But why bother intervening in the lives of feral cats at all? It is a question that feral cat advocates are asked all the time. Many people are hugely dismissive of TNR. Sure, can’t cats look after themselves? Why would you even want to help these cats, when they are disease-ridden pests and nothing better than vermin? Besides, there are so many of them, you’ll never make a difference! Sadly these are the prevailing attitudes and they are based on numerous misconceptions.
1. Feral cats can look after themselves
While elusive third generation, truly feral cats are thought to be largely self-sufficient, the same cannot be said of the first or second generation feral cats that we most commonly see. Few of these cats survive by hunting alone. They are typically wholly reliant on scavenging for survival. Either they pick at fast-food rubbish or restaurant waste, or depend on the kindness of someone who feeds them scraps. The cats have to make do with inappropriate food, which can leave them malnourished.
A solitary, un-neutered feral cat has an expected life-span of just two years. Like other cats with outdoor access, they can fall prey to poisoning, trauma (in road accidents) or attacks by other animals, primarily dogs. This is why pet cats that aren’t indoor-only also have a hugely decreased life expectancy. But these accidents aside, the crucial factors that determine a feral cat’s longevity are adequate food supply, shelter and veterinary attention if ill or injured. In a managed colony of feral cats that are neutered, given shelter and are routinely fed appropriate cat food, life expectancy rises to six years or more – a similar baseline health status to pet cats allowed outdoors. Clearly human intervention improves the cats’ welfare enormously. They go from a state of tenuous survival to one of security and good health.
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. Kittens can in no way be considered capable of looking after themselves. Feral kittens have an extremely high mortality rate. 75% of kittens born to feral mother cats die or disappear within six months of birth. It’s estimated that 180,000 kittens born outdoors die in Ireland every year.[i]
2. Feral cats give our pets diseases
Not as readily as you would expect! Adult feral cats are quite robust, especially once they have been neutered. Bear in mind that they have come from minority of kittens that survived beyond six months of age. These are the survivors!
When you see a cat that is clearly in very poor condition, it is as likely to be a stray cat as a feral. Remember that stray cats are far less well adapted to the challenges of an independent existence than ferals.
Numerous studies in different countries have shown that feral cats have higher gastro-intestinal worm densities than pet cats.[ii] Transmission most commonly occurs between a queen and her kittens during lactation. Your cat is far less likely to contract roundworms by ingesting egg-contaminated soil or by ingesting particles of faeces from another cat. In either case, the culprit is just as likely to be a pet cat as a feral. If we regularly treat our pet cats for worms with a veterinary product, this is really a non-issue.
Ringworm is not prevalent in feral cats in Britain or Ireland. The disease is more common in warmer and more humid climates.[iii]
Probably the only immediate risk to pet cats from ferals is transmission of cat lice, ear mites or fleas. This requires direct contact, which is unlikely between unacquainted cats. Looking at these ecto-parasites individually: Cat lice are a relatively rare problem, even among feral cats. Flea transmission is most likely if the pet cat shares a sleeping space with the feral. Ear mites are unlikely to spread from one cat to another unless they are in direct body contact for a reasonable length of time. In any case, regularly treating your own cat with a spot-on, such as Stronghold or Advocate, negates the problem.
While feral cats may be recovered carriers of cat flu, a vaccinated pet cat is unlikely to contract the illness. Adult cats are much less likely to contract cat flu than kittens, who should not be out and about until their vaccinations are complete. If your cat does somehow contract cat flu from a stray or feral, bear in mind that the illness is milder in adult cats and is self-limiting, normally just requiring supportive therapy.
Numerous studies have shown that feral cats have no higher incidence of FIV or FELV, or any other infectious feline diseases, than our pet cats that are given outdoor access.[iv] Groups such as Limerick Feral Cats are working to reduce FIV transmission through TNR. Once castrated, feral toms are less likely to inflict bite wounds on other cats, and of course they no longer transmit the virus to females during mating. This is one of the reasons we believe it is equally important to neuter male feral cats as well as the females.
3. Feral cats are a risk to public health
We often receive calls from people who are afraid to let their children out in the garden because feral cats are passing through. But despite people’s fears, the transmission of zoonotic infections from cats to humans is relatively uncommon.[v] Let’s have a look at these diseases.
