Outdoor or community cats are a common sight in most neighborhoods in the US - and all across the world. You may have seen them prowling along sidewalks or napping in bushes, or scrapping with other cats for territory. While some of these cats might be house cats with a bit of wanderlust, the majority of outdoor cats are either stray cats (who have been lost or abandoned) or feral cats. These outdoor felines will often form colonies or communities of other ferals and strays, giving rise to the term "community cats" or "colony cats." Community cats are often taken care of by cat lovers who feed and care for these cats, often at their own expense.
The Humane Society estimates that there are some 30 to 40 million of these community cats living throughout the US.
In some neighborhoods and communities, these cats get a bad reputation and are seen as a nuisance. A lot of these negative stereotypes stem from common misconceptions about feral cats, the way they live their lives, and their impact upon the community at large. We've compiled a list of some of the more common misconceptions about feral cats to help break down these negative stereotypes surrounding feral cats.
If you think of yourself as a friend to ferals and street cats, you can shop our collection of feline-inspired products - a portion of proceeds from every purchase is donated to organizations like Alley Cat Allies, to help cats who need it most. You can learn more about who and how we help here.
"Feral cats are a different species than domestic cats."
Those "wild" kitties you see running around outside aren't, in fact, a different species of cat. They aren't truly wild, either. According to Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, many people don't realize that the only real difference between a feral cat and a house cat is their behavior.
Stray cats are cats that once had homes and owners and have been socialized with humans. A feral cat is a cat that was born in the wild and has had little to no contact with humans. Feral cats are often wary or fearful of humans, whereas strays will more readily approach.
"Feral cats will attack humans and pets."
Some people, especially those who aren't too fond of cats, might find the idea of feral cats coming in close contact with their children and pets worrisome. They worry about being attacked. But there is really nothing to fear. Feral cats are more likely to run and hide when a human comes by than to attack. Feral cats view humans as large predators, and themselves as prey; hiding from a perceived threat is their first instinct.
“Unless they are forced into a situation they cannot escape from, feral cats generally avoid human interactions,” says Audrey Stratton, supervisor of Feral Cat Coalition, noting that some ferals can even become “friendly” toward caregivers who feed them.
Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"If you find a feral cat, you should take it to the shelter."
Because feral cats are not socialized to human contact, they are often much too fearful to be adopted - or even handled. Taking an outdoor cat that is exhibiting signs of being feral to a shelter can be akin to a death sentence. Many shelters will euthanize animals they do not deem adoptable. And even if the feral is not put down, keeping a feral cat in a cage at the shelter, even briefly, can be damaging and severely stressful. If you're a lover of feral or street cats and want to help, consider looking into a TNR program.
"Feral cats can be adopted and kept as indoor pets."
A lot of cat lovers have the impulse to try and rescue and rehabilitate adult feral cats to keep them as indoor pets. Unfortunately, most adult feral cats are usually too scared of humans to ever be kept indoors. Feral kittens, however, are an exception as they are young enough to be socialized with humans so they are no longer fearful. There are of course exceptions to the rule, as no two cats are the same. One instance of ferals who were happily rehabilitated after years on the streets is none other than Grandpa Mason, a "lost cause" feral cat who spent his days cuddling with feral kittens and helping socialize them. He passed away in September of 2019.
"Trap, Neuter, Return Isn't Effective"
Trap, Neuter, Return programs are offered by shelters and rescues in many communities with large outdoor cat populations. These programs humanely trap cats, neuter or spay them, then return them to their colony if they are not socialized. Some people believe that it isn't an effective solution. But spaying and neutering these cats has more than just an impact on population control. Fixing a feral cat also helps to curb unwanted behaviors, such as roaming, spraying, yowling when in heat, and fighting over mates.
Isasza, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"Feral cats are a nuisance."
Feral cats can become as much a part of a community as you let them; they can bring people together and teach them that all animals and creatures deserve compassion and help.
“A lot of people enjoy having these cats around,” says Robinson, citing an example of an Alley Cat Allies community in which children named the cats and thought of them as pets. “That interaction and that compassion extends beyond the cats that we have in our home,” she says. “There is such a power there that we need to recognize and embrace."
Studies have been done to examine the impact that feral cats have on the local wildlife species, such as birds and insects, though there is contention as to the validity of some of the research studies. In Australia, there have been measures taken to control feral cat populations through means other than TNR.