What is a community cat?

Community cat is the term we use for domestic cats who live outdoors and have no indication of having an owner. Their behavior can range from fearful and wary of people to friendly and open to human interaction. Older terms for these cats include feral cats and alley cats, but as those cats may not be feral or live in alleys, the animal welfare field has shifted to using the broader term "community cats."

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Where do community cats live?

Community cats are predominantly found near where people live or work. They can thrive in densely populated areas, where there is easy access to food and shelter, as well are rural settings, where they are often called barn cats. Many of these cats, especially the social ones, are considered to be “at home” by residents in the area they live. Community cats may live alone or in pairs or congregate in groups. Rarely do you find cats living in remote areas in the U.S., surviving without the help of humans.

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Who takes care of community cats?

An estimated 10-12% of the American public feed community cats. In addition to providing daily meals and fresh water, these cat caregivers may provide dedicated shelter to protect the cats in inclement weather and provide medical care if the cats become sick or are injured. They look out for the cats and often participate in TNR efforts to get the cats fixed and vaccinated and work with other residents to mitigate any complaints that arise due to the presence of the outdoor cats. While community cats are often referred to as “feral”—which means having escaped from domestication and returned to a wild state— the majority rely on humans for support.

Help Care for Community Cats

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Why are there so many cats outdoors?

Overpopulation is a serious concern with an estimated 30 to 40 million community cats in the United States. Some cats have lived outside for generations, while others adapted to living outdoors after being lost or abandoned. Left to their own proclivities, these cats reproduce. Since a female cat can become pregnant as early as five months of age and have multiple litters each year, the number of cats in a neighborhood can rapidly increase if cats aren't spayed or neutered.

These cats produce around 80% of the kittens born in the U.S. each year. Without adequate spay/neuter programs (including TNR), more cats will enter animal shelters, feline euthanasia rates will increase (including for adoptable cats when cage space runs out or because the cats get sick due to overcrowding) and donor and taxpayer dollars will be squandered on ineffective solutions.

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What is TNR?

TNR stands for trap-neuter-return. It is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving the quality of life for cats, wildlife and people. It is the fundamental component of community cat programs, which are being established by more and more animal shelters as well as rescue groups that focus on community cats.

TNR involves:

  • Humanely trapping community cats,
  • Spaying or neutering them,
  • Vaccinating them against rabies and other diseases,
  • 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 (the location where they were trapped).

Many community cat caregivers trap the cats themselves and pay for the surgery, although a growing number of communities offer free or discounted services for community cats through an animal shelter. These community cat programs, and the dedicated caregivers who monitor the cats and trap new cats who show up, keep the population of cats in check.

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Why do some people consider outdoor cats a nuisance?

Problems can arise when outdoor cats venture into a yard where they are not welcome. Some people consider behaviors such as digging, urinating and defecating in their yard or garden, jumping on their car, sleeping (and shedding their fur) on porch furniture or upsetting an owned cat to be nuisances. Others are concerned about wildlife the cats may prey on or about the health and welfare of cats they see outdoors. These concerns often lead to calls to animal control agencies and other officials whose job it is to serve the public making outdoor cats a problem for them as well as the resident who lodged the complaint.

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How does TNR solve common complaints about outdoor cats?

Spaying and neutering not only improves the welfare of individual cats, it can also solve many common complaints:

  • The cats no longer reproduce. That means no more kittens to worry about and the family of outdoor cats won’t continue to grow.
  • Behaviors associated with mating, such as yowling and fighting, are dramatically reduced.
  • Neutered cats also roam less; they will stay closer to home and are less likely to be hit by cars.
  • Foul odors are greatly reduced as well because neutered male cats, no longer producing testosterone, won’t have that distinctive tomcat smell to their urine.

If enough cats in a community are TNRd, the population will stabilize and over time, decline and eventually die out. Fewer cats means fewer complaints.

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Isn't living outside dangerous for cats?

The idea that community cats are at great risk for suffering and untimely death if not admitted to a shelter is a long-standing one. Free-roaming cats do risk higher exposure to dangers such as predators, poisons, infectious and parasitic agents, weather extremes and cruel human acts. While the physical dangers to free-roaming cats are not to be ignored, a growing body of evidence suggests that they are generally fit and healthy, with only a fraction of a % of cats coming into TNR clinics requiring euthanasia to end suffering.

The overall health of community cats improves after being sterilized, vaccinated and returned: they have greater immunity against a host of other diseases and parasites, they fight less and stay closer to home, decreasing risk of injury or of being hit by a car. Sterilized cats are also less likely to transmit feline diseases that are largely spread through mating behavior and mating-related fighting. While some believe cats living outdoors are more susceptible to common feline diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV), these viruses occur at the same rate as in the pet cat population.

The greatest risk is to kittens, as only 25% of cats born outdoors survive past 6 months of age. Recent population modeling work shows that high-intensity TNR not only reduces overall populations of free-roaming cats more effectively than other management tactics, but also results in significantly fewer kittens dying—31 times fewer than not implementing any community cat management program. This is one reason why TNR should be implemented more broadly across the country.

