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Are Feral Cat Colonies Dangerous?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 8 Oct 2020 | comments*Discuss
Feral Cats Feral Cat Colonies Danger

Feral cats are a big problem in the UK – Britain is believed to have over 1 million feral cats roaming the country. The subject of feral cat colonies can be a controversial one, with some believing that they are a severe menace to humans, pets and wildlife whilst others feeling that they do no harm if managed correctly and even feeling a form of affection towards colonies they care for. Their impact can also depend on their numbers, the environment they live in (and vulnerability of native wildlife) as well as the diseases which they may be carrying.

What is a Feral Cat?

Contrary to what many people believe, feral cats are not wild cats or even stray cats (also known as “alley cats”). The former are wild species and the latter are domestic cats that have been abandoned by their humans or have strayed from home and gotten lost. Feral cats are also descended from domestic cats but unlike strays, they are usually born in the wild and generally live without human contact, which means that they do not have the same “friendly”, tame attitude that stray cats have towards humans. In fact, many feral kittens born in the wild have a lot of trouble adapting to domestic life if they are adopted by a human family, although some do adapt very well and even some feral adults will adapt to life as a “house pet”. It depends very much on the individual temperament of the cat as to how wild they are.

What is a Feral Cat Colony?

Again contrary to popular belief, cats are not always loners. In fact, feral cats usually live together in large groups called “colonies”. The chances of survival are greatly increased with multiple cats living together and looking after the kittens. These colonies congregate in areas where there is a good, sheltered hiding place, such as abandoned buildings or heavily wooded areas, and where there is a food source, such as a rubbish dump. In Europe in particular, feral cat colonies often set up in high rise housing project tenements, usually inhabiting the basement and getting in and out via any suitable exits, such as cracks in the walls, drains and ventilation holes.

Feral cats usually only have a lifespan of about 2 years if they survive their kittenhood – however, in a managed colony, their lifespan can be extended up to 5 years.

Are Feral Cats a Risk to Humans?

Like all animals, feral cats can carry parasites and diseases which can be transmitted to humans, known as zoonosis. These included toxoplasmosis, giardiasis, rabies and campylobacter. However, these are usually transmitted through contact therefore as long as precautions are taken, it is not an immediate hazard.

Other complaints tend to deal not so much with the health risk as with the nuisance factor of feral cats, such as urine spraying to mark territory, the noise (especially at night) made by fighting cats and the damage to gardens caused by cats digging and leaving faeces.

Are Feral Cats a Risk to Pets?

Again, feral cats will carry diseases and parasites which can be transmitted to pets and since they share the same anatomy as your house cat, they can be a particular risk in introducing feline diseases, such as feline leukaemia or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Feral cats are particularly prone to these two diseases due to the frequent fluid exchange from constant fighting and mating. In addition, feral cats can be infested with a large numner of fleas, as well as intestinal bacteria and worms. They also often carry ear mites, ring worm and upper respiratory tract infections (e.g. cat flu). Even if they don’t come into direct contact with your pet, they may still transmit disease and parasites through their waste products, particularly if they are using your garden as a toilet!

They can also be a risk to dogs since they are likely to stand their ground and fight, thus inflicting injuries which may become infected or transmit disease. Similarly, they may encounter, fight and harm any domestic pet cats which are allowed to roam, particularly at night.

Are Feral Cats a Risk to Wildlife?

Here the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Especially with island ecologies, the effect of feral cats on the local wildlife can be severe. In the UK, this may well still be tolerable as cats are an established species and do not endanger many of the native wild species but in places such as New Zealand, Australia and even parts of North America, they are regarded as a serious threat to local, endangered species. Some also worry that feral cat colonies living close to urban areas may attract other larger, more dangerous predators such as coyotes, bears, wolves, wild cats and feral dogs.

How Can We Control Feral Cat Colonies?

Like the subject of feral cats itself, the best way to control colonies is under a lot of debate. Under British Law, feral cats are actually classed as “vermin” and belong to the person on whose land they inhabit.

