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Resolving the Feral Cat Conundrum

By Elizabeth Parker

Resolving the Feral Cat Conundrum

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.

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Posted on June 17, 2009

sandra says: Shes afraid of people and in the bushes where unprotected. How can I help her.

Posted on June 27, 2009

Angela says: To Sandra, I was able to domesticate an adult feral cat, and you can also. Start leaving food and water out for her, then gradualy start moving the food closer and closer to your door, then try to get her to come inside your house to eat (leaving the door open if need be). I would also try to get her neutered as soon as possible. This really helped my feral cat calm down and let me pet him. I wish I had gotten him neutered earlier. You could trap the cat. OR when you get her to eat in your house, you could get some sedation medication from the vet, put it in her food, and then take her to the vet for neuetering. The Urban Cat League has an excellent web site with lots of helpful info and videos. Look at the one about socializing feral kittens. The same principles apply to feral adult cats, but it will take longer. Have some patience and you can help her--good luck!!!

Posted on July 20, 2009

Diane says: Ive been trapping and releasing strays for 14 yrs.Placing kittens and some adults.Need help finding homes for kittens and cats that have been dumped with the feral colonies in my area.SOS! Lakewood, Howell, Jackson NJ thanks so much

Posted on March 28, 2010

linda says: I have a kitten thats mother out it out of the litter and it was dead by all signs i warmed it up and it moved so i put it back with the mother and she put it out again. next morning it was cold and stiff again so I warmed it up and bottle fed it from then on. its never purred or let me hold it since it got bigger it lays on the bed at night with me but will not let anyone pet it. If it goes outside it and gets scared it yeowols and hisses at me and even attacks me like it doesn't know me . once it is back in the house and calmed it lays at my feet and is happy but you can't touch it. it never gets on the table or counters. it is just offish. I thought it would be loving like it was as a kitten. Is it crazy

Posted on September 19, 2008

ann stirling says: how can i stop her doing this as she wakes everyone up the same time every morning. i get up and feed her but have to sit with her while she eats her food. i have tried going back to bed but she still meows what can i do

Posted on January 22, 2009

Bonnie says: My two cats, one boy, one girl. have been together since they were born. We moved three months ago and my male kitty throws fits. Meowing at the strangest times to the top of his lungs. Food, water and litter all fine. Before we moved he slept under my left arm everynightm. Not anymore. He lets the little girl bully him. I am really worried. No health issues that I can see. Believe me, I have checked that baby over and over. Could it still be an adjustment period?

Posted on April 11, 2008

Renee says: I dropped off my pregnant 1 year old feral cat at the humane society on tues 4/8 and it's Fri 4/11 and I haven't heard anything back. I've been calling/emailing to check status. Is this normal?? Just b/c she isn't a 'pet' doesn't mean I'm not concerned and worried about her well being. I can't get any answers. Please help. Thanks!

Posted on April 16, 2008

Jim says: Two months ago, I had adopted a 2 year old male newly neutered orange tabby. Since then I have had multiple problems with this little guy. When I come home from work I am allowed to pick him up for about 40 seconds while he rubs against my beard and he purrs. After that he needs to bite me hands, face, feet (most of the time at 3 - 4 in the morning), and knock over heavy objects. He also enjoys sticking his head under running water! I am only getting about 4 hours of sleep a night because of this behavior. Can anyone give me a suggestion?

Posted on March 25, 2008

meredith says: A few day old kitten was left in our yard, we had been dog people until then. We took her to our vet and were given everything we would need to bottle feed and care for such a young cat. It was hard but we did it! She is now 4 months old, liter box trained(most of the time)eating real food, and our family is back to normal sleep and life. The problem is, she won't let us pet her, she bites our hands, never jumps up to sit with any of us, and batted my son in the eye and tore his cornea. I don't think she likes us and my son won't even try to pick her up after the eye incident. I want to keep her, she was already thrown away once. Please, if anyone has any advice I would appreciate it so much, our vet hasn't had any real advice, just that cats are their own people. I need more than that, I need to know how to get her to be a part of the family. I don't understand how she went from letting us bottle feed her to not letting us pet her. thanks, Meyah and Me

