How many feral cats in the US 2021?

A recent research project in the UK may indicate that the number of feral cats in America is much lower than people believe, at around 11 million. We usually see estimates for the number of feral cats in the US of between 60-100 million. Of course, the great problem is counting them.

Stray cat in Washington DC caught in camera trap for nee study
Stray cat in Washington DC (Rock Creek Park) caught in camera trap for nee study. Photo: Humane Rescue Alliance / Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute / D.C. Cat Count.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The first point I’d like to make is that Cats Protection estimated that on average there are 9.3 unowned cats per square kilometre in the UK. The term “unowned” should cover both feral and stray cats. You could bundle them together. Can you use data from the UK to try and work out the number of feral cats in the USA? I think you probably can. At least the UK data should provide a good guideline on USA data.

Using the 9.3 cats per square kilometre formula of Cats Protection we arrive at 2.3 million unowned cats in the UK because the UK comprises 248,532 km². The problem is that if you use that same formula in America, you arrive out a figure of around 360 million feral cats which is ridiculous! This is because there are vast areas of open land with very low human and cat densities in America, unlike in the UK.

Therefore, if you want to compare UK and USA feral cat numbers, I think you have to do it on the basis of human population numbers. The current population of America is 330 million which is five times that of the UK. If we can argue that the number of feral cats is dependent upon the number of humans, which is largely true, we could deduce that there are 2.3×5 or 11 million feral cats in America.

I have seen figures as low as a 10 million feral cats in America. You can see how hugely variable the estimated numbers are. I like the Cats Protection number because it was carried out carefully and based upon a lot of experience. They collected sightings of unknown cats between 2016-2018 from 3,101 residents and 877 reports. These were taken in five of the UK’s urban areas. They then added in the locations of 601 cats known to them and created a population model. They worked out that there were 247,429 unowned URBAN cats in the UK and that the densities per square kilometre varied between 1.9-57 depending upon the location with an average of 9.3 as mentioned.

The problem with counting feral cats is the difficulty in defining what a feral cat is. Sometimes feral cats can be socialised but simply living outside in a colony. They are more like community cats which are semi-domesticated. That’s why it is probably better to refer to these cats as “unowned”. And stray cats, too, can be domesticated.

AI cat shelter for feral and stray cats
AI cat shelter for feral and stray cats

I see another problem with the estimates of the number of feral cats coming from America which is that there is an agenda in America and Australia to keep domestic cats inside the home in order to reduce the number of feral cats being created through irresponsible cat ownership. Keeping cats inside the home reduces predation on birds.

In order to achieve the goals of that agenda bird lovers and ornithologists are likely to want to state that feral cat numbers are higher than they truly are. The intention is to put pressure on local and state governments to legislate to keep cats inside the home or to create some sort of restrictions on the number of domestic cats people can have or how they look after them. I would speculate, therefore, that there may be an over-estimate in the number of feral cats in the US.

If people feel that they can rely on the Cat Protection information it may encourage them to believe that the number of feral cats in America is much less than the often speculated 70 million banded around the Internet. And if people accept a lower number, people who dislike cats may be less hostile towards feral cat colonies and unowned cats in general because they are doing less damage to wildlife. The hostility towards cats comes largely from their predation on native species. And their impact on wildlife is highly speculative.

I think is quite important to have an accurate figure because if it truly is lower than stated it may well reduce abuses against cats which is what I’m interested in. Of course, I too have a vested interest because I want the figures to be lower in order to protect feral cats from being abused.

P.S. Cats Protection is a cat large cat rescue charity in the UK operated by a foster caring system and very many volunteers.


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