January 8, 2015
Outdoor Cats: Frequently Asked Questions
Learn about the outdoor cats—both community (feral/stray) and owned—that you see in your community
Cats roam outside in most neighborhoods in the United States. Some are pets whose owners let (or put) them outside, but many are community cats, who may be feral or one-time pets who are now stray, lost or abandoned. The more we understand outdoor cats and the complicated issues related to them, the more effectively we can help them, reduce cat overpopulation and protect wildlife.
- What is an outdoor cat?
- How is a stray cat different from a feral cat?
- Why are there feral cats?
- Where do community cats live?
- Why are outdoor cats considered a problem?
- If my cats have been spayed or neutered, why shouldn't I let them outside?
- How can cat overpopulation be solved?
- What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?
- How does TNR eliminate common problems associated with community cats?
- Do people take care of community cats? How?
- Why can't animal shelters rescue feral cats?
- Would it be better if feral cats were euthanized?
- Won't removing community cats from an area eliminate the problem?
- Why don't feeding bans eliminate community cats?
- What can I do to help outdoor cats?
The cats you see outside may be cats whose owners let them outdoors, or they may be feral or stray community cats who live outdoors. Although these community cats aren't owned, they may be fed by one or more caring person.
A stray cat is a pet who has been lost or abandoned, is used to contact with people and is tame enough to be adopted. A feral cat is the offspring of stray or other feral cats and is not accustomed to human contact. Feral cats are usually too fearful to be handled or adopted.
Stray cats may be reunited with their families or adopted into new homes, but feral cats will find it difficult or impossible to adapt to living as pets in close contact with people. But that doesn't mean there aren't many things you can do to improve feral cats' health and quality of life.
If they don't have early contact with people, the kittens of stray or feral cats will become feral, too fearful to be handled or adopted. Since a female cat can become pregnant as early as five months of age, the number of feral cats in a neighborhood can rapidly increase if cats aren't spayed or neutered.
Community cats typically live in a colony—a group of related cats. The colony occupies and defends a specific territory where food (a restaurant dumpster or a person who feeds them) and shelter (beneath a porch, in an abandoned building, etc.) are available. Although feral cats may be seen by people who feed them, strangers may not realize that feral cats are living nearby because they rarely see them. Stray cats tend to be much more visible, may vocalize and may approach people in search of food or shelter. Stray cats may join a colony or defend a territory of their own.
Nuisance behaviors, such as urinating and defecating in someone's yard or garden, digging in someone's yard or garden, jumping on someone's car and upsetting an owned cat, are the greatest concerns that the general public has about outdoor cats.
Overpopulation is a serious concern as well. In the United States, approximately 2 percent of the 30 to 40 million community (feral and stray) cats have been spayed or neutered. These cats produce around 80 percent of the kittens born in the U.S. each year. Although 85 percent of the estimated 75 to 80 million pet cats in the U.S. are already spayed or neutered, many have kittens before they are spayed or neutered. Those kittens, especially if they are allowed outdoors, add to the number of outdoor cats and the problems associated with them.
Shelters in a community with a large population of outdoor cats who aren't spayed or neutered may experience these problems:
- More cats entering shelters as a result of trapping feral adults and kittens young enough to be socialized (tamed).
- A rise in euthanasia rates for all cats because adult feral cats can't be adopted.
- Euthanasia of adoptable cats when cage space runs out.
- Costs associated with trapping and/or caring for and euthanizing feral cats.
In addition, shelters receive many nuisance complaints about outdoor cats, including:
- Frequent, loud noises that are part of the fighting and mating behavior of unneutered/unspayed cats.
- Strong, foul odors left by unneutered male cats spraying urine to mark their territory.
- Flea infestations.
- Visible suffering from injured and dying cats.
- The death of wild animals who are cats' prey.
It's not a good idea to let your cat outside unless you have a safe enclosure or are walking them on a harness and leash. Even pet cats who are spayed or neutered may cause conflicts between neighbors and injure or kill wildlife.
When outside, cats face dangers such as injury or death from being hit by a car, being harmed by another animal or person and diseases and parasites.
Approximately 65 percent of the estimated 80 million pet cats in the U.S. are kept indoors, and more owners are realizing that indoor cats are safer and can lead happy lives indoors. But millions of pet cats are still allowed outside, usually without the visible collars and identification that would help reunite them with their owners should the cats be picked up by a neighbor or animal control.
Spaying or neutering community cats using Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) will reduce their numbers. Spaying or neutering pet cats before they reproduce will reduce their numbers and help stop pet overpopulation.
TNR is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving the quality of life for cats, wildlife and people. At its most basic, TNR involves:
- Humanely trapping community cats
- Spaying or neutering them
- Vaccinating them against rabies
- Surgically removing the tip of one ear (a "tipped" ear is the universally-recognized sign of a cat who has been spayed or neutered)
- Returning the cats to their home
- When feral cats are trapped, neutered and returned to their territory, they no longer reproduce.
- The cessation of sexual activity eliminates the noise associated with mating behavior and dramatically reduces fighting and the noise it causes.
- Neutered feral cats also roam much less and become less visible and less prone to injury from cars.
- Foul odors are greatly reduced as well because neutered male cats no longer produce testosterone which, when they are unaltered, mixes with their urine and causes the strong, pungent smell of their spraying.
- When the colony is then monitored by a caretaker who removes and/or TNRs any newly arrived cats, the population stabilizes and gradually declines over time.
