Columbus Humane estimates there are 400,000 stray and feral cats living amongst central Ohioans in Franklin County alone. They may be scared of us, but that doesn’t mean they do not deserve our compassion. They might not know it, but they need our help.

Feral cats belong outside

Feral cats, often referred to by many animal advocates as “community cats,” are born outdoors and not socialized to humans. They usually live in groups, or “colonies,” and are different from “stray” cats. While “stray” cats are lost or abandoned pet cats, community cats may have gone their entire lives without human contact, or, at the very least, have survived a very long time without human contact. These cats are usually terrified of humans and uncomfortable with close contact with them. This means that they are not typically adoptable as indoor pets.

Community cats living alongside human populations is not a new coexistence. For thousands of years, outdoor cats have thrived in both urban areas and rural farmscapes. Despite not being quite the same as our pet cats (because they are domestic cats as far as species), they too are protected by state anti-cruelty laws.

The truth is, community cats are healthy outside. They generally don’t suffer severe consequences living in the elements, especially if humans do their part to provide adequate shelter and sustenance. Studies published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, and the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science have all shown that their rates of disease and life spans do not differ dramatically from pet cats who live indoors.

Community cats do not belong indoors and should not be taken to shelters or pounds to be surrendered or taken in. If they are brought to shelters, they are often killed, as they cannot be placed in homes. Sometimes their kittens are adoptable, but they must be socialized at an early age. If that crucial window of time is missed, even the kittens often will remain feral and unadoptable. A community cat is often very similar to a wild animal in behavior and needs.

The trouble is, community cats have usually not been spayed or neutered, and, naturally, will continue to reproduce. Female cats can breed about three times a year and have an average of four kittens per litter. Given that kittens can get pregnant with their own offspring at only several months old, you can imagine how quickly this adds up.

Shelters in a community with a large, free-roaming and unaltered community cat population may experience higher intake rates of cats. This results in higher euthanasia rates for all cats due to intake of more feral adults – even adoptable animals are being put down because feral cats are inappropriately occupying limited shelter space. Additionally, shelters can experience increased financial strain associated with feral cat intake.

Community members throughout Ohio frequently regard the feral cat population as a nuisance, without an idea of how to help the situation. Community cats are only a problem if we do not treat them effectively, responsibly, and humanely, and there is only one responsible, humane way to approach community cats. As humans, we are in a unique position to be able to help.

Community Cats and TNR:

So, if community/feral cats belong outside, but are overpopulating and in need of help, what can we do about it?

In the past, animal control would employ a catch-and-kill method to control the outdoor cat population, but this proved to be both ineffective and cruel. If community cats took up residence in a location, they did so for a reason – a food source, and/or shelter. If removed, new cats would simply move in, and survivors would continue to breed to capacity, creating an endless cycle or “vacuum effect.”

So what is the real solution?

An approach called “TNR,” or “Trap-Neuter-Return.” This means of population control and aid to feral cats has been a proven method to effectively stabilize and ultimately reduce community cat populations humanely.

The TNR process:

  • Stray or feral cats are humanely trapped. Traps merely contain the animal and do not cause them any harm or injury.
  • Trapped cats are brought to veterinary centers, shelters, or mobile clinics, where they are vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and often “ear-tipped.” In ear-tipping, a small portion is snipped on a cat’s ear (it does not negatively impact them or cause them distress) to serve as a visual indicator that this particular outdoor cat has been altered and treated (so that cats are not trapped again unnecessarily).
  • Treated and spayed/neutered cats are released back to their outdoor homes. They will now be unable to continue to breed, but they can live out the rest of their lives where they belong. Behaviors and stresses associated with mating end, and the cats can live more peacefully in their colonies.

The facts – community cats do not pose a risk to humans or cause dramatic wildlife population loss

Some have worried that community cats pose risk to humans. Opponents of TNR spread misinformation about it, perpetuating these perceived risks. The spread of intestinal parasites, rabies, flea-borne typhus, and toxoplasmosis has never been conclusively linked to the feral cat population. Additionally, no increased incidence of illness has been noted in humans who serve as caregivers to community cat colonies, which is perhaps the best indicator of their lack of risk to human health.

But what about other animals and the impact of feral cats on them? Many point out that feral cats must be killing birds and wildlife with worrisome frequency living outdoors. But the truth is, the most significant threat to wildlife and birds isn’t outdoor cats. It’s us.

Humans are the single most overwhelming cause of death to wildlife and birds due to urbanization leading to habitat loss, as well as pollution and environmental degradation.

A national nonprofit community cat advocacy organization known as Alley Cat Allies has made it part of its mission to correct this misconception. As Alley Cat Allies points out here, human activity causes millions of bird deaths every year.

It may be easy to point the finger at cats, but their presence outdoors has been documented for thousands of years. Humans, on the other hand, have been increasingly and dramatically changing the outdoor environment and endangering wildlife.  

TNR Works: Here are the Facts

A study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science documented a TNR program from the year 2002 on the campus of Texas A&M University that resulted in 32 kittens being adopted, having been successfully socialized while young. One hundred and twenty-three cats were trapped and altered in just one year. The following year, only 35 were trapped, demonstrating the decrease in unaltered community cats living in the area. Additionally, no nursing mothers or litters were seen.

A similar study from 2003 published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed a 66 percent decline in community cat population on the University of Central Florida campus in four years, and no new kittens born by the fourth year of operation.

You Can Help:

It may sound daunting, but the process of TNR is comprised mainly of the three steps listed above. Here are a few tips for how to make the process go smoothly:

  • Set up a feeding schedule for the colony you are targeting for TNR and feed them according to the schedule for a week or two.
  • Withhold food for 24 hours before the set trapping day, but always provide water.
  • You can even place unset traps in the area leading up to trapping day so the cats are accustomed to seeing them. Then, on trapping day, the food will be placed in the traps, in hopes that the cats will go in.
  • Make appointments ahead of time with veterinary offices. Let them know that if you don’t successfully trap the cats, the appointments might have to be canceled. Find a veterinarian who has experience with community cats.
  • Practice setting the traps so that you have the hang of it before go-time. Directions can be viewed at www.alleycat.org/Traps.
  • Set the traps away from the trapping site so as not to disturb the cats.
  • Cover the traps with a blanket for the trip to the vet.
  • Care for the cats post-surgery in a temperature-controlled, safe location, but do not put your hands in the trap. Slide food and water in cautiously. Generally, cats can be returned to their outdoor home area 24 hours post-operation.
  • Clean traps after each use with a non-toxic disinfectant.

For more, here is a TNR checklist from Humane Ohio for TNR help.

Ohio Feral Cat Resources:

Here are some further resources for TNR programs and information in Ohio, and general educational sources. Specific Ohio organizations should be contacted about availability and services offered:

Kelsey Hardin

Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures 

Kelsey Hardin is a cat lady and graduate of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Living back in Columbus where she grew up, she spends her spare time writing, cuddling cats, crafting, spending time with friends, and catching local concerts and theatre shows.