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Outdoor Cats: Friendly or Feral?

We love cats. Cute cats, grumpy cats, chonky cats, sassy cats, scaredy cats – all of them. Many people want to care for and help them, especially when they are spotted outdoors and potentially vulnerable.

But not all cats need the same type of help. If you see a loose cat outdoors, what should you do? To better approach the large task of cat welfare, we must first understand a little more about cat populations.

What’s in a name?

There is a variety of terms used to describe cats found outdoors, and a variety of ways to interpret those terms. What is a stray cat? How about a feral cat? Lost cat? Barn cat? While there is  overlap in some of the definitions, we can make generalizations about certain categories of cats to better help them.

The major distinctions we need to make at Tri-County Humane Society when planning for the humane care of these found cats is the difference between “stray” and “feral.” At TCHS a “stray” is a domestic animal that has been found roaming at large without known ownership status. This means the animal appears to have the potential to be someone’s lost pet or livestock. Specific laws apply to found stray pets to allow owners (if they have them) to reclaim them. TCHS provides safe shelter and humane care to stray animals from many areas of Central Minnesota until either an owner is found, or the animal legally becomes eligible for adoption.

A “feral” cat is one that has not been socialized to humans, lives independently off the land as wildlife does, and is not tame. Feral cats are not pets nor domestic, therefore not in the same category as stray cats. A stray cat and feral cat may first appear to look the same, so observing the details of their behavior and habits are vital.

Any cat who willingly approaches a human, shows affection, and/or appears comfortable spending time with people would be considered a stray. Those are all signals of domestication and the cat may have an owner. A feral cat will avoid humans at all costs. Fight, flight, and freeze are the responses feral cats often exercise when in contact with humans. Feral cats typically do not meow. They may use other vocal communications, but the meow is specific to communicating with people.

Ask the experts 

Unfortunately, domestic cats may exhibit some of the signs feral cats do when fearful. This is where expert advice comes into play. When you spot a cat outdoors you wish to help, we recommend you call Tri-County Humane Society (or your local animal welfare organization) to discuss the specifics of the cat and to make a plan.

Why is the distinction so important? These two categories of cats require different approaches to provide humane cat care and population control. A stray cat can be housed at the shelter during the legal timeframe that allows an owner to reclaim a lost pet. If no owner is found, then they will be placed for adoption. A feral cat cannot be humanely housed in a shelter for an extended period of time. They often behave as wild animals when in confinement. High stress results in poor health, repeated attempts to escape can cause injury, and the human finder and caregivers may be at risk of injury or illness. Approaches to feral cat population control have evolved over the past several decades. While euthanasia may have been the only option in the past, studies confirm that more humane and effective options exist.

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) or Return-To-Field (RTF) programs decrease feral and outdoor cat populations through humane trapping, neutering, vaccinating, and returning to an outdoor life.

Tri-County Humane Society has a small scale TNR/RTF program that includes returning cats to their outdoor environment and/or finding barn or “working cat” homes to cats who are not domesticated. As with any other community service, resources and space may be limited or postponed depending on the factors of the shelter animal population at any given time. The only way to humanely utilize these programs is to ensure a short stay in the shelter for feral cats, so planning is vital. Please call TCHS (320-252-0896) to get more information or to make a plan of action to help a cat.

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