Dealing with Feral Cats

Our neighborhood has two feral cats that we know of. (1) The question is, what should we do with them?

My wife and I are “bird” people, with several companion parrots and a backyard bird feeder for the wild birds. Cats kill an extraordinary number of birds each year (2). I might note that the local red-tailed hawks and other raptors also use our bird feeder as a source of food, and at least one kitten was taken by a raptor recently. I’d point out that we do not have any birds coming to our birdfeeder that are worse off than the “least concern” conservation status.

The CDC says that about 300 cats are found to have rabies each year and feral cat colonies are becoming a significant source of rabies for humans. To properly vaccinate a cat against rabies, the cat should be vaccinated as a kitten and then once every two to three years. (3)

Given the destruction of wildlife and the potential for the spread of rabies, many advocate humanely killing feral cats. (4)

The Humane Society advocates a policy of Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR), where feral cats are trapped, neutered and vaccinated against rabies, and released. While the Humane Society uses the term TNR, it’s worth noting they advocate the adopting kittens that are young enough to learn to live with humans. This additional step is referred to TNR+ by a source I will quote shortly and is considered a separate strategy. This avoids euthanasia. The Humane Society also refers to a “vacuum effect” where feral cats from the surrounding area move in to take over the territory of the deceased cats. Feral cat colony populations under TNR tend to be reducedĀ  or some colonies eventually going extinct, according to the Humane Society. Note that cats are only vaccinated once in their lives under TNR or TNR+, which is not an optimum solution to the problem of rabies.

What should our response be?

Well, someone did a computer model! According to “An Evaluation of Feral Cat Management Options Using a Decision Analysis Network,” for small populations, TNR+ incurs the least annual management costs. For medium and large populations, Trap-Euthanize (TE) is the optimal solution.

Fortunately, the science and the math agree with what my wife and I would choose to do anyway for totally non-logical reasons. (5) Because there are no endangered species involved and the population is small, we decided to trap the females, have them spayed and vaccinated, and released. The local Humane Society has a program that enables us to do this at reduced cost. There don’t seem to be many males in our area, and since females are a “rate limiting step,” for now, we’re focusing on the females. Once we get an end to the endless string of kittens, we’ll think about the males. In a couple years, we’ll talk about getting the surviving cats vaccinated again for rabies–a way to solve that problem.

This morning, I took a neighborhood feral cat to be neutered. This is the third cat (6) we’ve taken in under the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society Trap, Neuter and Release program. If you don’t live in our area, a Google search is your best shot at low-cost TNR+ assistance.


  1. Whether they’re truly feral or strays that have learned to survive in the wild, I don’t know. []
  2. Cats kill more than one billion birds each year”–Science News (January 29, 2013) []
  3. Feral cat colonies could pose rabies risk, CDC says“–USA Today (August 18, 2013) []
  4. I’m tempted to use the word “euthanasia” in this context, but a) it’s an antiseptic term that helps to cover over the death of a creature that is possibly self-aware and b) I’m reminded that a lot of people do not know the meaning of the term, including the middle school teacher in 1970 who thought I wanted to talk about the Vietnam War. Youth in Asia. No, I’m not kidding. []
  5. The willingness to implement the optimal solution produced by a computer model may become a theme here at UnSpace. Emotionally, I don’t think TE is an acceptable option for us except under extreme circumstances. I recognize the cognitive dissonance involved in my own beliefs. When dealing with issues like global warming, the emotional reaction will need to be considered whether it’s rational or not. An optimal solution is not optimal if no one’s going to do it. []
  6. One of the feral cats stopped coming to our yard after TNR and we do not know the cause of that change. []

Written by Rob Carr


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