Feral cat

Feral cat

A feral cat (or stray cat, alley cat) is a cat which has been separated from domestication through abandonment, loss, or running away, and becomes wild. The term may also refer to descendants of such cats, but not to wild cats, whose ancestors were never domesticated.

In Australia, the term "feral cat" refers to cats living and breeding entirely in the wild. Significant populations of Australian wildlife that are poorly adapted to this effective predator, including marsupials, reptiles, and birds, have allowed the establishment of stable feral cat populations across most of the country.

Adult feral cats that were never socialized with humans can rarely be socialized. Feral kittens can sometimes be socialized to live with humans. The ideal time for capture is between six and eight weeks of age. Taming at this age may take only a couple of days. Older kittens can be tamed, but it takes longer. Also, an older kitten may bond only with the person working with him or her, which can make adoption difficult but not impossible.

Feral cats may live alone but are usually found in large groups called feral colonies. The average life span of a feral cat that survives beyond kittenhood is usually cited as being less than two years, [cite web|url= http://www.crittercontrol.com/?doc=resources_af_cats |title=CritterControl - Cat animal facts |accessdate= 2007-04-11] while a domestic housecat lives an average of 12 to 16 years. However, feral cats aged 19 (Cat Action Trust) and 26 (Cats Protection) have been reported where food and shelter are available.

Urban areas, Australia, and North America are not native environments for cats. The domestic cat comes from temperate or hot, dry climates and was distributed throughout the world by humans. Cats are extremely adaptable, and feral felines have been found in conditions of extreme cold and heat. They are more susceptible to cold, damp conditions than to cold alone. In addition, they are vulnerable to predators such as dogs, feral pigs, wolves, bears,cougars, bobcats, foxes, crocodilians, birds of prey, and coyotes.

Effects on wildlife

Feral (or "vinticious") cats are often apex predators in local ecosystems, and their predation on small mammals and birds, particularly endangered ground-nesting birds, is of increasing concern. There is little doubt that feral cats are extremely effective at controlling or even eradicating small animal populations, and some cite Fact|date=January 2008 the utility of cats in controlling populations of verminous rodent species. This is one of the major justifications for the keeping of farm cats. However, conservationists argue that feral cats contribute greatly to the killing of songbirds and other endangered birds, with estimates that bird loss is at 100 million a year due to predation. However, it can be argued that in the United states, the resurgence of other small predators such as the gray fox ("Urocyon cinereoargenteus"), fisher or pekan ("Martes pennanti"), coyote ("Canis latrans"), and bobcat ("Lynx rufus") is a contributing factor in conserved bird deaths.Fact|date=February 2007

Feral cats in Australia prey on a variety of wildlife. In arid and semi-arid environments introduced European rabbits and house mice are the dominant part of the diet; in forests and urbanised areas native marsupial prey forms the larger part of the diet (based on 22 studies summarised in Dickman 1996). In arid environments where rabbits do not occur native rodents are taken. Birds form a smaller part of the diet, mostly in forests and urbanised areas, reptiles also form just a small part of the diet. It has been suggested that feral cats have been present in Australia since before European settlement, and may have arrived with Dutch shipwrecks in the 17th century, or even prior to that; arriving from present-day Indonesia with Macassan fisherman and trepangers who frequented Australia's shores. However historical records do not suggest this, instead dating the arrival of feral cats at around 1824. Abbot, I. (2002) "Origin and spread of the cat, Felis catus, on mainland Australia, with a discussion of the magnitude of its early impact on native fauna" "Wildlife Research" 29(1): 51-74 [http://www.publish.csiro.au/paper/WR01011.htm abstract] ] Intentional releases were made in the late 19th century to control mice, rabbits and rats. Cats had colonised their present range in Australia by 1890. Evidence for early predation by cats having caused major and widespread declines in native fauna is circumstantial and anecdotal and its credibility and significance is debated (Abbot 2002, Dickman 1996).

