About Feral Cats

 Feral or Stray?

In general, the term “feral” is used to describe a domestic animal of any species that is unsocialized either because it was born to an unowned animal or because it was abandoned and has become wild. A “stray” domestic animal is generally one that was once owned or, if never owned is nevertheless socialized and friendly. While the definitions are loose, we refer to an unowned cat as “feral” if it is unsocialized and afraid of people and “stray” if it is friendly. YOUR cat refers to any cat that you have taken care of whether it is one that actually lives in your house with you or it is a stray or feral that you feed outside and look after. This is actually written into a section of the Tucson City Code.

 Spay, Neuter, Alter, Sterile, Intact, TNR

To SPAY (verb) means to surgically remove the uterus and ovaries of a female animal. Another name for SPAY (noun) is OVARIOHYSTERECTOMY (literally, removal of ovaries and uterus). To NEUTER means to surgically remove the testicles of a male animal. Another name for neuter (noun) is ORCHIECTOMY and yet another is CASTRATION. Both of these surgeries ALTER (change) the reproductive system of the animal and render that animal reproductively STERILE, that is, unable to impregnate or become pregnant. There is absolutely no psychological harm to the animal whatsoever since the surgery also removes the main source of male and female hormones, which are the “drivers” that initiate mating behavior. Interpreted, this means that spayed and neutered animals do not want to mate. Ever. INTACT refers to an animal that has not been reproductively altered and is capable of reproduction. The term Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR), when referring to programs whose goal is the eventual reduction of the number of homeless cats by taking existing intact cats to a veterinarian to be surgically sterilized and then returning them to their home territory, includes both neutering male cats and spaying female cats.

 A Well-fed Cat is a Fertile Cat

It is a sad FACT in Tucson and elsewhere that there is a huge population of homeless or unowned cats. This is NOT the cats’ fault, it’s people’s fault. Cat overpopulation is caused by people who do not spay and neuter their pets and who allow them to run free and/or dump them to fend for themselves. Other people are then moved by pity for these homeless cats and they begin to nurture them by giving them food and water. Ostensibly this is the “kind” thing to do. Problem is, the people who do this do not seem to understand that the more they feed the cats the more fertile the cats become. Breeding is a luxury. The more people feed the cats the more kittens the cats produce. The solution? “IF YOU’RE GOING TO FEED ‘EM, FIX ‘EM”. If you have no intention of doing this then just leave the cats alone, they are very good at fending for themselves. In the long run you do the cats no service if you feed them without also taking them in for spay/neuter. Absolutely provide water when it is hot but let them handle their own feeding.

 Why Not Just Get Rid of ‘Em All? Or the “Crack House” Metaphor

Many people still call wanting to have feral cats removed. “Why can’t we just take them to Animal Care (dump them in the desert, move them to a shelter)?” Here’s the reason: If you do that, all you will get is more cats. The new cats won’t be vaccinated or neutered either and the cycle will begin all over again. We see the same thing with human beings and abandoned houses. Sooner or later every abandoned building is occupied by someone. Sometimes it’s by “kids”, sometimes it’s by adults. Most often these houses are used for less than G-rated purposes, frequently promiscuous sex, often illegal drug use. Raiding the house and removing the offenders works for a while but sooner or later someone else will find the property and start to use it in an unacceptable way. How is the cycle broken? The owner or the city takes responsibiltiy for the house. It is cleaned up, fixed up and made attractive for habitation by “good citizens”. Sometimes the residents can be cleaned up, too, and encouraged to stay in the house, get a job and become acceptable tenants. Then we don’t have a revolving door of unacceptables constantly in and out of the house. It’s the same thing with the cats. If we keep removing cats from an area sooner or later that area will be found by other cats and the cycle of constant breeding with all of its associated behaviors continues. If, however, we take responsibility for the cats by taking them in for spay/neuter and vaccination and then putting them right back where they were they become “good citizens”, no longer breeding or fighting. An added bonus is that they help keep down the population of rodents and bugs. Plus, and a big plus, they tend to keep newcomers away. The one or two new cats that might show up every year and be accepted can be taken in for TNR also. Can you imagine: If we were able to “checkerboard” Tucson with pockets of properly vetted cats and then keep up with each colony, sooner or later the “TNRed” areas would grow so large that they would merge and we would have the homeless cat situation under control.

 A Word on What to Do if You Find Tiny Kittens

Please “police” your area from time to time.Mother cats can leave their little nesting babies for up to 8 hours at a time to go search for food for themselves. Usually they have their kittens so well-sequestered, snug and secure that you won’t see them. If you do find kittens and they look “safe” leave them alone and call us. If you find kittens that look distressed or abandoned (Sometimes mother cats get hit by cars or killed by coyotes; they seldom abandon their babies on purpose.) and you want to remove them yourself you must keep them at an appropriate body temperature. We suggest that you take a cardboard carton and line it with plenty of soft fabric. Old towels work nicely as long as they are clean. Make a little nest, put the kittens in and loosely cover them with more of the same. If the kittens seem chilled and you have a heating pad you can put it under the towels and turn it on LOW. Make sure there is a way for the kittens to crawl off the heating pad onto a cooler spot in case they get too warm. In Tucson in the summer kittens can also be over heated. An over heated and/or dehydrated kitten has bright red mucous membranes, lips and tongue. Their mouths feel dry. They pant. When I find a kitten like this I soak a wash cloth in cold water, wring it out, put it inside a small baggie and place it near but not on the kitten. Ice cubes in a baggie work fine, too. Be careful: If we warm a chilled kitten or cool off a hot kitten too rapidly we can do more harm than good. Call a vet if the kitten seems to be in great distress. DO NOT FEED LITTLE KITTENS COW’S MILK. If they are too cold, too warm and/or dehydrated they cannot digest anything and can get very sick if you try to feed them. If you have some Pedialyte, a product for children, you can put one or two drops of that on their tongue or on their gums. If they seem to take that easily, offer them a little bit more but no more than 1 ml (1 standard eye dropper is 1 ml) every 1/2 hour or so until their body temperature is normal. If the fluid bubbles out their nostrils stop immediately. Call us and we will either take them or help you make other arrangements. Older kittens are less fragile but still need to be handled with care. You can usually estimate age by: Eyes: are they all the way opened and bright? Kittens are at least two weeks old. Ears: Newborns’ ears are tiny and folded tightly against the side of the head. As the kitten gets older the ears grow in size and seem to get closer to the top of the head. Teeth: Newborns have no teeth. At about 3 weeks the front teeth start to come in. At 4 weeks the canine teeth begin to erupt. At 5 weeks the back teeth should be starting to come in. Fur: Newborns have just a thin coat of silky fur. As the kittens age the fur develops and becomes thicker and longer. Tail: Newborns tails are teeny tiny. By the time they start to toddle around at 3 1/2-4 weeks their tail is thick but still fairly short. It is carried straight up for balance. At 6 weeks the tail resembles an adult cat’s tail in relative length and is carried in the “down” position when kitty walks. When their tail becomes long enough that they can bend around and see it, it becomes a favorite toy.