Community Cats: What You Need To Know About Your Cat Population

Posted: April 15, 2021 by Anita

All of us have had an encounter or at least seen street cats in our neighborhood. In some communities, these neighborhood cats are considered a nuisance or even pests (which I think is a bit harsh).

And in some communities, neighborhood cats are the topic of controversy between cat advocates and environmentalists who feel that free-roaming cats are destroying the environment and bird species.

In this article, I discuss:

  • Free-roaming cats – who are they?
  • Managing community cats

Community Cats: who are they?

The politically correct name for free-roaming cats (or neighborhood cats) is community cats. Community cats are homeless cats that live in the shadows of cities and towns all over the world.

Community cats are made up of categories of cats:

  • feral (un-owned domestic cats – never had contact with humans)
  • lost, and abandoned cats and kittens – sometimes known as stray cats

The exact number of free-roaming community cats is hard to pin down, but it is thought to be an estimated 30-40 million of them in the United States. In the next section, I discuss the different categories of community cats.

Feral Cats

What is a feral cat? The definition of a feral cat is a homeless cat that hasn’t been socialized to interact with humans.  Feral cats actually tend to be afraid of humans.

Feral cats usually run in packs or colonies.  There’s safety in numbers – colonies are formed as a natural means for the species to obtain easier access to food and shelter.

Stray Cats

A stray cat is usually a lost or abandoned house pet that has had human contact at some point.  A stray cat can become a feral cat after years of not socializing with humans. 

The difference between stray cats and feral cats is their behavior towards humans.

Community concerns for cats

Community cats usually run in packs or colonies.  There’s safety in numbers – colonies are formed as a natural means for the species to obtain easier access to food and shelter.

Over time if left unchecked and un-neutered, these colonies of community cats can produce more cats.  Eventually, the community or neighborhood becomes overpopulated with cats.  Overpopulation of cats eventually leads to nuisance calls from the community:

  • loud noises due to fighting and mating behavior
  • unsanitary due to male cat marking territories with urine
  • unhealthy cats, causing rabies and toxoplasmosis in humans

The frustration from the community usually ends in a call to the animal control officer. The animal control officer is dispatched, and cats are rounded up to be taken to the local animal control shelter to be adopted, reunited with their owner, or euthanized.

Managing community cats

Only 2% of the community cat population is spayed or neutered.  They contribute 80% of the kittens born each year. Each generation of cats creates another generation.

The reproduction habits of community cats are the major reason for cat overpopulation, leading the community to become frustrated and cats being put to death.

And who’s responsibility is it to manage the problem of overpopulation of community cats?

The Humane Society of the United States believes, “that cat overpopulation is a community-generated problem and that every community has a responsibility to work toward an effective and long term solution”.

The question is – how do we handle the issue of community cat overpopulation without cats being euthanized in the process?

Community Cat Programs

In the 1970s, the number of community cats entering shelters each year was around 7 million. Back then, the acceptable way of controlling community cats was euthanasia.

Some people thought (and still think) that cats roaming around was free to y were destroy the ecosystem. Environment as if humans aren’t responsible for that crime. In the name of some considered right, community cats were trapped and killed in the most inhumane ways.

Years later, there began a push for the non-lethal method of controlling the cat population called Trap-Neuter-Return. TNR, along with changing attitudes about pet ownership has decreased the number of cats entering shelters every year to about 3 million.

However, there are still states, communities, and shelters in the United States that are still using the lethal method of catch and kill to control the cat population.

What is Trap Neuter Return (TNR)

Trap, neuter, and return is a humane method to control the community cat population by decreasing the number of kittens being born to that population.

The steps look something like the following:

  • a community cat is trapped (humanely)
  • cat is vaccinated, neutered and one ear is clipped to signify that it has been neutered
  • once recovered, the cat is returned back to where it was initially trapped.  If the cat is found to be socialized or a kitten it is put up for adoption.

Returning the cat to where it was initially trapped is very important.  The cat is returned to its community environment where it knows where to source for food, water, and shelter.

Trap-neuter-return is utilized as a part of a community cat program by non-profit animal rescue groups and cat advocate organizations.  A community cat program works to improve the lives of free-roaming and feral cats

The main goal of most TNR programs is the reduction or eventual elimination of free-roaming cat populations.