Numerous Australian environmentalists and conservationists claim that the feral cat has been an ecological disaster in Australia, inhabiting most ecosystems except dense rainforest, and being implicated in the extinction of several marsupial and placental mammal species (Robley "et al" 2004). Scientific evidence has been hard to come by to support this view and some researchers disagree with it (Abbot 2002). Sound evidence that feral cats exert a significant effect on native wildlife throughout the mainland is lacking (Dickman 1996; Jones 1989; Wilson et al. 1992). Difficulties in separating the effects of cats from that of foxes (also introduced) and environmental effects have hindered research into this. Cats have co-existed with all mammal species in Tasmania for nearly 200 years. The Western Shield program in Western Australia, involving broad-scale poisoning of foxes, has resulted in rapid recoveries of many species of native mammals in spite of the presence of feral cats throughout the baited area. However in 2005 a study was published which for the first time found proof of feral cats causing declines in native mammals (Risbey "et al" 2005). an experiment conducted in Heirisson Prong compared small mammal populations in areas cleared of both foxes and cats, of foxes only, and a control plot. Researchers found that mammal populations were lower in areas cleared of foxes only and in the control plots.

Cats may also play a further role in Australia's human altered ecosystems; with foxes they may be controlling introduced rabbits, particularly in arid areas, which themselves cause ecological damage (Robley "et al" 2004). Cats are not believed to have been a factor in the extinction of the only mainland bird species to be lost since European settlement, the Paradise Parrot; their role in the loss of rare species on Australasian islands, however, has been significant.

Australian Folklore holds that some feral cats in Australia have grown so large as to cause inexperienced observers to claim sightings of other species such as Puma etc. This folklore is however being shown to be more fact than fiction, with the recent shooting of an enormous Feline, [cite web|url= http://www.wherelightmeetsdark.com/index.php?module=wiki&page=EngelGippslandBigCat |title=Engel Gippsland big cat |accessdate= 2008-05-02] in the Gippsland area of Victoria, subsequent DNA test showed the feline to be "Felis silvestris catus". [ [http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2007/03/australias_new_feral_mega_cats.php#more "Feral Mega Cats"] ] Subsequent news stories of large Feral Cats being sighted is almost monthly in Australia and the evidence is very good to suggest a breeding population of these enormous Felines in the south-eastern states of Victoria and New South Wales. [ [http://www.strangenation.com.au/Articles/paulclacher.htm The Big Cat Files] ]

Feral cats and island restoration

Feral cats introduced to islands with ecologically naive fauna - that is, species that have not evolved or have lost predator responses for dealing with cats (Moors & Atkinson 1984) - have had a devastating impact on these islands' biodiversity. They have been implicated in the extinction of several species and local extinctions, such as the huitas from the Caribbean, the Guadalupe Storm-petrel from Pacific Mexico, the Stephens Island Wren; in a statistical study they were significantly complicit in the extinction of 40% of the species studied. [ [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/magazine/02cats-v--birds-t.html?em&ex=1196830800&en=4328122ab745ee4d&ei=5087%0A Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird? - New York Times ] ] Moors and Atkinson wrote, in 1984, "No other alien predator has had such a universally damaging effect."

Feral cats continue to have a devastating impact on island ecosystems. Indeed, a ranger within a Hawaiian Island Wildlife Sanctuary witnessed a single feral cat kill 33 ground-nesting sea birds in a single incident. As well, he notes that cats killed 45 chicks out of 75 in one bird colony. [ [http://www.honoluluweekly.com/archives/coverstory%202001/02-21-01%20Cats/02-21-01%20Cats.html feral cats provoke pity in the city ... and eradication in bird land] ]

Given the damage they cause, many conservationists working in the field of island restoration (literally restoring damaged islands through removal of introduced species and replanting and reintroducing native species) have worked to remove feral cats. As of 2004, 48 islands have had their feral cat populations removed, including New Zealand's network of offshore island bird reserves (Nogales "et al", 2004), and Australia's Macquarie Island. Larger projects have also been undertaken, including their complete removal from Ascension Island. The cats, introduced in the 19th century, caused a collapse in populations of nesting seabirds. The project to remove them from the island began in 2002, and the island was cleared of cats by 2004. Since then seven species of seabird which had not nested on the island for a hundred years have returned. [http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2005/07/ascension.html] .

