You're out in the yard and you see a flash of calico or hear a distant mewling. You know there's a feline visitor lurking, hoping to score some table scraps. What's the right thing to do?
Any kindhearted animal lover would consider heading to the pantry for some kibble or tuna fish. But is feeding a feral cat really in the best interest of the cat and your community?
Here's a look at the bigger picture and what the experts say.
Some feline experts estimate there are as many as 70 million feral cats living in the U.S., according to National Geographic. They are usually the offspring of abandoned or lost pets that are now wild animals that have had no human contact and scrounge to get by. They end up creating colonies wherever they can find shelter and food.
Sometimes that food is wildlife. Although estimates vary, one study in the journal Nature Communications found that cats kill roughly 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals each year, far more than previously thought. Although many cat supporters took issue with how those figures were calculated, no one denies that cats are hunters and wildlife often suffers.
By feeding stray cats in your backyard are you just inviting them to the buffet that is your bird feeder? Or are you filling their bellies so they are less likely to stalk the robins and chickadees that visit?
Stray cats live harsh lives. They dodge cars, irate homeowners wielding poisons and predators. Because of all those dangers, it's not unusual for them to only live a few years.
Feral cats often face disease and illness, and can be teeming with parasites. When they show up on your porch, they can be covered with fleas or have rabies. Joan Morris wrote in The Mercury News about how the office where she used to work became overrun with fleas when well-meaning people began feeding a colony of cats on the property.
Fleas can lead to tapeworm infestation and, in very rare cases, even the plague. And of course, cats can carry rabies and other diseases. If you are feeding stray cats, one option is to crush over-the-counter Capstar flea control pills and put it in the cats' food, suggests the Urban Cat League. It kills fleas within a few hours and is safe for kittens as young as 4 weeks old.
The kitten issue
Many people don't try to catch stray cats and take them to the shelter for a couple of reasons. First, feral cats are often very wily. They don't warm up to humans very easily so it's not easy to get near them, much less put them in a box and take them to the shelter. Plus, when a shelter is overrun with friendly cats and cuddly kittens, the chances of a hissing wild cat getting adopted is very slim.
So instead, the wild cats stay wild. And they keep making babies.
"A lot of people with good intentions will feed, feed, feed," Susan Richmond, executive director of Neighborhood Cats in New York City, tells the Humane Society of the United States, "and they won't go ahead and fix the cats. And nobody wants the cats to be hungry, but that’s not providing a solution."
As WebMD points out, a female cat can become pregnant when she's only 16 weeks old and she can have two or three litters every year. So in seven years, one female feral cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 more cats.
That's why so many rescue groups and humane societies say the key is stopping that whole kitten cycle with a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program. Many rescues, humane societies and animal shelters will work with communities to offer free or reduced-cost programs, helping them humanely trap stray cats, have them spayed or neutered and usually vaccinated against rabies, and then return them to their colonies.
TNR programs help stabilize the population and reduces it, over time, points out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). In addition, it helps against behaviors like spraying, fighting and howling and the cats have lower risks of disease.
Volunteers typically monitor the cats in their colonies, making sure they remain healthy and fed and have shelter. Typically the tip of one ear is snipped during surgery so that stray cats can be identified as already having been trapped and fixed.
The neighbor problem
If you live in a neighborhood, your community might not be thrilled with a slew of cats lolling around your lawn. Some cities and municipalities have laws against feeding stray animals. Even if there's no legal reason, it can foster ill will with your neighbors and your homeowners' association.
To keep peace, do your best to keep the cats in your own yard, so they aren't using other areas as a litter box or for food. Alley Cat Allies suggests making an outdoor litter box away from your neighbors (and your house). You can also suggest that your neighbors put out safe fragrances that will keep the cats away. Try fresh orange or lemon peels, wet coffee grounds and pans filled with vinegar.
Don't leave uneaten food out and provide shelter in your yard so they won't go looking for it elsewhere. Explain to your neighbors that you (hopefully) have had the cats fixed and they won't be having kittens. You are just trying to help living things who need assistance.
"As part of living in a civilized society, it is our obligation to look after those who are weak, sick, or powerless," veterinarian Margaret R. Slater, senior director of epidemiology, animal health services with the ASPCA, tells WebMD. "Our responsibility includes our domestic animals, whom we took from the wild and made dependent on us."