Managing the Source of Feral Cats

Currently, June 2012, nearly all efforts into reducing the feral cat population are reactive in nature. They are focused on dealing with the feral cat. In product manufacturing terms, the effort is directed against the end user as opposed to the manufacturer. Ultimately, the manufacturer is us because all feral cats stem from domestic cats at source and at one time. Of course, feral cats reproduce and produce more feral cats but we put the feral cat there in the first place.

feral cat malta
Feral cat Malta – Photo by John Haslam
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

How do we manage people? We need to because managing the source of feral cats is about managing people. Thinking about a utopian society if every cat owner (caretaker or guardian) were like Ruth Young3 or Kattaddorra2, an American and an English contributor to this site respectively, there would be no feral cat population problem. They are both responsible, thinking cat caretakers who understand cats.

What makes for a responsible cat caretaker? The UK’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 describes the actions that need to be taken to fulfill that duty at clause 9.

In short the duties must include at a fundamental level the provision of:

  1. suitable food and shelter
  2. health care
  3. social interaction
  4. a commitment to the cat that is for the life of the cat and
  5. a safe environment.

There will always be people who are ignorant of cat caretaking and yet want to keep a cat. To manage these people the government, either local or national, need to step in. Governments are very reluctant to do this because the welfare of the cat is low priority and there is a settled business built around the stray, unwanted and feral cat. If there were no cats to be re-homed and rescued a lot of people would be out of work and upset.

How to make people behave more responsibly towards their cat? One well discussed proposal is obligatory microchipping. This has been carried out to a limited extent in one state of Australia with average results. There is bound to be resistance.

However, it is almost impossible to enforce a law that makes it a criminal offence to abandon a domestic cat unless the cat can be identified, which need not, necessarily be microchipping. Tattooing is a good, cheap and safer alternative.

There is no question that government needs to step in. Permanent identification of all domestic cats would be an excellent starting point in managing irresponsible cat caretaking, the primary source of feral cats.

Even, the fact that a person knows that their cat will be microchipped will prevent some irresponsible people adopting a cat. That will have an initial negative impact on re-homing. But in the long term the benefits will be huge to the community.

It is interesting that letting cats become feral or abandoning cats is not seen by society generally as highly irresponsible. There needs to be a cultural change. Legislation can bring about cultural change. Laws change people because they change people’s habits and perceptions. All the more reason for legislation to be introduced to make it obligatory to identify all cats. That proposal will upset people who like their freedoms and who hate the ‘nanny state’. But it is reasonable. There is little legislation regarding cat ownership. It is time to really tackle issues such as the feral cat problem with commitment and courage.

A startling fact is that in the United States only 2 to 3% of all cats entering shelters are reunited with their owner1. That is a self-evident very low percentage. Surely we can do better? Incidentally, where identification programs are in place the rate improves ‘substantially’.

Identification is a major factor in managing the source of feral cats. What else? Obligatory spaying and neutering. This could be linked to identification as a phase 2 program. If all or most domestic cats where identifiable as belonging to a certain person and if those cats identified as abandoned were unnuetered or not spayed then the penalty could be a fine accompanying a criminal offense for the ‘owner’. If people who were thinking about owning a cat knew this is would have a big impact on their attitude. They would be forced to behave more responsibly.  This is an example of the state molding the attitude of the citizens of the state through legislation. Ultimately the attitude of people who do not keep cats would also be changed because they will know that it is against the law to abandon a cat. If it is against the law it is generally considered to be bad.

What else can be done to manage the source of feral cats? Education. Forcing people to do things through legislation is necessary sometimes but doing the right thing voluntarily is far better. Knowing what the right thing is, comes from education, knowledge and experience.

Abandoning a cat is more likely to occur in the early months of owning a cat. The expectations and knowledge of the prospective cat caretaker need to be tested before the adoption takes place. There is an argument that this will prevent adoptions. Elisa asked the question “Are cat adoption applications too strict?‘ They probably are.

However what I am writing about is early years education at school. I am proposing a change in attitude not circumstance or the personal history of the proposed cat caretaker – something more fundamental and very much a long term program. The only way to manage the source of feral cats is by thinking very long term, 30 years, because it has taken 30 years to get where we are today. Martha Kane in Malta sets an excellent example in educating young children at schools.

Another thing local governments can get involved in is subsidized sterilization of cats. A lot of people who want to keep cats and who keep cats are relatively poor, financially. A cat companion can assist them, improve their lives more than countless other government led programs. These people need assistance in being responsible. Some can’t afford to be responsible.

Note: any laws proposed in this article would have to distinguish conventional cat ownership with the temporary caretaking of feral cats by people who conduct trap, neuter and return programs. That is a task for the legislators.


My thank to The Welfare of Cats for motivating me to write this article:

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