats, which can complicate conservation efforts.[80] Some researchers argue that "pure" wildcats do not exist anymore, but others dispute this.[81] One study in Scotland suggests that while "true" Scottish wildcats are unlikely to exist, the current wildcat population is distinct enough from domestic cats to be worth protecting,[82] genetics research is still underway as part of the Wildcat Haven project in Scotland, which has reported success protecting wildcats from hybridisation with widespread trap-neuter-return work.[83] Wildcat populations' notable gene introgression exists also in Italy, Hungary, Spain and Portugal.[84] For a discussion of this issue see The Encyclopedia of Mammals, OUP, pages 656–657.[85]

See also[edit]


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