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At some point, most of us have attempted to feed or comfort a wide-eyed feral cat. One reason is there are so many of them -- female cats can start producing offspring as young as 4 or 5 months of age, and they may give birth to a litter twice a year thereafter. By some estimates, a male and female cat can create a population of over 400,000 cats in seven years! It's therefore easy to see how a colony of feral cats can grow quickly.
If you've ever sighted homeless cats in your neighborhood and wondered what to do, here's some expert advice on the kindest and most effective action you can take to help them.
What Is a Feral Cat?
In order to help any cat, you must first determine if it is truly feral or if it is simply a stray. A feral cat is one that was born away from human contact or was abandoned by its human family so long ago that it's reverted to wild ways. "Feral cats are not socialized to humans," says Becky Robinson, director of Alley Cat Allies, a national organization dedicated to helping control and care for feral cats based in Bethesda, Md. "They are not vocal, will run away from a human and will hiss and defend themselves if they feel cornered. By contrast, a stray or lost cat will meow and react to your approach with curiosity, and may even purr. But in physical features and biology, the two kinds of cats are the same."
If the cat you've found is just a stray, try putting up signs in your neighborhood to alert others, and call local animal clinics and shelters to see if anyone has reported a lost cat. If your new feline acquaintance is a feral, additional considerations must come into play.
Bringing a Feral Cat Home
A feral kitten, born outside, will hiss and run from humans like its adult feral counterparts. But it can be socialized if you bring it into your house at a young age. You must have the willingness and patience to care for the kitten for many weeks while it gets used to you and your house. Adult ferals, on the other hand, almost never become socialized to humans. For months, and even years, after being brought into a home, an adult feral cat will hiss, hide and rarely allow a human to touch or pet it, says Robinson. Some people can put up with such wild tendencies, but sharing your home with an adult feral cat, not to mention caring for the feline, is not for the feint of heart.
The Best Way to Help a Feral Cat
Once you've determined that a group of cats is feral, one humane plan of action is called TNR -- trap, neuter and return. According to Alley Cat Allies, as well as the Human Society of the United States, this is the kindest thing to do for feral cats. Up to 73% of cats brought into shelters are killed, and feral cats are rarely adopted because of their terror of humans.
Trapping To trap a cat that is terrified of humans, first get a humane trap from your veterinarian or animal clinic. Stop feeding the cat for a day, so that it can be easily lured into the trap with food. Allocate one trap per feline. "Once the cat is caught, cover the trap with a towel so that it calms down," says Robinson, "then take the cat or cats directly to the clinic." Alley Cat Allies and similar organizations provide names of people across the country who have experience in humanely trapping feral cats (see their web site ). On this site, you can also view a video that shows step-by-step instructions on how to safely trap a feral cat without getting hurt.
Neutering or spaying Line up a veterinarian ahead of time who is willing to spay or neuter a feral cat -- or an entire colony of feral cats -- without too much notice, in one session. Some doctors will do this at a low cost or even for free. They will also tip the cat's ear while it is under anesthesia, as a mark that it has been spayed or neutered. "This is a way to identify the cat in lieu of a collar," says Robinson.
Return the feral cats to their territory Once the veterinarian gives you the OK, the cats should be returned to the area where you originally found them. They've staked out this territory and know it as home. At this point, you can help the feral felines by providing food and water daily, as well as some kind of shelter from rain, wind and cold. A waterproofed wooden box, with an opening just wide enough for cats, will serve this purpose. To deter the cats from walking on your lawn, toss orange peels or coffee grounds on the grass, or install a motion sensor that triggers your water sprinkler system to go on for a minute. Soon the cats will avoid your yard.
Elizabeth Parker has written for The Boston Globe, Shape, Glamour, Viv and many other publications. She is co-author of Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books) and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, cat and two rabbits.