Community cats, feral cats, and stray cats – what’s the difference?
Community cats are unowned cats who live outdoors with other cats in groups called colonies. Community cats can include two types of cats, socialized cats who were previously owned by someone, sometimes these are referred to as stray cats, and unsocialized, feral cats who have never been owned by people.
Feral cats are essentially wild domesticated cats that have not been raised with humans. As Kitten Lady says, socialization is a spectrum and just because a cat is feral doesn’t mean that it’s mean or vicious. Feral cats simply missed the critical socialization period when cats are able to bond with humans that happens during the weaning period between 3-8 weeks of age. Cats who spend time with humans during this period learned to trust humans and will be tame and accepting of them throughout their lifetime.
Feral cats are actually oftentimes fearful of humans and will keep their distance, not allowing themselves to be petted or held, not even by the people who regularly feed them. Feral cats are commonly not able to be socialized later in life and thus aren’t suitable candidates for adoption.
Stray cats, on the other hand, are considered by the rescue and veterinary profession to be socialized cats that were owned at some time and could be adopted into a home again. Community cats can include both previously socialized cats who had a home at some point and feral cats, which tend to keep their distance from any human caretakers the colony may have.
My experience with feral cat colonies
While living in Southern California, I would ride my bike or drive down to the bluffs that separated the beach from Ocean Blvd once a week to feed a feral cat colony. In the shrub covering the bluffs, lived approximately 25 cats. This was one of several cat colonies located along the jetties and semi-isolated sections of the beachfront spanning Long Beach and Seal Beach. I was the Tuesday feeder and was part of a volunteer team of 20+ dedicated volunteers who made up Long Beach Spay and Neuter, a non-profit organization that worked to prevent animal overpopulation in Long Beach, CA.
When I first saw the cats, they seemed vulnerable and exposed, finding their shelter amid the brush and hills lining the popular bike path that separated the bluffs from the beach. I would think about my two cats at home in their soft beds.
Over time, I came to see how loved the cats were by local residents who would stop and chat and thank me for helping to care for them. During my time with the organization, I never heard of an incident involving the cats. One cat, in particular, was quite old and thin, and eventually succumbed to a type of cancer and was humanely euthanized. The other cats, all of which had names, were well known by the feeders, a telling sign that they had lived in relative peace during their time on the bluffs.
Are community cats a problem?
To answer the question, yes they can be — however they still deserve our respect. Community cats are a problem in many parts of the world and one reason is due to sheer scale. Globally, there are A LOT of community cats.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are an estimated 30-40 million community cats in the United States. This is approximately two community cats for every five pet cats in the U.S., as there are an estimated 85.8 million pet cats in the U.S. In the U.S. community cats compete for territory with other medium-size mammals including raccoons, opossums and skunks and also eat many native species of snakes, songbirds, ground-nesting birds and insects. Cats can have unwanted behaviors such as fighting and spraying, behaviors which are reduced with spaying and neutering but can also result in the cats being picked up by animal control after calls are put in from concerned neighbors.
The number of community cats in Australia has become so great that they’re leaving a huge impact on local wildlife. There are an estimated 18 million feral cats in Australia, as compared to their 2.7 million domestic cats. Feral cats are the top predator unless dingoes and Wedge-Tailed Eagles are present which has allowed their numbers to swell since they were introduced in the 1800s. Each cat can kill up to 2.7 native species of insects, lizards and small mammals per day which can amount to 1000 native animal species a year, per cat. Times that by almost 20 million. Some native species are facing becoming endangered due to these cats which has lead to some Australians to humanely trap and kill feral cats in an attempt to save the local wildlife.
The truth is that most countries around the world has a prominent community cat population. Singapore, a country with just 5.71 million has 50,000 – 60,000 community cats, which thanks to sterilization and other population control efforts numbers have reduced from 150,000 community cats in 1999. Some dedicated volunteers spend their time and money to feed, care for and even house cats in rented facilities so that they have a place to live that’s off the streets with the hopes that some can be adopted.
In countries with large populations of stray animals and less strict regulations (or none at all) for animal cruelty, community cats (and dogs) sadly become susceptible to abuse and harsh eradication methods including poisoning, trapping, and gassing. Cats and dogs are susceptible to torture and abuse, being injured from animals, hit by cars, and exposure to extreme weather as well as the constant struggle to find food and shelter.
Community cats overall have a pretty rough life, with kittens to feral mothers suffering a 75% mortality rate, according to The Humane Society of the United States. Adult community cats can expect to live to 2 years old or up to 10 years with a caretaker to the colony, which is still a shorter lifespan than a house cat. Community cats face the same needs of finding shelter, food and water and freedom from abuse as house pets do but they face far more hurdles just to survive.
Current practices around community cats
Community cat populations around the world will only continue to expand if humans don’t intervene. It’s estimated that only 2% of community cats are spayed or neutered. With 80% of kittens born outside to community cats, it’s important to focus on humane approaches to controlling populations through spaying and neutering programs that show promise across cultures at stopping overpopulation at its root.
The Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program is endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) as the only proven humane and effective method to manage community cat colonies. With this method, adult cats are humanely trapped by volunteers and taken to a veterinarian who performs a spay or neuter surgery and vaccinates the cats to prevent the spread of diseases including rabies. The cat will also receive an ear tip, the universal sign that a cat has gone through the TNR program. Cats are then returned to their colony to live out the rest of their life.
All of the cats I fed at the bluffs, had their ears tipped which meant they had been through the TNR program. TNR programs are most effective in part as sterilized cats are brought back to the same location which helps keep local populations stabilized.
A common misconception is that these community cats can be put into shelters and adopted. For feral cats, this isn’t possible because they aren’t able to be socialized and sadly they are euthanized in many cases. This also adds additional costs to animal control and shelter systems. If kittens of feral mothers are able to be saved in time and socialized they stand a good chance at receiving a forever home.
As of now, expanding TNR programs appears to be the best solution at managing community cat populations across the world. According to the Humane Society of the United States, TNR programs need to move from the individual level to communities and public policies for a real effect to take place on the ever-expanding community cat population. Education that involves spaying and neutering our pets combined with responsible pet ownership are also key aspects to addressing community cats with the dignity and respect they deserve.