If you've ever spotted a pair of eyes peering at you from under the neighbor's porch or caught a glimpse of a furry tail disappearing around a corner, you've likely encountered a community cat. Community cats are your local population of free-roaming felines. They are often a diverse group made up of feral cats, strays, and outdoor pets. As populations of community cats have rapidly expanded, many people have wondered what, if anything, should be done to manage these growing colonies.

Feral cat in yard.

What's the difference between a feral and a stray?

Feral cats have little to no contact with humans. Because they often were not socialized to humans as kittens, they tend to be very wary of people and will keep their distance. While some feral cats may eventually learn to approach a specific person - such as a colony caretaker who brings food - they will likely always be skittish around people. Feral kittens can sometimes be socialized if they are exposed to humans at an early age, but adult feral cats will likely never be comfortable around people and do not adapt well to living in a household.

Stray cats, on the other hand, are pets that have been lost or abandoned. If a community cat approaches you or allows itself to be pet, it is most likely a stray. A stray may hide or act aggressively towards humans like a feral cat, especially when hurt or frightened, but they have been previously socialized to humans and will likely settle down once the stressful event has passed. Stray cats may have some initial distrust of humans, but this can often be overcome, even if they have been living away from people for an extended period of time. With time and patience, most stray cats can adapt to living in a household again.

The Feral Cat Controversy

Feral cat populations have been growing across North America, and so too has the controversy surrounding their management. The life of a feral cat is undoubtedly difficult, particularly as colonies continue to grow and competition for limited resources increases. There is no question that human intervention is necessary to manage feral cat colonies, but the methods of doing so have been hotly debated. Concerns about feral cat welfare have led some experts to recommend trapping and humanely euthanizing colonies of feral cats. Others feel it is just as effective and more humane to trap the cats, sterilize them so that they cannot reproduce, and return them to their colony. Both sides of the argument are passionate about the issue, and both have raised important points that must be considered when deciding how best to manage a feral colony.

What To Do If You Find a Feral Cat

If you're interested in helping feral cats in your neighborhood, it is best to start by contacting your local rescue, shelter, or animal control officer for help. Many of these organizations already have feral cat management programs in place, and may even have volunteers actively working with your local colony. Your local organization may recommend some of the following steps to manage the colony:

Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) Programs

One of the primary goals when managing a feral cat colony is to decrease the size of the population. This is usually accomplished by spaying and neutering as many individuals as possible so that they do not reproduce. To do this, feral cats are humanely trapped and transported to a veterinary clinic or shelter for surgery. Many programs will also vaccinate the cats while they are under anesthesia to reduce the spread of disease. The veterinarian will also remove the top part of the cat's left ear - a procedure called ear tipping - which helps colony caretakers identify sterilized cats from a distance. The cats are typically kept indoors overnight while they recover from surgery, and then they are released back into their colony the next day. TNR programs should ideally be overseen by an experienced person or rescue organization to ensure the trapping is performed in a way that is safe for both the cat and the caretaker.

Feeding Feral Cats

Some feral cat management programs have teams of volunteers who collect food donations and distribute them among local colonies. Volunteering for these programs is a great way to get started helping your local feral population under the guidance of experienced colony caretakers. When feeding community cats, it is important to take precautions to ensure that the food does not attract insects or wildlife. In the winter months, it may also be necessary to provide water for community cats because other water sources may be frozenHeated food and water bowls can help ensure that these resources remain accessible during cold weather. Remember that feeding alone does nothing to solve the population problem, and may even encourage other feral cats to move into the area. Attempts to feed feral cat communities should also be accompanied by an appropriate TNR management plan.

Shelter for Feral Cats

Even for a feral cat who has adapted to living outdoors, being exposed to the elements can be dangerous. Like any other cat, a feral will seek warmth during cold weather and may end up in a less-than-ideal hiding spot, like under the hood of a parked car. Providing a warm, dry area for feral cats to take shelter can help prevent illness and injury in your local feral cat colony. Using a heated kitty house will keep feral and community cats warm all winter, or you can build your own unheated shelters using straw for insulation. Shelters should be checked regularly to ensure that they are clean and dry, and should be placed in an area away from human activity. For an easy all-in-one solution, check out K&H Pet’s Ultimate Kitty Bundle.  With outdoor cats in mind, we combined the safest heated cat house on the market, comfy heated cat bed and regulated food and water bowl for an all-inclusive outdoor cat and feral cat safe haven.

Finally, you can help feral cat populations by spaying and neutering your own pets and keeping their vaccinations up-to-date. Even indoor cats sometimes get lost or escape, and it doesn't take long for them to add to the feral population before returning home! By providing appropriate preventive veterinary care for your pets and encouraging your neighbors to do the same, you can help prevent additional population growth and competition for resources in your local feral colony.