Posted on February 14, 2008

christy Shelton says: Just a note to encourage other cat lovers to risk raising a feral kitten. . . Mine was born under the school library four and a half months ago now, and I was lucky enough to get her when she was 3 weeks old. It's taken alot of TLC and patience but now she is turning into a very sweet cat. She has only been indoors with me and my 7 yr. old cat, who has been infinitely patient with her, especially now that she is in heat. My vet wanted to wait til she was 6 mos. before spaying her - which is fine as she is even more cuddly and affectionate in her current state. FYI, ultimately she will be an indoor/outdoor cat like my male cat . . . I hope if you find a feral litter, you will give one of these precious creatures a chance to be your special friend.

Posted on February 15, 2008

maryellen says: I have taken care of a colony for 4 years.We have spayed,neutered released.Found homes for kittens and medical attention for the sick.While it is a huge responsibility I do it with love everyday.I than return home and care for my 13 beautiful babies.

Posted on February 20, 2008

ihlemaria says: A cat comes to my glass door and my cat goes crazy.for the past 3 days is been going on,but now when she sees her reflection in any glass the rage starts again,she is not letting me sleep.Help me I love my cat.

Posted on February 21, 2008

Julia says: I have a cat that has taken to spraying on my counter tops. We have tried keeping her outside or in the bedroom when we are not home and putting a "keep off" spray on the counters. Any ideas?

Posted on February 22, 2008

Ginger says: My cat has been trained to use her litter box. For the past week, she has decided to pee on the carpet and on my bed. Any advice?

Posted on March 10, 2008

cassie says: I resuced this kitten who had been left by her family when she was 4 weeks old. I feed her through an eyedropper until she was able to eat on her own as she was really sick. She was the most loveable animal I have ever had. From the day I picked her up all she wanted was to give & receive kisses & hugs. She is now almost 4 months old and she has started doing this thing in the middle of the night..she will come snuggle and start licking my face & then bite me!! What is that all about?? Do I need to do something other than say no?? And spank her? I need help!!

Posted on March 23, 2008

Zoe says: 18 months ago I began feeding three stray cats under my car. Eventually they progressed to the back door and then into the internal laundry and finally into the whole house with my 9 year old female cat. She wasn't happy at first but things settled down and were ok. They have all been neutered. Three months ago I took another stray off the streets and she integrated herself quite quickly. They all knew each other from the neighbourhood and I had been feeding the new cat for about eight months before taking her in. I put her in my back bedroom for two weeks until she realized she lived here now and then let her into the rest of the house a little at a time. Then I adopted another female, the sister of the last one, and took her to be spayed and put her in the back bedroom for two weeks and then let the others 'find' her. The problem is that she never really got along with all the others when she was on the streets and two of the original females keep attacking her. She has retreated to her 'bedroom' and only goes out occasionally. She's very affectionate, although a bit stiff, but in time I'm sure after I earn her trust she'll be OK... but what to do about the aggression from the other two? I never scold them, but pet them more and speak kindly all the time and it has made a difference, it's not as bad as it has been and seems to be sorting itself out, but I am wondering if there's anything else I could be doing. She, Phoebe, sleeps in her 'bedroom' with the door closed all night and she seems to feel safe like that. I have heard that you can put vanilla on all the back of all the cats heads and then because they all smell the same they come to think they are all from the same clan... does anyone know if this is correct? Has anyone ever done this? Regards, Zoe

Posted on January 28, 2008

Debbie says: We have this large male cat who came here at first he wouldn't come near us but now he rubs around my husbands legs but when he tried to pet him he tries to bite and as he is going in the door of our home he bit and scratched him. Is that just him marking my territory or what.