Extermination: The first solution most people think of is to cull the populations through shooting, poisoning or trapping and killing however many are against this method. Aside from believing that the methods used to cull are inhumane (and in any case, deliberating putting poison down for feral cats is illegal as it may also poison other wildlife or pets), they cite the “vacuum effect” as a reason this solution doesn’t work – in other words, as feral cats are killed or removed from an area, new ones from surrounding areas will move in and breed or existing cats which escape the cull will re-establish the population.

Ultimately, they argue that the solution lies with humans taking the responsibility of sterilising their domestic pet cats as these are the source of almost all feral cat colonies to begin with. They believe that programmes which only kill the feral cats without addressing the human accountability issue will never solve the problem.

Trap-Neuter-Release: An alternative solution proposed is to use a “Trap-Neuter-Return” (TNR) programme which are humane and argued to be effective. The sterilised cats are returned to a managed colony where volunteers feed and keep watch over them. In addition, kittens and certain tamer individuals are also adopted as pets. However, such programmes have met with difficulties and resistance in certain countries (e.g. Australia) and there is also some doubt on the long-term effectiveness of a TNR programme. In fact, opponents believe that feral cats in managed colonies pose an even greater risk to local wildlife as they are not affected by food pressures (and therefore less likely to starve or fall prey to predators or disease) – and so more likely to exist in greater population densities.

Within the UK, even the animal welfare societies have divided views over the management of feral cats with some advocating TNR programmes and others putting down all ferals' brought into them. Regardless of which methods you believe in, the key still lies with neutering pets and responsible pet ownership.