Trap-Neuter-Return: the controversy

The earliest documented practice of trap-neuter-return was in the 1950s, led by animal activist Ruth Plant in the United Kingdom.  Trap-neuter-return was introduced in the United States in the 1990s.

TNR has been a controversial topic in the United States.  Opinions as to what to do with cats can be categorized into three groups:

  1. those opposed to tolerating srays
  2. those supported under certain conditions such as part of community cat management program
  3. unconditionally supported

How does TNR benefit community cats

How does TNR benefit community cats?  An awesome community cat program that includes TNR will provide: Although the eSome programs objectives could also include:

  • a better quality of life for community cats
  • decreases the population that is caused by breeding
  • improving the communities in which these cats are found
  • reducing “kill” rates at shelters that accept captured free-roaming cats,
  • the public view of community cats improves turn improving public perceptions and possibly reducing costs

TNR helps the community by stabilizing the population of the feral colony and over time reduces it.

How does TNR benefit the community?

Spay/neutered cats cease behaviors that instigate complaints by people.

Neutered males have no desire to mark their territory so they stop spraying.  Females never go into heat, so the yowling created by mating no longer occurs.

Males cats stop fighting because there are no females in heat to fight over, and neutered males have no desire to mate even if a female in heat is in the area.

Frequent monitoring is an invaluable component of successful TNR programs because caregivers can easily identify new cats who join the colony, so that they too can be sterilized, vaccinated and ear-tipped.

Another component of a well-managed TNR program is the collection of critical data that can be used when seeing grant funding to expand current TNR programs

Studies have been done on the effectiveness of TNR.  The conclusions drawn from these studies has been surprising.

  • eliminating or reducing nuisance behaviors to decrease public complaints about free-roaming cats
  • improving the communities in which these cats are found
  • turn improving public perceptions and possibly reducing costs

The effectiveness of trap-neuter-return programs

Studies have shown that trap-neuter-return can be effective.

The results of an 11-year study done by the University of Central Florida using community cats showed “a comprehensive long-term program of neutering followed by adoption or return to the resident colony can result in a reduction of free-roaming cat populations in urban areas”.

Thus, in targeting a colony of cats in a certain area, trap-neuter-return can be effective.  But what is the effectiveness of trap-neuter-return when done on a larger scale?  And does trap-neuter-return lead to fewer cats ending up in shelters?

Rome, Italy implemented a no-kill policy for its community cats.  In a study, that spanned 10 years, Rome saw a decrease in community cats using TNR when paired with public education on the benefits of neutering house cats.

A study that tested the effectiveness of euthanasia versus TNR in stabilizing community cat colonies was performed by Texas A&M.  The study found that in order for TNR to be effective it must include educating the public on neutering pets and being responsible owners.

In both studies, the high percentage of lost cats and cats abandoned-by-owners that immigrated into the free-roaming community cat population made the thereby decreasingwere found to be the reason that TNR ineffective.

How should TNR fit into a community cat program?

In order for trap-neuter-return programs to be effective, it must be part of a broader community cat program.  Community outreach and education is a key component of a good and effective TNR program.  Community education should include:

  • the importance of spay/neutering your cat
  • what it means to be a responsible cat owner
  • what to do if you absolutely must give up your cat (re-homing as opposed to abandonment)

A class on responsible pet ownership should be a requirement of adopting a cat (or dog).  Free community education classes on what to do when coming upon a stray cat or kitten and how to humanely implement TNR in the community would also be ideal.

 Conclusion

In some communities, neighborhood cats are the topic of controversy between cat advocates and environmentalists who feel that free-roaming cats are destroying the environment and bird species.

The politically correct name for free-roaming cats (or neighborhood cats) is community cats. Community cats are homeless cats that live in the shadows of cities and towns all over the world.

Community cats are made up of categories of cats:

  • feral (un-owned domestic cats – never had contact with humans)
  • lost, and abandoned cats and kittens – sometimes known as stray cats

Over time if left unchecked and un-neutered, these colonies of community cats will produce more cats.  Eventually, the community or neighborhood becomes overpopulated with cats.  Overpopulation of cats eventually leads to nuisance calls from the community.

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