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What are Feral Cats?

Feral vs. Stray?

Feral, stray, and pet cats are all members of the same species; they are all domestic cats. But stray cats and feral cats are also different from each other in a very important way — in their relationship to and interactions with people.

We use the term “socialization” to mean cats who are friendly towards people — or cats who enjoy companionship with us in our homes. Pet and stray cats are socialized to people. Feral cats are not socialized to people. While they are socialized to their colony members and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.

A stray cat is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her domestic home, as well as most human contact and dependence. Over time, a stray cat can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles. Under the right circumstances, however, a stray cat can also become a pet cat once again. Stray cats that are re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to re-acclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people.

A “feral” cat is unsocialized and tends to be fearful of people and keep a distance. Ferals are most often found living outdoors in groups known as colonies. The cats in a colony share a common food source and territory and may include not only ferals, but also strays. Most feral colonies originate from unneutered stray cats. Ferals, as well as strays, are increasingly referred to as “community cats” or “free-roaming cats.”

Feral cats live in streets, alleys, and parks because of human neglect of their unaltered domestic cats, allowing them to roam and reproduce. Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return is the only humane, effective approach to community cats, and it helps them and the communities where they live.

Just how feral a cat is will depend primarily on four factors:
• Age – kittens less than eight weeks old, even though born to a feral mother, can usually be socialized within a short period of time. After eight weeks, socialization becomes a longer and more uncertain process. If a kitten is three months or older, she will likely retain some typical feral characteristics for the rest of his life, such as fear of strangers or change. A fully adult feral cat may require years to socialize, if they ever do.
• Number of feral generations – the more distance, in terms of generations, that separate a cat born outdoors from her original stray, once-socialized ancestor, the wilder that cat will be. In other words, feral behavior will tend to increase with each successive feral generation.
• Amount of human contact – cats who regularly interact with people are more likely to show at least some signs of socialization than cats who have little or no contact.
• Individual personality – cats, like all animals, are individuals with their own personalities. Some ferals are naturally friendly and will warm up to people quickly. Many colony caretakers have also observed that some ferals, after being spayed or neutered, begin to behave more like pets.

If a cat is truly feral to a significant degree, then the most compassionate choice may be to allow him to live outdoors with his colony mates. Trying to force him to exist indoors as a pet, or even worse in a cage, may be harmful to his psyche. Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return respects a feral cat’s inner needs. By neutering the cats and providing food and shelter, a caretaker plays a role most supportive of ferals, giving them the opportunity to live among their own, be free and answer to their own unique natures.


In a TNVR program, community cats are humanely trapped, brought to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and ear tipped (the universal sign that a cat has been part of a TNVR program), and then returned to their outdoor homes.

Afterward, there are no more litters of kittens—the population is stabilized. TNVR stops the stress associated with pregnancy and mating behaviors, such as yowling or fighting. Not only is TNVR the effective, humane approach for outdoor cats, but it improves their lives. TNVR provides an effective, humane, and collaborative way for communities to coexist with cats.

The most tragic and upsetting aspect of working with feral cats is to see how completely vulnerable their kittens are to hunger and disease. The two go hand in hand; if the mother cat is unable to source sufficient food for her weaned kittens, they usually perish from upper respiratory tract infections, complicated by malnourishment and a heavy worm burden. Feral kittens have an extremely high mortality rate. 75% of kittens born to feral mother cats die or disappear within six months of birth. TNVR is the best way to help feral cats!

The U.S. currently has a population of about sixty to one-hundred million feral cats.
A feral female is capable of producing twenty-four to thirty kittens a year. The traditional approach to reduction feral cat number by bringing them to a shelter is the same as a death sentence. One must take into account that it is not the cat’s fault for the feline overpopulation. The fault lies with humans; the irresponsible owners, the people that want their children to witness the miracle of birth, the ones that think that it is natures’ way.

Help, I found a kitten!

How old is my kitten?

Socialization of Feral Kittens

Lost or abandoned domestic female cats teach their offspring to be “feral.” Feral cats are elusive, often nocturnal, and usually fearful of humans. Like most wild animals, they will not attack if unprovoked, but will defend themselves if threatened or cornered. Their strongest instinct is to run. If they feel trapped and escape is blocked, they will bite or scratch. Never try to catch a feral by hand. Always use a humane trap.

Any person attempting to tame kittens should be totally committed and patient. The taming process is certainly worthwhile. You are saving lives and producing affectionate loving companions. The keyword is patience, that is something that cannot be stressed enough. Almost any feral can be socialized to some degree. Some may never be cuddly lap cats, just as some may become completely domestic. Commitment, time, patience and love will tell the tale.

Feral kittens should not be taken from their mothers before they are four weeks old if this is possible. Five to eight weeks, being optimum. “How long will it take?” Ideally, with everything going for you, plus a bit of luck, with a kitten five to eight weeks old, two to four weeks.

The socialization of ferals can be divided into five stages.
(This is assuming you already have the kitten)!