Feral cats, along with rabbits, some sea birds and sheep, form the entire large animal population of the remote Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

Unintended consequences

In other instances the removal of cats has had unintended consequences, such as on Macquarie Island where the removal of cats caused an explosion in the number of rabbits and rats which have also harmed native seabirds. [ [http://www.smh.com.au/news/environment/up-against-rats-rabbits-and-costs/2007/04/11/1175971183257.html?page=fullpage The Sydney Morning Herald - Up against rats, rabbits and costs] ] [ [http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200607/s1687413.htm ABC News online - Fears for sub-antarctic island plagued by rabbits] ] The removal of the rats and rabbits is scheduled for 2007 and is expected to take up to seven years. [ [http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/macquarie/rabbitsfaq.html Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania - Plan for the Eradication of Rabbits and Rodents on Macquarie Island] ]

Population control

In the United States, there is debate about how to deal with feral cat populations - many municipalities make it legal to kill them and classify them as vermin or pests. Some advocate culling feral cat populations by hunting, arguing that it is the most cost-effective method of population control. However, a proposal in the U.S. state of Wisconsin to legalize the hunting of feral cats in an attempt to reduce their population (April 2005) was blocked by the state's lawmakers. South Dakota and Minnesota allow wild cats to be shot. The U.S. spends over $50 million a year to shelter some of these cats.Fact|date=July 2007It is true, however that baits have been used that include a plant that is deadly to introduced species, but harmless to natives

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs are facilitated by many volunteers and organizations in the United States. These organizations trap feral cats, sterilize them through neutering before releasing them. Variations of the program may include inoculation against rabies and other viruses and sometimes long-lasting flea treatments. Frequently, attending veterinarians cut the tip off one ear during spay/neuter surgery to mark the individual as being previously caught. Volunteers often continue to feed and give care to these cats throughout their lives. Many animal care experts believe that it is prohibitively difficult if not often impossible to domesticate and adopt a feral cat unless it is trapped and socialized before six weeks of age. However there is some evidence that many people have adopted and domesticated adult feral cats successfully. Also, some feral cat organizations offer techniques to do this. [ [http://www.forgottenfelines.com/new/pages/info/tame.html Taming Feral Cats and Kittens] Forgotten Felines]

In Australia, control programs are difficult to devise due to the nocturnal and solitary nature of the feral cats, broad distribution in the landscape and continuous additions to the population from abandoned domestic cats. Due to the danger posed to humans handling the animal, captured feral cats are almost always killed. Although trap neuter and return programs such as those in the United States are not prevalent in Australia, they are now being introduced in some urban and suburban areas such as Adelaide. More recently, such programs have been introduced in Sydney by the "World League for Protection of Animals".

Feral cats can also be controlled by larger native predators like coyotes or dingoes because cats are too small to defend themselves against the teeth and claws of the larger predators.

Zoonotic risk

There is increasing concern about the role feral cat colonies play as a vector of disease, particularly toxoplasmosis, giardiasis, campylobacter, and other diseases and parasites that can infect both domestic cats and humans. [ [http://cals.arizona.edu/urbanipm/mammals/feralcats.html Urban Integrated Pest Management: Feral Cats] ] Cats are the primary reservoir of toxoplasmosis. [ [http://www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/brochures/toxo.html Toxoplasmosis in Cats] ] Indeed, there has recently been a major crash in sea otter populations on the California coast -- these otters are often found to have toxoplasmosis infections, and although researchers say that "there is no direct evidence that cats or their feces have a part in spreading the single-celled parasite that causes the disease in shellfish- eating otters", they speculate that infected fecal waste from feral cats could enter local watersheds due to surface runoff or domestic cat feces through the sewage system. [ [http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/07/04/BA178597.DTL&type=science Cat waste may cause sea otters' infection] ] [ [http://surfermag.com/features/oneworld/otter/index.html Otterly Kelpless] ]