It is difficult to quantify the incidence of human toxocariasis, but an Irish study conducted in 2004 gives some indication. In a study of 121,156 Irish schoolchildren, only one in 10,000 were thought to be suffering the effects of ocular larva migrans.[vi]
Any parasitised dog or cat that defecates outdoors adds to long-term contamination of the soil, but dogs are the primary source of infection. Toxocara cati is rarely implicated in the condition, because outdoor cats tend to bury their faeces and the litter trays of indoor cats are usually cleaned out before the eggs reach the infective stage. Limerick Feral Cats routinely treat their cat colonies with anti-helminthics. We believe this is part and parcel of responsible colony management.
The risk of acquiring toxoplasmosis from a cat is extremely small. Most people are infected through other routes such as handling raw meat or eating undercooked meat or unwashed fruit and vegetables. Simple hygiene measures considerably reduce the risk of infection from cats and other sources. Fresh cat faeces do not pose a risk as it takes five days for the oocysts to become infectious. Wear gloves when handling garden soil however and wash your hands afterwards.
4. Feral cats are pests
Feral cats can be a nuisance to house owners, especially where they occur in large numbers in built-up areas. The complaints we receive are legion. The yeowling, hissing and caterwauling keeps people awake at night. The male cats leave unpleasant smells at the front door, on flower pots, on clothes left out to dry. They walk along garden walls and so torment dogs. They have unwanted kittens in or under the shed, and everyone in the home is distressed by the state of the kittens. The toms bite and claw pet cats, causing abscesses and a trip to the vet.
Can you see that all of this needn’t necessarily be so? All it requires is one thing: Neutering. Limerick Feral Cats advise local resident associations on feral cat issues and explain the huge benefits TNR will bring to the community.
- Neutering stops any further increase in colony numbers. It is better to leave the existing colony intact rather than take steps to remove the cats, which simply leaves a vacuum that other, unneutered feral cats will fill.
- Neutering ends the howling associated with reproductive behaviour and the noisy fighting between toms over mating rights, so that neighbours can enjoy a good night’s sleep!
- Neutering eliminates the awful pong of entire tom cats’ pee.
- Neutered toms are less aggressive and therefore less likely to engage in fights with the other (sometimes owned) cats they encounter.
- Neutered toms are more sedentary and roam less, thus minimising the properties they traverse.
- Neutering has a calming effect on the cats. They become friendlier to humans, so that people are less aggrieved by their perceived hostility.
5. Feral cats endanger wildlife
Lots of people nuture garden birds and love to feed them, especially in the cold of winter. Not surprisingly, the bird lovers amongst us tend to have a pretty negative view of feral cats. Feral cats also fall foul of conservation groups, who argue that feral cat predation contributes to the decline of endangered species.
Cats are adept at catching fledglings beginning to try their wings, but are far less successful when it comes to adult birds.[vii]
The natural mortality rate of young garden birds is already extremely high, so that cat predation has little impact.[viii] Garden bird populations are abundant despite massive culling by various predators, including cats.
The same cannot be said for endangered species such as the corncrakes of Tory Island, Co Donegal, where the stray and feral cat population was culled in recent years for the birds’ protection. The deleterious effect of introduced predators on island ecologies is well documented. But other than in documented cases of cat predation on island prey species, the impact of cats on wildlife including birds is hard to assess.[ix] The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds acquits cats of significant overall harm to songbird populations.
6. TNR groups will never solve the problem
Well, due to the sheer scale of the work required, perhaps not. Mathematical workings by Dr Jan Emslie based on the research of Dr Julie Levy estimates there are perhaps upwards of 600,000 stray and feral cats in Ireland. The problem stems from irresponsible ownership; Dr Emslie estimates that approximately 23% of Irish pet cats are not neutered. This may be depressing to those of us involved feral cat welfare, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. TNR vastly improves the health of feral cats, who are in this predicament through no fault of their own.
By the simple fact of offering support and advice to people concerned by the plight of feral cats in their area, word spreads that organisations such as ours want to help and will treat the cats humanely. By watching the process of TNR and talking to us, people are better informed about how to help similar cats in the future and can point other people in our direction. We believe that each cat, tame or feral, has intrinsic value and deserves our help and compassion.