1. Confinement
Remember – this kitten now sees you as threat. It is terrified almost to the point of shock in some cases. Feral kittens should be checked out by a veterinarian and tested for diseases contagious to other cats as soon as they are handleable. Keep them isolated from your pet cats, wash your hands, and wear a smock (or change clothes between handling visits) to protect against the spread of disease from the kittens to pets.

If a trap was used to capture the kitten, transfer the kitten to a cage/kennel large enough for a small litter box and bedding for the kitten. This kennel should be kept in a quiet room, where there is not a lot of traffic of any kind. You want the kitten to calm down. You must also provide water and food. For the next three to four days, visit the kitten often. Sit on the floor, talk very softly, and do not touch the kitten.

 2. Handling
After two or three days, place a towel over the kitten, and pick it up in the towel. If the kitten stays calm, pet it gently on the head from behind. Never approach from the front. A hand coming at the kitten frightens them, which may cause them to hiss or bite. If the kitten remains calm, grip it securely by the nape of the neck; put the towel on your lap and set it on the towel. Stroke the kitten’s body while speaking in soft, reassuring tones, then release. Make this first physical contact brief. Now for a treat, like baby food off a spoon. This has won over many feral kittens. Repeat this process as frequently as possible.

Brushing with a soft pet brush imitates the action of the mother grooming the kittens and will help the kitten start to transfer its needs to you. It is also extremely important for the health of the kitten to remove fleas as soon as possible. Flea combs work great. Kittens become anemic from flea infestation and can easily fall prey to illnesses in this condition. Kittens can be bathed with a mild dish soap (avoid wetting the head).

Never stare at a kitten for prolonged period they may take this as aggression. Try to be on the same level as they are on the floor. You look like a giant when you are standing. You might try a toy now—kittens enjoy plush mice and ping pong balls. Remember you want the kitten to bond with you.

 3. Restrict to a Small Room
Within five to seven days, the kittens should have settled in, gotten past the terror stage, and started to bond with you. Every kitten is different, some come around quickly, and some are shyer. Nothing is in stone when dealing with a cat. Now you need to start building up the trust level. You do this by letting the kitten out of the cage. You will need to confine the kitten to a small room, this will allow him some freedom, and he won’t feel so trapped. Remember that before you do this, you will need to kitten proof the room. This is like baby proofing. Make sure it is escape proof, look for climbing hazards, cords that can be chewed on, those types of things.

    4. Exposure
As soon as the kitten is no longer responding to you by biting, scratching or hissing, it is time to start to expose him to other humans. Feral cats tend to bond with one human. This is fine if you are going to keep the kitten. If you want to adopt the kitten out, it’s time to make new friends. Do this slowly, one new human at a time. Don’t have a party or you’ll undo all the good you have done.

   5. A Forever Home
Make a plan for finding a forever home for the kitten. There are lots of rescues agencies that help with adoptions.

Kittens should begin the vaccination process at six weeks. Kittens may be spayed/neutered when they are 2 pounds (8 weeks). Remember that you want to stop the cycle of breeding, so having the kitten spayed/neutered in an important part of the process.

Some people make up applications, or contracts for the process of adopting out a cat. You may also want to inspect the home in which the kitten will live. You might consider asking for a donation for the kitten. People who get a kitten free, may not value the kitten as much as they should or they may want a free kitten to sell to a lab. Be careful, you are the only protection the kitten has against a bad owner or worse. Kittens can be placed at eight weeks, if they have become socialized.


Can feral cats or colonies be relocated?
NO. Cats are like any other living animal; they are creatures of habit. Where a cat lives is its home; whether it’s behind a building, dumpster, wooded area, or someone’s backyard. Everyone has heard the story of Lassie Come Home. Cats (and dogs) have sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to get back to where they were moved from. Cats may get injured or die from starvation in an attempt to find their way home.

Can feral cats be tamed to domestic house cats?
YES! Especially kittens. Kittens that are 5-6 weeks old are easy to socialize. They may spit and hiss, but calm down quickly when held close and talked to. If they are 3 months or older it is harder, but possible. It takes a larger amount of time to tame them, but it can be done. Please keep in mind that it requires lots of patience and love!

What happens when you call Animal Control to ferals?
Animal Control can’t adopt out feral cats because no one wants a cat that isn’t immediately cuddly. Feral cats are, therefore, usually euthanized.

What about Rabies?
Rabies in cats is extremely rare. Community cats in the maintained colony are generally as health as pet cats and have equally low rates of the disease. Cats are defensive by nature, so they run from most wildlife that could pose a threat to them.

People should NEVER handle feral cats unless they know the cat!

What is Feline AIDS?
FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) is not the same as human HIV. It cannot be transmitted to humans. The spread of FIV through water bowls or grooming is unlikely. It is spread through bite wounds (infected cat saliva) received while fighting. An actual bite wound is an integral part of the disease transmission. With proper care, cats with FIV can live for many years.

What is Feline Leukemia?
This is a serious disease in cats. The virus suppresses the immune system. It is spread by direct contact with infected cats and is transmitted via saliva

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