Posted on February 6, 2008

Brian says: HELP needed: My cat routinely goes to my neighbors house, stays for extended times, eats, and is acting crazy to get out. He won't use the litter box, but instead wants outside. I've talked to my neighbors, but they continue to let him in, feed him, and it's creating friction between us all. The cat, Romeo, appears to be happy, but he constantly wants out. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time. Brian

Posted on January 28, 2008

Debby says: Our cat adopted us when he was about 6 months old. We now have him as a house cat and he has been neutered. I am looking for alternatives (inexpensive) to de-clawing and I am curious why he urinated on my husband one night. My husband is his favorite person.

Posted on January 28, 2008

Adina Sparks says: My female cat is 1 1/2 years old. The mother cat abandoned her from the litter, so I raised. She was healthy. She is so sweet and loving to me, my family and children, but she attacks any other adults who come into the house biting them and jumping and scratching. I have to put her in my bedroom when I have company. She draw's blood when she bites, so she really means business. Help!

Posted on January 24, 2008

Robin A.F. Olson says: There are lots of resources online for cat behavior issues. Some are through the larger rescue groups, like Best Friends. Cornell has the Feline Health Center and there are lots of others. Since I can't list my own web site in this post, which has a list of more places to get help for your cat, I'd suggest doing a search for cat behavior problems, vocalizing, house soiling, etc. and hopefully you'll find what you need. I wish you all good luck getting help.

Posted on January 22, 2008

Gina says: she is the 2nd feral cat for me. Mona (1st feral) became socialized in about 1 year - but I was home everyday for 6 months. My new feral - CC - is isolated in a separate room from my 2 housecats and its been about a week and I see small signs of progress. Any tips or if you just want to talk feral feel free to e-mail.

Posted on January 22, 2008

Mia says: We found my cat, Smokey and kept since it was pregnet. After it had 5 kittens we let it live with us on our screened porch. We had to give away four kittens a month or so later. Later on the kitten ranaway. Now we are left with Smokey and she was very respectful and nice and loving. She always wanted to be petted. But when we came back from vaction after 2 weeks she was mean, hateful, and barly wanted to be petted at all. We had been on vaction before for a month and she hadn't changed then. What's different now? This has been going on for almost a year. What can i do? Please give me some advice.

Posted on January 21, 2008

Elizabeth says: I have this kitty that I adopted at 3 months. She has potential but I'm stuck. Any comments.

Posted on January 19, 2008

Kristine says: We adopted a beautiful 5 yr old female to be buddy to our 2 yr old male. She has now been with us for almost a month and still will not let us get near her. She most of the day hides and will come out to eat and use the litter box and of course for treats. If the male approaches her at all she hisses and growls and will pounce on him, occasionally they will run playfully chasing one another through the house. Is there anything we can do to help her adjust, will she adjust? We would just like to pet and comfort her. Help!!!

Posted on January 13, 2008

Elizabeth says: I have 3 cats, adopted at different times. The latest one is a Somali mix, very young and obviously abandoned. He was starving when we first found him and we've now integrated him into the family. He likes to touch noses with our other male cat, and I suspect he'd also like to do this with the female if she'd let him. What does this mean? Is this a form of friendly greeting? He's very affectionate. And vocal. VERY vocal.

Posted on January 17, 2008

Susan says: I, along with a neighbor care for a feed a colony of ferals. When I thought I was moving 2 years ago, I would walk to food to my neighbors house. They all followed but for 2. So I kept feeding them. I haven't moved yet but it is inevitable. The one feral, which I've named Tiger, sits between my legs, comes to my voice, rubs against me and purrs like crazy. I already have 3 indoor cats. He wouldn't do well with them. Do you think it's possible to relocate him when I move, with me that is?

Posted on January 10, 2008

tammy says: do cats get territorial? My son moved into my home and now sleeps in the spare room where the cat use to go to be alone. now all the cat does is hiss at him and pose for attack. the only thing i can think of if the cat is unhappy that his room has been taken over by my son. he has never hissed at anyone before. please give me a clue as to what to do. thanks

Posted on January 11, 2008

beverly says: i have 2 feral cats i rescued from my back yard. both have been given shots and spayed. they have been inside my home for over a year. Angel is perfect, will let me pet her and give her love. JoJoe is the exact opposite. i cannot touch or pet her or anything. she is always there to eat though. she is one of the fastest cats i have ever known. she can scamper away from me through the smallest of spaces. Unbelieveable.i cant believe they are sisters.

