You don’t have to venture too far in a neighborhood to find a cat lurking somewhere in the shadows or hiding under a bush or porch. Some are outside cats exploring their territory before heading home to their human family. But, an estimated 60 million up to 100 million feral cats are hiding in the shadows trying to survive the best they can on their own. The number of stray cats wandering the streets is unknown, but the ASPCA estimates it could be as high as 70 million. These cats are the lost, abandoned, discarded and shunned felines living in a world where most people turn a blind eye to them.
A feral cat may have been someone’s pet at one time. Cats love to explore and inside cats who find their way outside can easily and quickly become lost. Outside cats can also become lost if they are chased out of their territory by a dog, person or wild animal. Depending on the cat’s personality, if an inside cat gets outside, they can wander far or they could be hiding close to home, but are never found because their owner isn’t looking in the right area for them. The owner gives up and the cat is forced to survive on her own or die. Without human contact, food or shelter provided by a human, the wild side of cats will take over as they learn how to find what they need to survive. Many lost cats don’t survive on their own, but the ones who do eventually become feral cats. Kittens born to stray cats will be completely feral; unless they receive human contact before they’re weaned from their mom. A true feral cat is one who was born wild or one that has been lost long enough to have forgotten what human contact is. Feral cats are free roaming and usually live in colonies to survive, but not always. They find shelter in abandoned buildings, under porches, in holes they dug in the ground, and any other place that is dry and provides shelter.
Feral cats lurk in out of the way places. Some may even appear to be friendly, but they always stay at a comfortable distance. Trying to get close enough to a feral to catch her is like trying to catch a cloud. The cat’s body language tells you everything you need to know. If you get too close, they look like a wild cat ready to fight. Hisses and snarls do signal their intent, especially if they’ve been cornered. They will fight with savage intensity if pressured. A feral cat will look you in the eyes only if you persist on trying to capture her, back her into a corner or cause her to feel threatened. She’s not looking for trouble and would rather you just left her alone.
House cats go missing all the time and once on the street, can quickly become lost. Even if they stay close to home, they eventually move on if they’re not found. Most stray cats will remain friendly towards humans they encounter. They haven’t been on their own long enough for their wild instincts to take over. A stray cat’s personality plays a big role in how they will act as a stray. A friendly, curious stray cat is likely to approach you for attention with her tail held high as she rubs against your legs. If you try to pick her up, she most likely won’t resist. Timid, shy and more cautious stray cats tend to stay away from strangers. The longer an easily intimidated cat is on her own, the more likely she is to revert to semi feral status before becoming a true feral cat. A fearful house cat that becomes lost is more likely to hide when she gets out. If she isn’t found quickly and survives on her own, this cat will also become semi feral. If she is an intact female, kittens born to her will be feral and with no human contact, she, too, will become feral.
Life on the streets isn’t kind for a stray cat. Their coat becomes dirty and scraggly looking. Trying to adjust to life without a can opener changes a cat’s priorities and grooming isn’t on the top of the list. One big difference between a stray and a feral cat is food. Most strays will let their guard down if they haven’t had a meal in awhile. As long as you’re patient and consistent, you can make friends with a stray cat. It can take a little time for you to earn the cat’s trust, but once you do, then you can rescue her. A feral cat will resist food if you are too close to the food for comfort. Very few can be tamed down enough to capture them just by offering them food. They have a total mistrust of humans. Attempts to catch them by hand are difficult to impossible and you risk injuring the cat and yourself.
Stray cats and feral cats didn’t pick life on the streets. We created our overpopulation of cats by not neutering and spaying pets. The next time you see a stray cat or a colony of feral cats, help them out with some food. They live in the shadows because that’s where we’ve put them.