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[Add a Comment]
Yes the person that wrote this deserves the very fate described. Heartless idiot... A relation of Trump perhaps? TNR is the answer!!!
For Winston - 1-Oct-20 @ 8:36 AM
"I USED TO BE A PEOPLE PERSON.... then people ruined it!!!" (A quote on my T-shirt..it always gets comments, however..they are unaware of my Email addy...)Katlady.. ??
Lisa - 30-Sep-20 @ 9:55 AM
Yes, I agree. Whoever wrote this article is an idiot!
Andy - 29-Jul-20 @ 4:00 PM
Reading this story and some of the comments make me sick. No wonder the world is all jacked up at this time. If you dont have compassion for animals then you definitely dont have compassionate for humans. The writer who wrote this is an idiot. Yes, I said idiot do your research buddy! Feral cats protect the environment its called a circle of life. They kill miceand snakes and other things that could kill people's so called precious pets or even children playing in yards. Writing such articles only brings hate amongst cats. They are wonderful creatures and as so should be respected. TNR has proved to work in case you dont know it is a felony now to hurt any animal. So put that in your story. Jerk!
Suegolden - 25-Jul-20 @ 11:52 AM
Here in usa there are millions of ferals cats. Estimates are that over 1 billion birds alone are killed for sport by them annually. Many species are endangered by them. The worst part is that through disease and attacking my cats on my property they have killed two wonderful pets of mine. Cats that i could walk like dogs even without a leash. We cant rid our property of fleas and ticks because the ferals constantly drop new eggs and spread them. They are so bold as to attempt to attack our cats through the storm doors. If anyone was honest they would see that feral cats may be cute but they harm every animal around. It is incongruous that one would want to protect these killer vermin at the expense of native fauna and personal pets. Anyone who believes otherwise is a fool and a bigot if they believe they are being humane.
Djea3 - 19-Jul-20 @ 11:34 AM
Poor and defenseless my aching Crosman. More stupidity. You look up and see what other things kill for sport more than a cat. Where I come from stray and feral cats are the sport. You ever noticed when you see a dead cat on the side of the road nothing eats it nothing but flies and maggots there that damn nasty my taking Crossman
Cheezy - 11-Jul-20 @ 5:42 PM
TNR. So pathetically stupid! Think how many years that will take to control their populations you have no idea how many you don't see for everyone you do see. They're destructive they stink worse than any living thing they're not native they're invasive and there's a blame for like over 70 complete extinct other little animals. What right do they have to live any one thing that kills that many for sport has no right to live stomp their guts out
Chezzyred - 11-Jul-20 @ 5:35 PM
TNR does work! Once you get the colonies managed.( Getting all cats fixed and ear tipped) If you get kittens about 5 weeks you can catch them and they are tameable. I have done it for dozens of cats. Then trap the mother get her fixed and ear tipped and let her go where you got her. Don't grab the kittens too early! Once they are fixed if someone feeds them they shouldn't wander much for outside food. That is a key point. It is wrong to kill them!??
catgirl - 7-Jul-20 @ 1:22 PM
Can someone help me ? I feed a feral cat and the last two nights her eyes are watery and her breathing is terrible!frightening! So loud sneezing andwheezing . She won’t allow me near her I would love to take her indoors and care for her but afterthought two nights sitting on the ground talking to her she still won’t let me touch her . I leave my bedroom window open on the ground floor trying to comfort her but she isn’t eating now I’ve tried to contact rspca anyorganisation that will help but everywhere is temporarily closed! Ridiculous why do you sound supposed to do ..
Moira - 15-Jun-20 @ 11:05 AM
Cat's aren't the harmful one humans are. Human's are the most ignorant species I've encountered. I have never had one neighbor offer to help me to get them spayed or neutered, call shelters to find help to foster. They never offer to help foster them for a couple days after being spayed and neutered. They complain wha wha wha but won't help. I do feed them and give them vitamins. #1 filling their fuzzy little tummies most likely deters them from eating too many wild animals and #2 they get nourishment with vitamins. The vitamins help boost their immune system. I also never see dead birds or other wild animals around.
Kitty kelly - 17-May-20 @ 11:40 PM
Mention of a favor second best if it would be other being.What tape af PEOPEL is that
N/A - 15-May-20 @ 1:30 PM
The worst that happens to this planet is humanity.but no body is talking about shall we be exterminated?Well maybe God.and when peopel whit some kindness love and real humanity in the head read something like this hope that what his doing.Peopel who feel like that about this innocent powerless little beings should see how a mom cat love her babies and the things she do in order for them to survive.things I'm sure a human mom whont do lm sorry if I sound to clear but is the truth.and sadly the more I see the greed in some peopel the more I notice that Hitler was on to something.God bless you
N/A - 15-May-20 @ 12:58 PM
Cat have been part of the environment and ecology for thousands of years and only recently have cats become a problem. What has caused this problem is human intervention. As humans have expanded, they have taken over the areas where the cats live. Humans have also bred cats, allowing backyard breeders to release cats back to the environment but also not taking responsibility for the cats they keep as pets by getting them spay/neutered. For many years, we have trapped and killed cats thinking that this will cure the problem. Well, it hasn't. Trapping, spay/neutering, vaccinating and if feral, returning them to their place of origin IS the most effective and humane way to deal with them. Quit putting roadblocks up and harassing caretakers. They are taking care of YOUR problem and most are doing it without any kind of financial help. This is a community problem that should be addressed by animal control. It should be funded by local government.