Posted on January 13, 2008

Janna says: I have had my cat for 7 years. She is of course sweet to me. I have moved into another appartment with my boyfreind. She seems scared of him and hisses at him. What can I do to stop the hissing and fearfulness? Please help.

Posted on January 8, 2008

birdget says: Cats that are declawed often develope behavior problems as aggression because their claws are their main tools to defend themselves. It can also be that if the declawing wasn't done properly, she could be experiencing some discomfort in her paws.

Posted on January 3, 2008

Sheryl says: My cat is 19 years old & now all of a sudden he wants to sleep in his litter box. He still uses it & doesn't sleep in it if it is very dirty. He does all the time when it is clean & even if it just has urine in it. What is up with him all of a sudden?

Posted on January 5, 2008

bruce cohen says: My cat and I have been together for almost 8 years as I adopted her at 6 weeks from the Denver Dumb Friends League. I got her declawed at 8 weeks old. She isn't social at all and in fact hisses when people come over. She really gets enraged when she see's another cat at the window. She makes a loud shrieking noise that is very scary and hisses. I spray her with water, but it really doesn't do much. She is like Sybil-one minute she is very sweet, but the next minute she can be terrible. She is eating and drinking normally. I don't know what to do about these behaviors anymore. Hope you can help me. She is a beautiful cat that is a black american shorthair with green or amber eyes. She has a nice shiny coat and I really love her.

Posted on December 31, 2007

jesse says: A lot of vets are not willing to handle ferals and some who are willing do not know the best practices to minimize the stress/injury for both the cats and their staff. J

Posted on January 3, 2008

ian says: I found a "barn cat" who was basically dieing. I brought him to the vet and he was on an antibiotic for two weeks. From minute one, he was a little terror. Attacking the passing feet of my elderly mom. He is coming up on 6 months old and is a runt by all accounts at 3.5 lbs. His disposition is becoming really difficult to handle. Never mind deal with at all. I am an animal (particularly cat) lover. I have three adult cats in the main house. Cranky Kitten is exiled to a large landing upstairs. Cat toys, gourmet food, and positive affection have not won him over. I don't know what to do. It is becoming an issue in the household. HELP?

Posted on December 20, 2007

John says: Jerry, Actually it may not be so weird after all. All of the nerves run through the spinal cord and if pressure is put on one of these nerves by petting, it can send the wrong signals to the brain. I would guess that your petting is rubbing a nerve that is connected to your cat's paws. It probably makes her feel like her paw is tingling or being tickled. If you have ever injured a disc in your back, you will know that the pressure exerted from a bulging disc can make your foot tingle or throb. I have noticed that cats are particularly sensitive near the base of the tail on the lower back. When I pet a cat, especially one I'm not too familiar with, I try to arch my hand so that I am contacting the muscles on either side of the spine, but not the spine itself. Try this technique and see if your cat still reacts the same way. If not, it was most likely a nerve issue. I hope this helps.

Posted on December 15, 2007

Kathleen says: In Sept., we rescued a solid black male kitten and, at first, our 7-yr. old mixed black and white female cat didn't really like him, but just ignored him. In the past 2-3 weeks, the older cat has been attacking the kitten. We also have 2 other male cats approx. 2-yrs. old, but there has been no problem with them. What made our older cat began attacking the baby? Is it because he is solid black-or is she just jealous? She never did this to the other two and the 3 males absolutely love each other. What can we do to solve this problem--it is getting scary-she has hurt him a couple of times. Each of our cats have been fixed and declawed--the baby just a few weeks ago. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

Posted on December 15, 2007

leona says: why do mother cat(4 1/2yrs)and her son(3yrs) fight? both are fixed, eat out of the some divide bowl or plate(not divide). mother has become a home body due to the weather on the other hand toppy (son) continues to go in/out hunting for squirrel,mice & birds. he does eat cat food too,my house is trilevel mother spends her time up stairs unless i am laying down else where, son spends his time in living room or if iam sitting or laying else where, he does at times venture up to top of up level stairs just lays like he's on guard.

