The difficulty in breaking the cycle of suffering in the feral cat population is that an unneutered cat living a wholly outdoor existence will be extremely secretive in where she gives birth and rears her kittens. Empirical evidence suggests that female cats prefer to deliver and raise their kittens beyond their normal territorial boundaries. So even if a female feral typically comes for food at a particular location and shelters nearby, the kittens may be frustratingly difficult to find.
Favoured spots for kittening include neighbouring attics, outhouses, coal bunkers, boiler houses and the dry crawlspace under garden sheds. Even when the kittens are located, it may prove impossible to retrieve the kittens because of the inaccessible hiding places they retreat to.
This has very tragic consequences. Not only do such kittens become feral, but they suffer desperately without veterinary treatment. The survival rate is extremely low; only one in five feral kittens will live to five months of age. The reasons for this are manifold. Contrary to popular belief, feral cats cannot survive by hunting mice, garden birds and other available prey. We recently heard of a situation where un-fed farm cats were so hungry, they were visiting a neighbouring orchard to eat fallen eating apples off the ground. If the mother cat doesn’t have regular access to proper cat food from a kind person, she will be malnourished and less able to feed her kittens. As the mother cat will rarely have been wormed or treated against parasites, the kittens have a heavy worm burden that impedes their healthy development. They also acquire debilitating ecto-parasite infestations such as fleas and lice. As their immune systems are immature and they are likely malnourished without appropriate food, they are less likely to shrug off the infestation as an adult cat. Fleas and lice gain a foothold and can cause profound anaemia.
Diarrhoea due to worms or inappropriate food will result in dehydration not least of all, with the further risk of faecal incontinence, resultant ulceration of the perianal region and hindlegs, and anal prolapse. The gastro-intestinal tract may be left permanently damaged, which predisposes the kitten to digestive issues should it be fortunate enough to survive to adulthood. The difference in physical condition between feral kittens that are provided with food and those kittens whose mother is forced to scavenge is profound. A feral mother cat and kittens given cat food by a kind soul are often as healthy in appearance as kittens born indoors to treasured pets.
The other danger to the kittens is if the mother cat is a carrier of feline viruses such as those responsible for the varying forms of cat flu. FHV-1 and feline chlamydophila in particular cause chronic conjunctivitis, which leads to corneal lesions, partial blindness and in extreme cases, rupture of the eyeball. The pain and suffering feral kittens endure is unimaginable.