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Why can’t animal shelters rescue all the community cats?

Most community cats don’t need rescuing; they have an outdoor home and people who care for them. Bringing these healthy community cats in leads to shelter overcrowding, which leads to cats getting sick, which leads to higher euthanasia rates. No one wants that. Shelters and rescue groups help by participating in programs to get these cats spayed or neutered and vaccinated and to help support the people in the community who care for them.

Ideally, kittens, once weaned, can be placed in adoption programs. Kittens need to be exposed to humans by about 9 weeks of age in order to not harbor a fear of humans. Many community cat programs include foster homes to socialize kittens born outdoors so that they can be adopted into homes. Volunteering to be a foster home is one way you can be part of the solution.

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Would it be better to just humanely euthanize the cats who can’t be adopted?

While some people feel sorry for outdoor cats because they view the cats as fending for themselves or feel they will suffer a fate worse than euthanasia, adult community cats are generally healthy and thriving outdoors. Others are annoyed by the cats' behaviors and want them removed without much thought to what happens to the cats. But the majority of people don't feel that community cats should be euthanized.

It’s not a solution to overpopulation either. Community cats live at a certain location because it offers food and shelter. When cats are removed, unmanaged cats from surrounding areas may move in to take advantage of the newly available resources. The cycle of reproduction and nuisance behavior begins all over again. Rarely does an animal control agency have the capacity to remove enough cats to impact the population. They don’t have the resources nor, increasingly, the desire to remove cats that have little to no chance of being adopted. They also don’t have the support of the community members who feed the cats, making it very difficult to convince the cats to go into the traps.

A better approach includes TNR and one or more caregivers. Spayed or neutered cats are healthier because they no longer fight over mates or expend resources on making and caring for kittens and their nuisance behaviors are greatly reduced or eliminated. Caregivers provide food, water and shelter and watch over the cats' health and wellbeing.

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Shouldn’t we remove cats in order to protect wildlife?

There are no easy answers to the issue of cat predation on wildlife. However, removing cats only results in a temporary reduction in the cats’ numbers, essentially putting a bandage on the problem and further distance from real solutions.

Trap and remove may at first glance seem to be a logical approach to solving cat-wildlife conflict. You might be able to eliminate the population if your target is just a few cats, but trap and remove does not effectively scale up to an entire community—the level you’d need in order to have any impact on threats to wildlife. In order to reduce the population, at least 50% of the cats will need to be removed annually. The cats left behind will tend to have larger litters of kittens, and more of those kittens will survive. The population will quickly return to where it was before cats were removed—and in some cases has been documented to double!

Wildlife and cat advocates can help protect wildlife by joining forces in non-controversial collaborative projects such as informing cat owners about keeping owned cats indoors, seeking support and funds for installing cat-proof fences around sensitive natural areas, humanely relocating cat colonies that pose unacceptable risks to wildlife and, of course, continuing community cooperation to improve the efficiency and economy of TNR programs.

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How do we solve cat overpopulation?

Solving cat overpopulation is a complex matter that involves both humanely reducing the population of community cats and preventing the addition of more cats. There is no quick fix and no one solution—a combination of tools are needed:

  • Spaying and neutering of community cats through strategic, high-intensity TNR and related programs. To effectively reduce the population, approximately 80% of the cats in the focus area (or community) need to be TNRd.
  • Spaying and neutering of owned cats and cats adopted from shelters and rescues before they are 5 months old and old enough to have kittens.
  • Helping people keep their own cats when faced with cat behavior challenges as well as their own financial struggles and housing issues.
  • Providing people with options and assistance for rehoming cats they can no longer keep so that those cats are not abandoned outdoors.
  • Keeping owned cats indoors with outdoor access provided by an enclosed cat patio, or catio, or by walking the cat on a leash.

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Why shouldn’t I let my cats roam outdoors?

Allowing your cat to roam freely outdoors comes with risks. When outside, cats face dangers such as being hit by a car, being harmed by another animal or person and certain diseases and parasites. Additionally, your cat may cause conflicts between neighbors and injure or kill wildlife. Why take the risk?

Approximately 71% of the estimated 80 million pet cats in the U.S. are kept indoors and more owners are realizing that their cats are safer and can lead happy lives indoors. You can transition your cat indoors and provide safe outdoor time with a catio (an enclosed cat patio) or by taking your cat for a walk on a harness and leash. It’s always a good idea for your cat to wear a collar with identification that would help reunite you should they become lost or be picked up by a neighbor or animal control.

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How can I tell if a cat I see outside is lost or needs my help?

If you’re outside and spot a cat lounging in the grass or by the side of the road, follow these easy steps to determine how you can help.

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How can I help outdoor cats during extreme weather?

Although community cats are resourceful and instinctively seek out safe places in times of danger, extreme weather may pose a threat to them. If you take care of a colony of cats, take heart! There are many things you can do to increase their chances of coming through the storm safe and sound.

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