Posted on December 13, 2007

amy petitt says: that is waht my roomate calls our 6 month kitten squekers when he was younger he was was cute and quiet now he meows before getting into trouble like climbing the counter and running off with the bread or a package of napkins or a piece of banana bread. also if he is hungry he starts to bite my roomate's feet evenif it is 4 o clock in the morning and he drives me crazy with this every time he settles down to sleep ...

Posted on December 14, 2007

Dawn says: We found her 12 years ago and at that time she was about 5 months old. She was afraid of everyone but me ~ I managed to scoop her up and she sat in my lap the entire way home purring. Over the years her behavior has gotten worse in terms of her being very anti social. She hates to be looked at in the eyes ~ she refuses to let anyone pet her or touch her unless she initiates it and then its only ME that can do this. She is terrified when anyone picks her up and yeowls and hisses to the point that I want to shake her...simply because she has a GREAT home. She lives inside and is well pampered and spoiled but its like living with a lump of fur who wants no contact with humans. I dont have the heart to give her up or get rid of her however I yearn for her to be loving and trusting...usually in the middle of the night I wake up and she is lying by me ~ only then can I pet her and she will purr and be a "cat" until I go to get up then she runs. It drives me crazy.

Posted on December 12, 2007

jerry davis says: everytime we pet the lower part of our cats back she makes weid sounds and licks her paws very fast. whats up with this type of behavior?

Posted on December 12, 2007

Linda says: Reading this article, reminded me about the cat we just got yesterday.... a one year old female Persian. The cat doesn't have very much contact with me and my husband, especially me. It wants to hide almost all of the time and she won't even eat. The woman we got her from said that the cat wouldn't take up with her...(it seems like the cat doesn't like women.) Do you think she might can outgrow this disliking of women? I know she hasn't been here long and isn't very used to her new environment...maybe she will come around eventually. I hold the cat sometimes and pet her and talk sweetly to her. I wonder if there is anything I could buy for her...catnip or something, that could get her to not be so lethargic and maybe a bit friendly...or if it would do any good with her. Any advice? Thanks, Linda

Posted on December 11, 2007

Everett Wyers says: Our family cat as been acting in very stranges ways the past week. we are unabel to figure out any logial reason behind this abnormal behavior and it would be wonderful to have your advice. The follwing symptoms include erratic behavior( such as sprinting around the house chasing an object.) Mischief( such as getting into to items she knows she is not allowed to have. Like fish food and food for varoius other pets.) Excessive Meowing( anytime you make eye contacr with her she will let out a long louad meow and continue intill you yell at her.) Bathroom Locations( she was trained to use a litter box in the past week she as decided not to.She as been using the floor for her bathroom needs. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.

Posted on December 10, 2007

Jackie says: My cat is doing this large meow pretty often. When when we her no she usally just meows again them she stops but she doesn't under stand to stop meowing. What should I do? sincely Jackie

Posted on January 6, 2011

CatLover says: Why would anyone waste so much effort on a critter that is so hard on indigenous wildlife populations? Please people, try to apply some logic in this situation. The feral cat population needs to be eliminated. Yes, that does mean "killed".

Posted on May 1, 2011

Namewithheld says: don't put those cats back. cats are a nuisance animal. the kill many small animals such as rabbits, squirrels, and game birds

Posted on September 13, 2011

Darlene says: WE trapped, spayed and have given shots to a one year old feral cat. She was severly dehydrated and malnorished. I found another adult cat dead in the yard. The feral we have immediately only uses the litter box and hides. She never hissed or spat prior to today. We have only had her for six days, by why all of a sudden the hissing? We were able to pet her, just not pick her up. We have two male neutered 9 mth old kittens and a larger Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. She was in a small mudroom, but left on her own to the living room. She is now in there with all her litter box, food, water, carrier, etc. Is it because she is now in a large space, she cannot deal with it?

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