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stray or feral

Are roaming cats lost, or feral?
by Betsy McFarland, the Humane Society

On my street, we have cats. Lots of cats. You may have them, too. Sadly, it's commonplace on roads and streets nationwide.

There was a time when I drove right past a cat wandering the streets, assuming he was a pet out for a romp and would find his way home. But now I think twice.

When a dog is on the street alone, we assume something's amiss. When we see cats roaming, we often think it's only natural.

Don't get me wrong, Americans love cats — we own more cats than dogs. But too many people mistakenly believe pet cats need to roam to be content. That misconception is causing cats to lose their lives by the millions each year because there are too many of them roaming and breeding. More cats enter animal shelters than dogs — and a far greater percentage of cats are euthanized as a result.

I started to understand that there are better options for cats a few years ago when we moved to a rural road in Maryland. Soon we noticed cats roaming. Upon talking to our new neighbor, we learned that most weren't pets — they were feral cats he was helping by managing a feral colony.
Feral cat colonies are managed through TNR ("trap, neuter, return"), and proponents consider it the most effective way to reduce the numbers and address wildlife, public health and environmental issues. Practitioners of TNR sterilize feral cats, "tip" their ears while anesthetized for surgery — creating a straight, flat section on the left ear to indicate they've been sterilized — and provide vaccinations. Caretakers provide food, water, shelter and medical attention and trap newcomers for evaluation.

The cats can live out their lives as part of a managed colony, and they no longer disrupt the neighborhood because they don't fight or mark territory. And they aren't reproducing.
So how do you tell a lost pet from a feral cat? A pet cat that has been lost or abandoned for some time may approach you but be nervous and avoid close contact. Such cats often meow, look scruffy and appear at all hours. When you offer food, the cat will probably eat it immediately, even if you remain nearby.

If the cat is feral and has adapted, she may look well-groomed. A feral cat is silent and unlikely to approach unless extremely hungry. She will eat only after you move away. If you've been feeding a cat for days and can't get near, she's probably feral.

How can you help stem the tide?

• Spay or neuter. Too many cats are euthanized in shelters because of "accidental" litters.
• Keep your cat indoors. Almost 40% of suburban and urban cat owners (and even more rural owners) allow their cats to roam unsupervised. Such cats can become lost or fall victim to automobiles, predators, disease and other hazards.
• Get to know the cats in your community. By paying attention, you'll know which are owned and which are ferals or strays needing help.
• Try to find the owner. Post "found" signs, place an ad, alert veterinary offices and create a pet description at sites such as
• Implement TNR (trap-neuter-return) for ferals in your area. If you feed strays, get them spayed or neutered or they'll continue to breed.

With a little effort, I worked with a feral cat group to sterilize seven cats from my street. We don't see the litters of kittens we've seen in the past; we're ending the cycle of homeless cats.

Next time you see a cat alone, don't assume someone else will help. It's your backyard, and you can be part of the solution.

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