Feral cats in other countries


Rome, Italy is perhaps the city with the largest feral cat population in the world; its population has been estimated to be between 250,000 and 350,000, organized in about 2,000 colonies, some of them living in famous ancient places such as the Colosseum. [http://www.romancats.de/index_eng.php] Some historians believe the Romans' affection for cats dates from the Roman Empire's conquest of Egypt, where royalty kept cats. Others believe that Rome was spared from devastating outbreaks of the bubonic plague by the city's feral cat population, which kept Rome's rat population low thus reducing key plague carrying vector. Whatever the case, Rome's affection for stray felines remains strong.

Canada's Parliament

For many years (tradition associates them with a British garrison of the 1850s), a feral cat colony has existed on Canada's Parliament Hill in Ottawa. In recent years, living structures have been built for them, and they are fed by a volunteer who is given a stipend by the House of Commons. Veterinary services are donated by doctors in the city, and most of the cats are sterilized. At any given time, about fifteen cats live in the colony.The present Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is a cat fan and takes feral kittens into his home to socialize them before they are put up for adoption in Ottawa's shelters. Visitors to his official residence can expect to be asked if they have room in their homes for a cat.


On the island of Crete, in Greece, there are also many feral cats which can often be seen begging in tavernas or scavenging from bins. In fact, there is a charity to help them, Cretan Cat Care (CCC). The CCC employs a neutering programme to keep the population under control as many feral cats in Crete are the result of unwanted litters of kittens that have been thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves.


Many feral cats live throughout Israel in multiple colonies. The sight of feral cats walking the streets is a common one.


They are also known as "Pusang Kalye" (or Street Cat), but don't share the same treatment as the Askal or Stray Dog.

Feral cats and Popular culture

Feral cats have found a place in the popular imagination, perhaps due to the cat's reputation for being independently minded. For instance the famous television cartoon character "Top Cat", a wily "alley cat" would always manage to get the better of the good-natured policeman, Officer Dibble. T. S. Eliot's Jellicle Cats, who are now known throughout the world through Andrew Lloyd-Webber's hit musical "Cats", were themselves inspired by a colony of black and white feral cats in London, England.Fact|date=February 2008


Further reading

* Tabor, Roger, Arrow Books (1983). "The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat." ISBN 0-09-931210-7
* Moors, P.J.; Atkinson, I.A.E. (1984). "Predation on seabirds by introduced animals, and factors affecting its severity.". In "Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds". Cambridge: ICBP. ISBN 0-946888-03-5.
* Nogales, Manuel "et al" (2004). [http://www.issg.org/database/species/reference_files/felcat/Nogales%20et%20al.%202004.pdf "A review of feral cat eradication on islands"] . "Conservation Biology". 18(2): 310-319.
* Risbey, Danielle A. ; Calver, Michael C. ; Short, Jeff ; Bradley J. Stuart and Ian W. Wright (2005) [http://publish.csiro.au/nid/144/paper/WR98092.htm The impact of cats and foxes on the small vertebrate fauna of Heirisson Prong, Western Australia. II. A field experiment] "Wildlife Research" 27(3): 223-235
* Robley, A., Reddiex, B., Arthur T., Pech R., and Forsyth, D., (2004). "Interactions between feral cats, foxes, native carnivores, and rabbits in Australia". Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Melbourne.
* Dickman, C. (1996) [http://www.deh.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/publications/cat-impacts/pubs/impacts-feral-cats.pdf "Overview of the Impact of Feral Cats on Australian Fauna"] Australian Nature Conservation Agency ISBN 0-642-21379-8

External links

* [http://www.hsus.org/pets/issues_affecting_our_pets/feral_cats/feral_cat_resources.html Feral cat resources] at the Humane Society of the United States
* [http://www.alleycat.org/resources.html Resource center] at Alley Cat Allies
* [http://members.aol.com/catsferal/pubs.html Articles on the feral cats in Portsmouth Naval Yard]
* [http://piccat.com/pictures/tag/1/stray_cat.html Pictures of stray cats]

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