Cats have many unique skills, not least among them being able to single out the houses that may be willing to offer them a meal and some shelter with ease, and in some cases, cats that live in perfectly good, caring homes will up sticks and attempt to move in with someone else whose living situation they prefer!
Whilst feral cats are not as common and ubiquitous in the UK as they are in other countries, we still have our fair share of feral, stray and other unowned cats roaming around, and most cat owners in any given area will know of at least a couple.
As cat lovers, it is understandable to feel concerned that the local strays might not be getting enough food or being taken care of by someone else, and many cat owners take to feeding the local stray on occasion, or offering them a corner of a shed or outbuilding in the winter. But is this a good idea, and does it genuinely help the stray cat population, or does it actually create more problems than it solves? Read on to find out more about some of the potential problems, and some of the best ways in which to help stray or wild cats.
First of all, it is important to note that there is a difference between a stray cat and a feral cat. A stray cat is one that has previously had a home and either moved out, got lost or has been given up, but regardless, is familiar with humans, possibly friendly, and may have had a home at some point.
A feral cat, on the other hand, is one that has never had a home, was likely born and bred from a feral line or colony, and that will not be familiar with people other than potentially as a source of food and something to be wary of.
While a stray cat may also be wary of people, they may also be very friendly with you, while a feral cat is unlikely to approach you willingly or let you pet them.
Many cats are highly opportunistic about getting additional meals, inviting attention, and playing up to people that might provide it! It is entirely possible that any given cat that turns up meowing for food actually has a home already, and once you have offered them a meal once, they will be apt to keep returning!
Even some owned cats can be quite shy, so it can also be easy to mistake an owned cat for a feral one, but some things may tip you off to the fact that they are likely owned, such as the presence of a collar, a generally well-kept and well fed appearance, turning up for food at the same time every day and not being seen at other times, and of course, a microchip implant if you can catch the cat and ask a vet to scan it for you.
If there is a stray, feral or otherwise, begging around your area that has pinged your radar, it is important to do everything that you can to find out if they do actually have an owner, as they may be either lost, or actually living quite happily a couple of roads over from you and being taken care of already!
Feeding stray or feral cats in your garden may potentially upset your own cat, as essentially you are inviting an intruder onto their territory and giving them a good reason to keep coming back! If your own cat is not bothered by the stray, this is not so much of a problem, but before you start feeding a strange cat, consider the impact that this may have on your own cat's happiness and wellbeing.
A genuinely stray or feral cat will not be vaccinated, nor treated for fleas and worms, and so they might also pose a risk to your cat’s health as well as their happiness. Ensure that your own cat is up to date with their vaccines and flea and worm treated regularly to minimise the risks.
Also, take care to check your cat over for signs of bites or scratches that they might have gained from a fight with the other cat.
While some stray cats may already be neutered, some will not be, and of course, feral cats will not be neutered unless they have already been taken care of by a charity that performs the procedure on feral cats before releasing them again. It is common practice when neutering and re-releasing feral cats to clip one of their ears to mark them out as neutered, so look out for this sign.
If you know or suspect that the feral or stray cat in your area is not neutered, contact one of the various cat-specific or general animal charities in your area for advice, as many of the run a trap, neuter and re-release programme for feral cats.
If you need some help and advice with stray or feral cats, such as finding out if they really do have an owner, getting them neutered, attaining veterinary care if the cat is sick, rehoming friendly strays, or finding a more suitable territory for a feral cat, again, cat charities will be able to help here.
Many such charities take in feral cats or seek to find them suitable territories where they can be fed and kept an eye on, whilst still living freely, and people who have land that they might be willing to use for this are always in high demand.
If you are concerned for the health, welfare or condition of a stray or feral cat, contact a charity such as UK Cats or the RSPCA, and they will work with you to help you to do what you can to make life better for the stray in question, without upsetting your own cat.