You might have heard the term “community cats” — or you might not have. It’s a fairly new term. Community cats are unhoused cats living in or near a human community. Not only has our name for these cats changed, but many communities’ responses to their presence is changing, as well.
What are Community Cats?
“Community cats” is an umbrella term that encompasses different types of outdoor cats. These include stray cats and feral cats.
Stray cats are cats who once had a home with humans. They may have run away, become lost, or they may have been abandoned.
Stray cats have different levels of socialisation with humans. As their contact with humans dwindles, they may become less socialized over time.
Some stray cats can be rehomed with people. This depends on various factors, including the age of the cat, how long it lived with humans, how long it has been since its last contact with people, and individual personality.
Strays that are re-introduced to the indoors may eventually become pets again, but it may take time and effort on the part of the homeowner.
A feral cat is a cat that has never lived with people and has had limited contact with them. Most feral cats are afraid of people and unlikely to want to live indoors. Few feral cats will want to live with humans.
Kittens of feral cats, however, can be socialised, provided they are four months of age or less.
How to Tell Them Apart
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between strays and ferals. However, a cat’s behaviour may provide some clues.
Stray cats may:
- Approach people
- Allow people to approach them
- Come near houses or cars
- Live alone
- Walk with their tails up, which is a sign of friendliness
- Look at you, blink at you, or make eye contact
On the other hand…
A feral cat will often:
- Run away from people
- Seek hiding places
- Live in a colony
- Stay close to the ground, wrapping its tail around itself protectively
- Avoid eye contact
Concerns About Free Roaming Cat Populations
Uncontrolled community cat populations present some valid concerns for the communities where they live.
The first concern is overpopulation.
Unspayed female cats can have their first period of heat (oestrus) at three and a half to four months of age. This period, when a female is receptive to mating, can last up to 14 days, with an average of one week. Females can go into heat every two to three weeks. They mate often, and with many males.
Pregnancy lasts about two months, and the average female can produce around 18 kittens per year.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if each of those kittens produces eighteen new cats a year as well…well, you can see where that’s going.
Pet cats are generally well behaved. However, feral cats often exhibit unpleasant behaviours.
Feral cats can be quite noisy. Female cats in heat make desperate yowling sounds to attract a mate. And both males and females scream when a fight is about to erupt.
If that’s not enough, intact male cats mark their territory by spraying urine. It smells terrible and can leave stains, too.
In areas outside the UK. where rabies is endemic, a free-roaming cat population can be a concern. Cats can carry other zoonotic diseases (diseases that can pass to humans) as well.
Other diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukaemia virus (FLV) don’t affect humans but can spread to domestic cats. Controlling the free-roaming cat population is key to stopping the spread of disease.
Threats to Wildlife
Feral, stray, and even domestic cats can threaten local wildlife, especially birds. In addition, feral cats sometimes mate with wild cats, which hybridizes the wild cat population. They can also spread disease to wild cats.
Why Culling is a Poor Option
In the past, culling has been the control method of choice, and often, in some parts of the world, it still is. However, culling is cruel and unnecessary. On top of that, studies have shown that it doesn’t work very well.
To be effective in reducing a community cat population, one study found that you’d have to trap and remove at least 50 per cent of cats in a given colony every year. That’s a lot of money and a lot of labour.
Another study found that trapping and removing can actually increase a community cat population by over 200 per cent! This is because as old cats leave, new cats move in to take their place.
Trap, neuter, and return programs, however, have been scientifically proven to work at reducing community cat populations. Not only that, but it reduces many unwanted behaviours, such as territorial marking, fighting, and howling for a mate.
Finally, TNR programs reduce shelter intake of feral cats, and reduce euthanasia rates, as well
And the great news is, you can help community cats in your area, too.
How to Help Community Cats
Increasingly, communities are controlling feral cat populations humanely.
This can include providing food and shelter for neighbourhood cats. Often it includes trapping and neutering community cats, then returning them to where they were found.
Some communities even have “working cats” (or barn cats) programs that provide vaccinated, neutered, free roaming cats to businesses for rodent control. These programs have shown promising success, and have benefitted both community cat populations and the surrounding human communities. Andthis of course is how cats came to live with humans in the first place.
Do you have outdoor cats living in your community? Are you wondering how to help them? Here are some things you can do.
Learn the Difference Between Different Kinds of Community Cats
A stray cat is different from a feral cat, in that a stray cat has been socialised with humans. A stray cat may look and act like a pet cat.
Feral cats have never been pet cats. Though they are the same species, felis catus, feral domestic cats do not act or think like pet cats.
It’s possible for stray cats to become pet cats again, but unlikely that feral cats ever will. Feral kittens under the age of four months, however, can become socialised to live with humans.
Set up a Feeding Station for Community Cats
Community cats must forage for food. This means getting into rubbish bins and preying on local wildlife.
Setting up feeding and water stations accomplishes several goals at once.
First, feeding stations give community cats a safe place to eat healthy food. Many feeding stations also protect cats from foul weather while they’re having their meal.
