VERONICA DAEHN HARVEY
Felines have a way of knowing, it seems, which house might have a friendly adult inside, which one might have a child old enough to be gentle with his affection, which one might offer food, which one won’t shoo it away.
But even animal lovers with kind hearts might be unsure what’s best for the cat. What is the right thing to do when a stray feline shows up? Set out a dish of your pet’s food? Call Animal Control? Bring it inside and hope it sleeps next to you?
Cats who live in the wild are often referred to as feral, or community, cats. They are not a new phenomenon, but recent community efforts to stop the pet overpopulation have involved trapping and neutering or spaying the feral cats before releasing them back into the wild.
Such efforts are a good idea, but you have personal options as well. When you see a feral cat in your neighborhood, consider your choices:
- Give it a home. “If they are friendly, and you have room, by all means, take them in,” said Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Most people obtain their pet cats as neighborhood strays or from friends and family, rather than embarking on a search for a new pet.”
- Give it food. “If the cats are unsocialized or you are already at your pet limit, then you can help the cats by feeding them,” Levy said.
But be careful, said Dr. Ellie Shelburne, a veterinarian at Northampton Veterinary Clinic in Northampton, Mass., who co-founded the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spaying and neutering homeless cats. If you feed a feral cat, be prepared to offer it outdoor shelter and to continue feeding it.
- Get it fixed. If you feed feral cats, find out about your community’s trap-neuter-return program. Most have one, even if it’s small. Organizers can help you set a trap for the feral cats to capture them so they can be sterilized and vaccinated, then returned.
“These programs improve the health and welfare of the cats, while they stop the cycle of reproduction,” Levy said.
- Think carefully before calling Animal Control. “Most animal shelters are overrun with cats and hope that residents will exhaust all other options before bringing cats to the shelter,” Levy said. "The vast majority of cats that enter shelters are euthanized, simply because there are not enough homes for them. Unsocialized feral cats rarely leave shelters alive.”
Doctors and scientists are studying the use of feline contraceptives and sterilizing shots as ways to reduce the feral cat population.
“That development could advance animal welfare internationally, especially where surgical services for cats are not widely available,” Levy said.
Her group has been researching contraceptive vaccines and drugs for many years, specifically looking for products that successfully control reproduction of wildlife and evaluating their potential for humane control of community cat populations.
Several vaccines are promising, but none are licensed for use in cats yet, she said.
Shelburne said the easiest, safest way to control the numbers of cats is to get your pet and any feral cats you decide to care for spayed or neutered.
Of course, before deciding to claim a cat that showed up on your doorstep, it’s best to decide if the cat is truly feral, Shelburne said. If the feline is tame and you can catch it, take it to a veterinarian or a shelter, she said, so they can scan for a microchip. It might just be lost.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter September / October, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2012 AAHA. Find out more.