Cat Menagerie - 17-Feb-20 @ 1:36 AM
I have been feeding 9 adults and now 2 kittens all are feral. I have contacted many places to fix the cats that breed, after thousand phone calls I found one to trap fix and release. We all need to do our part. These furbabies need love and food too.
Reeny - 16-Feb-20 @ 7:55 PM
TNR with a caregiver To these colonies does work it keeps Diseases down,the feral cat don’t hunt because they’re being feed and watered and it’s the humane way to handle the situation they don’t get sick as often and a lot of them eventually become tamed so they can be placed in Resue and adopted out mass murdering these fur babies because they’re homeless is cruel and and inhumane and you can get diseases that can kill you from humans and the chances are greater that you catch something from a human before you would a cat that’s justCommonsense so should we cull humans Australia is getting what’s coming to them that’s called karma for all the mass murders they’ve done to them poor camels,cats,foxes.when most the Ecosystem being destroyed is human caused and global warming every one don’t believe is happening guess what it’s there’re a lot of humane ways to handle these animal and Australia and other places would rather mass murder them for the fun of it and take pictures of the violence theyinflicted on these poor defenseless animals like it’s a sport it should be against the law what they’re doing to these animals most of are ecosystems problems is human and I don’t see us being cull yet
Humane - 10-Feb-20 @ 1:55 PM
MOST cats that form colonies are not feral but former pets that were dumped by irresponsible owners
Debbie - 10-Jan-20 @ 1:58 PM
Please remove the word of rabies from the list as the UK is rabies free
Ala20155 - 7-Dec-19 @ 3:00 AM
A neighbor asking a favor(never let a good deed go unpunished alright!!)let my dog out. He raced straight down the back yard of our units where all the feral cats hang.By the time i ran behind him he already had the cat cornered in a fire escape. After a futile Mexican standoff, of course the cat came off second best, well NEARLY, actually I rekn WE came off second as a police women visiting another unit in the block ran down and sprayed BJ & myself with mace!!! Yes, he let the cat go but the pain that police women inflicted on both off us can ONLY be regarded as cruel. The whole top of his head swelled up& he couldn't open his eyes. He also ran around the house rubbing his face on the carpet, trying to wipe it off & this of course made it sting more.It was so devastating seeing my poor boy in pain.Now whenever i put deodorant on or spray insects, BJ starts shivering in his skin, definitely a post traumatic stress reaction, i I initially thought he was sick!!? I also understand that it was a horrific violent thing to see what he did to that cat. But you can't take nature personally.I would have been inconsolable if it had been a housecat or registered pet but it wasn't. Just putting some food out when you feel like it doesn't make a feral cat your PET. Being a pet owner involves responsibility & it gets way more expensive than a tin of tuna every other day!!
Barkley Jones - 24-Apr-19 @ 2:18 PM
I just had my feral kitty neutered on Monday. I spent the last 2 plus years socializing him. From being scratched and bitten to him being loving,affectionate and amenable to tx for ear mites and worms twice. Involving eardrops, pills shoved down his throat for worms and eye ointment for watery eyes. Even though fiv positive,NOTa death sentence,he was big, musculature and seemingly healthy,affectionate and fine. I lost him this morning!!! The vet said most likely related to the fiv. I am devastated and appalled.Not surewhat to believe.There were no significant sx otherthan some sneezing.Should I have waited until summer? Did thevet miss something? I am devastated andmiss him so much already. PLEASE be careful where you go for neutering.I LOVE my Rocco and wish I could have done better by him.love youRocco with Love and respect for the great companion you have been. And a very handsome cool cat and great friend.
Boo boo - 22-Mar-19 @ 9:08 PM
There is a wild feral cat just been bought to my area close to where I live it has taken the eye out of a neighbours kitten and has taken the leg off another kitten and has had my elderly cat by his throat.What can be done about it. It's a nightmare having this cat around ??
jw - 17-Sep-15 @ 3:54 PM
Definitely continue to do what you are doing for one thing. They do warm up and even become tame. However, it is so important if you are able to trap, spay or neuter them and then release them again. I do this and have them treated for worms, fleas and have them vaccinated. This way they are not breeding out of control and less likely to be diseased. Just remember they still could be before the vaccinating. After the spay/neuter, they are given pain meds for a couple of days and during that time if it is not dangerous, you can bond indoors with them. Over time they will develop a trust for you and will come indoors and tame but, you have to gradually introduce them into your home. Let them step in the door and leave the door open so they can escape if they feel they need to as they check out the new surroundings. If they feel trapped, it freaks them out. Never leave food out all day and night for the cats outdoors. This just encourages more to come. I feed when I see the ones that need it and then pick the food up immediately after. I do leave water out during the day but, you really do not want to encourage other animals to drink from the same food bowl. This transmits diseases. Hope this helps.
Cindi - 12-Feb-13 @ 12:44 AM
I feed the cats outside.I don't believe they have owners.I am wondering how to tame a feral cat.They are now, most of them, trusting me and allowing me to pet them...and have even picked up a couple of them.Many seem fearful and run away when I open the door to go outside to feed them. I am retired and would like to give one of them a warm and safe home.Wondering how to approach this situation.If you can give sound advise, I am grateful.
n/a - 30-Sep-12 @ 4:24 PM
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