Feeding stations help to keep the neighbourhood clean by eliminating the need to go through rubbish bins, spreading germs and making a mess.
It also reduces predation on local wildlife.
Finally, setting up feeding stations for community cats allows a human to interact with a colony, providing opportunity for socialisation, and for people to evaluate members of the colony for injury or illness.
It’s pretty easy to put together a top-notch DIY feral cat feeding station. Check out the process below.
Provide Shelter for Community Cats
Outdoor cats need shelter, especially in the winter. Providing safe, warm, weatherproof shelter for feral cats is a kindness. Even more importantly, it can help to keep individuals healthy. And healthy individuals mean a healthy colony.
Commercially made feral cat shelters are readily available. In fact, we carry several. Our feral cat shelters are not only well built and weather resistant but are also eco-friendly. For every tree harvested to make our shelters, two more are planted.
You can also make your own feral cat shelter pretty easily. Check out the video below for instructions.
Trap, Neuter, Return
The policy of trapping and neutering free-roaming cats, then returning them to their home territory, has proven to be the most effective way of managing community cats, as well as the most humane way.
TNR programs enjoy wide support from animal welfare organisations, veterinarians, wildlife agencies, and conservation groups.
It’s simply the best thing that we can do for both community cats and the people amongst whom they are living.
Make contact with your local trap, neuter, return program. They may have volunteer opportunities, and if you have a community cat population, they may be able to help.
Community Cats FAQ
Do you have questions about community cats? We have answers!
What Dangers Do Community Cats Face?
Community cats face many of the same dangers faced by other urban wildlife.
Free roaming cats face predation by dogs and other animals. Many end up hit by cars. Illness can spread through a cat colony very quickly. And despite their thick, fluffy coats, cats need protection from rain, snow, and extreme temperatures.
Should You Take a Community Cat Into Your Home?
It depends on you, and it depends on the cat.
Feral cats are unlikely to be happy indoors, and they’re unlikely to make good pets. Few feral cats enjoy the company of humans, and many have ingrained behaviours that would make them poor household members.
Stray cats are not feral. They may live outdoors, but they can often learn to live happily indoors with humans. Feral kittens below the age of four months can often be socialised, and can often make good pets.
Are Community Cats Happy?
Community cats who have been neutered, and who have access to safe food and shelter, can coexist happily and peacefully with the humans in their neighbourhood.
What do Do With Stray, Feral, or Lost Cats
What should you do if you come across a community cat?
Step 1: Evaluate for illness or injury
The first thing to do is evaluate whether the cat is in distress. If it appears injured or ill, carefully confine it and take it to a vet. Alternately, in Britain, you can telephone the RSPCA at 0300 1234 999.
If you decide to take the cat to the vet yourself, be sure to use a towel or thick gloves to avoid being bitten or scratched. Cat bites can be a lot more serious than they look, and require immediate medical attention.
Step 2: If the cat is not in distress, leave it alone
A friendly and approachable cat may be someone’s pet who lives nearby and is out for a stroll. If the cat runs away from you, it may be feral, and will not want your help.
Look at the cat’s ears. If the tip of one ear is missing, the cat has been through a TNR program. It will not breed, and is unlikely to engage in undesirable behaviours associated with feral cats. Allow it to go about its business in peace.
Step 3: If the cat is lost but not injured or ill
If a cat approaches you, it may be lost, or a recent stray. If you have good reason to believe the cat is lost or abandoned, the first order of business is tofind its owner.
A vet or rescue centre can scan the cat for a microchip that contains its owners contact information.
If the cat has no microchip, there are other ways to find the owner. You could:
- Print and distribute this “found” poster from the RSPCA
- Knock on doors near where you found the cat
- Leave word with local vets and rescue organizations
- Post on social media and neighbourhood sites like Nextdoor
If You Find a Kitten On Its Own
A mother cat often leaves her kittens to search for food. It’s important not to disturb kittens, as they have a better chance of surviving when cared for by their mother. If you come across healthy kittens, monitor them from a distance for a few hours to see if the mother returns.
Monitor dependent kittens for two hours before calling a vet or rescue. Dependent kittens have little mobility, and their eyes may be closed. A mother cat may leave independent kittens for as long as four hours. Independent kittens have their eyes open and can feed and move about on their own.
If you find wet, cold, sick or injured kittens, contact the RSPCA’s helpline (0300 1234 999), your vet, or a local rescue immediately.
Become a Community Cat Caretaker
Are you interested in helping to manage the community cat population in your area?
First, educate yourself about the issue. The Humane Society has published an excellent guide to the problems and solutions regarding community cats. This guide can help you to understand the different organisations involved with community cat care, and can give you ideas about how to help the cats in your area.
You can also set up feeding stations and feral cat shelters to protect your local community cats.
Volunteer with a TNR program in your area, and help your community see how this approach can improve the neighbourhood by dramatically reducing nuisance behaviours like urine spraying and noise.
Humans and community cats can coexist safely and peacefully, and you can be part of it.
Do you have experience helping community cats? We’d love to hear about it!