Many of us remember the TV shows depicting the Alley Cats living together, fending for themselves and fighting with their neighbors. Sometimes it was internal fighting. Sometimes it was fighting with other colonies. That wasn’t so off-the-wall as it might have sounded when we were kids because feral cats do live in colonies because a cat on it’s own is a sitting duck. They have a better chance of survival in groups.
Those colonies can be behind the shopping mall, on the waterfront, in your neighbor’s barn, at the rear of a neighborhood restaurant or a host of other places. They provide a mechanism for feral cats to survive. Ferals are not strays. They are homeless; they are wild, often the descendants of cats that once were pets with loving homes. They lost that security when humans left them behind when they moved or banned them from the household for whatever reason.
These cats, now living on their own, have a greater chance of survival if they band together with other cats, and they and their offspring, form colonies or clowders. Because cats are hard-wired to reproduce, the numbers increase exponentially, despite threats from outside elements and predators. A cat colony refers to a noticeably large population living together in one location, with one common food source. Their lives are harsh. If a feral survives kittenhood, his life expectancy can be two to four years, according to the ASPCA. If the cat lives in a colony with a caretaker, Alley Cat Allies says the cat may live ten years. That compares to many domesticated cats reaching their high teens or 20’s.
According to the ASPCA, feral cats struggle to find food and water in an environment filled with the constant threats of disease, starvation, cruelty and predation. The number of feral cats in the United States is estimated to be in the tens of millions. The Feral Cat Coalition of San Diego, CA., estimates the number is 60 million. Worldwide, the number could be as high as in the billions.
Alley Cat Allies supports the Trap, Neuter, Return program, where cats are trapped, then taken to a veterinarian who spays or neuters the cat, circumventing the endless reproduction cycle that increases the colony’s population. Once the feline is returned to the colony, a volunteer makes sure the cats have adequate food, water and shelter.
Kittens usually can be socialized and learn to trust humans. Volunteers foster these little ones until they are ready to find permanent homes.
Alley Cat Allies and other feral organizations advocate in behalf of Trap Neuter Return programs, stating it is the only option that words. Eradicating them does not work because it’s hard to eliminate all the cats. It only takes one male and one female to start reproducing the colony. Even when all cats are eliminated, the vacuum effect kicks in. New cats will move in and establish this as their new home. The same applies to relocation.
Feral cats are very connected with their territory. Alley Cat Allies says they are familiar with the things that help them survive:
- Places that offer shelter,
- Resident wildlife,
- Other cats in the area
Under TNR, volunteers care for the colonies. They make sure they have food, water, shelter and emergency health care. There are a host of different types of cat shelters that can be used for ferals. If someone has a barn or unoccupied outer building, these make ideal shelters. Other make-shift shelters can be built are well to give the cats protection from predators and the elements. Some people even specialize in building cat shelters, and later in this series on ferals, I’ll share an example of very simple, inexpensive shelter that I learned about from a rescue operation outside New York City.
Other ideas to make sure the ferals are safe include:
- Making hay available for them during colder months because blankets don’t provide the same protection because they can get wet and soiled.
- Providing a heated water bowl to guarantee open water for cats during frigid temperatures.
- Monitoring the colony for medical care, taking one of the ferals to the veterinarian for emergency care if necessary.
Many times TNR organizations will mark the cats that have been spayed or neutered by ear-tipping. This involves the surgical removal of the top quarter-inch of the left ear, and is often done during the spay/neuter surgery. However, it does require special aftercare, but it ensures the cats will not be mistakenly trapped for TNR again. It also help people identify the cats as a member of a feral colony that has a volunteer caregiver.
According to Alley Cat Allies TNR has been shown to be the least costly, as well as the most efficient and humane way of stabilizing feral cat populations. By stabilizing the population and preventing cat proliferation, the cats will have more space, shelter, food, and fewer risks of disease. After being spayed or neutered, cats living in colonies tend to gain weight and be healthier.
Other benefits include:
- Spayed cats are less likely to develop breast cancer and will not be at risk for ovarian or uterine cancer
- Neutered males will not get testicular cancer.
- Neutered males loose that natural instinct to fight with other cats reducing injuries caused from fighting
- Female cats will not go into heat attracting tom cats to the area.
To find out more information about becoming a cat colony volunteer, TNR, or starting a program in your area, go to Alley Cat Allies’ website, or contact the TNR organization nearest you.