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What to Do With a Feral Feline

catIf you’ve seen unfamiliar cats prowling your neighborhood, chances are they are feral, or wild, and not just strays.

According to the Feral Cat Coalition, there are approximately 60 million feral cats in the United States today. Ferals are the wild offspring of domestic cats who have been lost or abandoned, and are the sad result of pet owners who fail to spay or neuter their animals.

Especially in cold temperatures, animal lovers want to help these struggling creatures. Following are answers to common questions about assisting ferals:

How can you tell the difference between a feral and a stray?
Because cats exhibit varying degrees of sociability, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a feral cat and a frightened indoor-only cat who has escaped or become lost.

"Feral cats are completely unsocialized and have no trust in humans," says Alicia Wright
of the Connecticut Humane Society. "They will avoid human contact as much as possible."

Abandoned domestic cats, on the other hand, may be skittish at first, but will have little problem approaching humans. They may also be very thin, Wright said, since they’re used to being hand fed and don’t know how to fend for themselves in the wild.

Why are there so many?
The US Humane Society estimates that a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can exponentially produce more than 400,000 cats in 7 years. Although many die from disease, starvation, accidents, or predators, those who survive multiply rapidly enough to create a colony.

How can I make sure they’re warm and dry?
A large crate insulated with thick waterproof material provides good shelter for ferals. Make sure the shelter can sustain the wind and cold. Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org) also offers detailed plans on how to build a feral cat shelter.

What should I feed them?
It’s probably not necessary to feed a true feral, since he is capable of hunting for his food. If you are compelled to feed the cats, and are willing to have them return to your home, place dry food in a secluded, clean area. Only leave food out during daytime hours to avoid predators and conflict with other wildlife at night.

Should I pet them?
Never attempt to touch a feral cat. Ferals are unaccustomed to humans and may react in a scared or angry manner. Additionally, although the risk is small, feral cats can become exposed to the rabies virus by attacks from infected wildlife.

What’s the best solution?
The Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA advocate the trap-neuter-release (TNR) method. Studies have proven that TNR is the single most successful method of stabilizing and maintaining feral cat colonies with the least possible cost. With TNR, feral cats are humanely trapped (preferably by groups experienced and trained in feral cat trapping), then evaluated, vaccinated, and neutered by veterinarians. Healthy ferals are returned to the wild, and are monitored by volunteers.

Can’t they be adopted?
Adult feral cats cannot be domesticated. Adoptable kittens can be placed in good homes.

The third annual National Feral Cat Day will be celebrated on October 16, 2003. The goal of this event is to educate the public and animal care professionals about cost-effective and humane TNR programs . For more information, contact your local shelter or humane society, or visit www.feralcat.com or www.sfspca.org.