Many people see a cat who seems homeless and start feeding the cat. Ideally, the person quickly does more to help the cat:
- If the cat is tame, the first step is to try to find the cat's owner. If the owner can't be found, step two is to try to find a permanent home for the cat through a shelter, rescue or other means.
- If the cat is feral, unapproachable and wary after several days of feeding, it's best to find out if there are any groups doing TNR in the community so at least the cat can be spayed or neutered. The HSUS's map of feral cat organizations is a good place to start looking. If there are no local groups, step two is to consult one of the many resources that provide information about TNR.
Once a cat or colony of cats has been TNR-ed, it's ideal if a dedicated caretaker provides food, water and shelter, monitors the cats for sickness or injury, and TNRs new feral cats who arrive. Ideally, kittens young enough to be socialized and new tame cats who arrive are removed from the colony for possible adoption.
Many dedicated caretakers pay for TNR themselves to help improve the lives of cats and reduce their numbers. Without TNR and a dedicated caretaker trapping new cats who show up, the population of the colony could increase.
Animal shelters already care for and try to find homes for untold thousands of lost, injured and abandoned cats, in addition to pet cats whose owners are unable or unwilling to keep them.
Many animal shelters don't have the staff or money to do TNR. However, shelters that receive calls of complaint or concern from the public may attempt to humanely trap and remove feral cats. Or they may provide information and loan traps to citizens interested in humanely trapping feral cats. If there is a local group helping feral cats, the shelter may refer callers to that group.
Because feral cats are so scared of people and usually cannot be adopted, those who are brought to a shelter, especially cats who cannot be identified as members of a known TNR-ed colony, are likely to be euthanized either right away or after a holding period. It's a complicated situation: While it's difficult to accurately identify a feral cat without observing them during a holding period, safely caring for a feral cat in a typical shelter cage is terribly stressful for the cat. In addition, if cage space is limited at the shelter, an adoptable cat may have to be euthanized to make room to hold a feral cat.
Opinions vary on this. Some people feel sorry for feral cats because they are fending for themselves. Others are annoyed by the cats' behaviors and want them removed. But the majority of people don't feel that feral cats should be euthanized.
Even if the shelter had enough people and money to remove and euthanize the feral cats in a community, other cats would move into the vacated territory to take advantage of the food sources and shelter. The new cats would continue to reproduce and complaint calls would continue. Euthanasia alone won't rid an area of feral cats, and killing animals to control their numbers is increasingly unpopular with the general public.
A better approach is TNR and a dedicated caretaker. Spayed or neutered feral cats are healthier because they no longer have kittens or fight over mates, and their nuisance behaviors are greatly reduced or eliminated. If the colony has a dedicated caretaker, they provide food, water and shelter and watch over the cats' health and remove any newcomers for TNR (if feral) or adoption (if tame).
TNR improves the quality of life for existing colonies, prevents the birth of more cats and reduces the number of cats over time. It also may be more economical than euthanasia; many groups have calculated that the costs associated with TNR are considerably less than those associated with removal, shelter care and euthanasia of feral cats.
There are many reasons cat problems are rarely solved by trapping and removing a colony. Community cats live at a certain location because it offers food and shelter. If a colony is removed, cats from surrounding colonies may move in to take advantage of the newly available resources. The cycle of reproduction and nuisance behavior begins all over again.
If all the cats in a colony are not trapped, then the ones left behind will tend to have larger litters of kittens. The kittens are more likely to survive because there are fewer cats competing for food. The colony's population will continue to increase until it reaches the number that can be supported by the available food and shelter.
Here are some of the other factors that usually make trap and removal ineffective:
- No input from the cats' caretakers, who are the only people who really know the cats' numbers and patterns and can control whether or not the cats are hungry enough to enter a baited trap
- No volunteers to trap cats, who face an uncertain fate or death upon capture
- Little to no animal control staff and money available to accomplish the task
- No strategy for the difficult task of catching all the cats in a colony
- No one watching out for pet cats who are lost or abandoned, aren't spayed or neutered and quickly repopulate a vacated territory
The logic behind bans on feeding feral cats is that if there is no food available, the cats will go away. This rarely happens.
First, cats are territorial animals who can survive for weeks without food and will not easily or quickly abandon their territory. As they grow hungrier and more desperate, they tend to venture closer to homes and businesses in search of food. Despite the effort to starve them out, the cats will also continue to reproduce, resulting in the deaths of many kittens.
Second, feeding bans are nearly impossible to enforce. A person who is determined to feed the cats will usually succeed without being detected. Repeated experience has shown that people who care about the cats will go to great lengths, risking their homes, jobs and even their liberty to feed starving animals. In addition, there may be more than one feeder and other sources of food, including dumpsters, garbage cans and other animals.
- If you want to know how you can help community (feral and stray) cats, go to our list of things you can do.
- If you're interested in TNR or becoming a cat caretaker, find a community cat group or individuals who are practicing TNR or caretaking in your area to learn more.
- If you have been letting your cats outside, make them safe, happy indoor cats who only go out when supervised on a harness and leash, or in a safe enclosure.
- If you know people who let their cats outside, explain to them why it's safer to keep cats inside.
- If you would like specific details about your community’s ordinances, please visit your city’s or county’s website and look for information about municipal codes. You can also request a copy of animal control ordinances from the city or county clerk. For tips on how to get ordinances and laws changed, check out our Lobbying 101 for Cats Guide.