All too often, a cat owner who can no longer keep their pet will release the pet into the “wild” instead of rehoming the cat or bringing it to a shelter. In this article, we’ll explore the reality of what this means for a cat (and why you should never “set free!” Always take your pet to a shelter or find a new home via PetFinder, Craigslist or another outlet.)
Sadly, many pet owners are under the impression that their cat will be happier living outdoors on her own. The pet owner sees that the cat enjoys her independence and many cats also enjoy spending time outdoors. But the reality of living in the “wild” is very different.
I am a caretaker to approximately half a dozen feral cats and strays. Actually, most of these cats are strays who have been “set free” or just plain dumped. For these cats, life is difficult, painful and often, way too short. Tonight, I was feeding one of my strays, a former housecat named “Wallace,” and it occurred to me that most people who “release” cats don’t realize their true fate.
Wallace is the posterchild for what happens to cats when they’re dumped. Wallace has only one eye, so he cannot hunt (with one eye, you have very poor depth perception.) He lost his eye in a cat fight. Wallace is also FIV-positive — likely the result of fighting with other males when he was intact. (We have neutered him.) As a result of his FIV+ status, he constantly has minor skin infections and respiratory infections (which we treat with antibiotics, but he is in the late stages of the disease, so his body simply cannot defend itself. Once one infection resolves, another arises.) Fortunately, the infections are always quite minor. But ultimately, his little body will be overcome and he will die (or we will need to have him euthanized to free him from the pain.)
Wallace is often injured by other, more dominant males who get upset when he comes onto “their territory” (our property) to eat and rest. Since he cannot hunt, he relies upon us for food and water, which we provide daily. We also provide him with medication and treatment for injuries. But his life is difficult. And sad.
Wallace craves attention from us — he meows at us and purrs loudly and nudges our legs. He’s usually too frightened to accept petting, but on occasion, he will let us pet him. He’s frightened of humans, due to the lack of contact, but he still craves love and affection. He tries to befriend other cats, but he is always met with hisses and swats and on occasion, a full-out catfight.
At one point, Wallace was clearly someone’s pet. I doubt they realized that his life would go downhill so profoundly once they “set him free.”
The average lifespan for a feral cat or stray? Two years, according to Alley Cat Allies. In many ways, this is a blessing, as life is extremely difficult for once-owned strays.
Firstly, these cats rarely eat and drink well. Yes, a healthy cat can hunt. But there are many days when they go hungry. They are often injured while attempting to capture their prey. And in many regions, there is a serious food (and water) shortage due to the sheer number of strays and ferals. This is especially true in urban and suburban regions. If the cat is injured, his ability to hunt may be destroyed, resulting in hunger.
What’s more, ferals and strays quickly acquire intestinal parasites that siphon off nutrients. So they may need to eat three or four times the amount of food that they were eating while at home — no easy feat when you need to hunt for every meal.
Some cats are fortunate enough to find a constant, high-quality food source (typically from a kind human who puts out food and water on a daily basis.) But this is fairly rare.
And, of course, there’s the issue of predation. Ferals and strays must be on constant alert if they are to remain safe and avoid becoming prey to larger animals like dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears and so on. Stray cats also face dangers from cars and humans. Sadly, many people poison and inhumanely trap (and kill) “nuisance cats.” In fact, some cities and towns have bylaws that call for the trapping and euthanasia of strays. In other jurisdictions, it’s a fine-able offense to feed a stray or feral cat.
Stray cats have a lonely life. Studies have revealed that cats quickly turn “wild” — in a matter of approximately two weeks, in most cases — which means they will no longer seek out human contact. The longer the cat is away from humans, the more “un-tame” he becomes (and the longer it will take to re-tame the animal if he’s rescued at some point in the future.)
Then, there is the issue of fighting and injury. Feral cats — cats born in the wild — typically live in colonies with an established hierarchy. Fighting is rare among feral cats. But strays are very, very different. Strays live a solitary existence — something that’s very difficult for a naturally social creature, especially if the cat had housemates or the cat was a social individual who enjoyed human companionship when he had a home.
Intact males frequently fight over territory, food sources and mates. Dominant females may fight on occasion too, but they’re more commonly injured by males who bite them during the mating process.
Spayed and neutered cats tend to stay under the radar, for the most part. Fighting is less common among spayed and neutered cats. And, of course, “fixing” a cat will prevent unwanted kittens.
For intact females, pregnancy is a major problem among strays. Females go into heat multiple times per year. And each time she goes into heat, the male cats will mate with her. This often results in two or more pregnancies per year for the rest of the female’s life (or until she is spayed!) Of course, mating is not a pleasurable experience. The female cat is frequently injured and males accost her repeatedly. And the repeated pregnancies take an immense toll on the cat’s body.
This is the reality for former pet cats who are dumped. Their lives are not pleasant. And unlike ferals, who typically live in a social community with other cats, strays live a lonely, solitary existence.
Many cats can be rescued and once you earn their trust, they make wonderful pets. Sadly, for Wallace, he is extremely frightened indoors. The stress of captivity is simply too much for his fragile body (he stops eating, drinking and he gets extremely sick, as his already-weak immune system is rendered useless by the stress.) So we will continue to care for Wallace outdoors, where he will live out the rest of his days in relative comfort. But it’s a far cry from what could have been. Wallace will likely be dead by the ripe old age of 5. Had his former owners rehomed him or brought him to a shelter, he could be a healthy, happy house cat, with 10 years or longer left in his lifespan.
So please, if you cannot keep your cat, don’t “set her free” or dump her. Rehome your pet. Bring it to a shelter or rescue organization. The latter won’t cost you anything but a few minutes of your time (and really, many rescue groups will come and pick up your pet if absolutely necessary.) Whatever you do, please, please, don’t condemn your cat to a life of loneliness, hunger and pain.
See PetLvr’s related articles for more tips on caring for feral cats and strays!
Photo Source: Aljabak on Sxc.hu
Thanks to Paws Patrol, an animal rescue in Mesquite, TX, even many cats that normally would be euthanized get homes. They are the more fortunate ones. Recently someone begged them to pick up some kittens and led them to believe they were tame and young. When they arrived they found they had been trapped, were half-wild and feral. In that circumstance most of these cats would be immediately put down and usually they don’t accept them because there are so many tame cats that desperately need homes.
Paws Patrol has a wonderful veterinarian who has a safe way of handling wild cats so they had them spayed and neutered and have multiple horse ranches in the country where the entire “family” can be turned out. There is more to hunt when they have hundreds of acres to roam, less chance of getting hit on a road, and they have food and water supplied as well so they don’t go hungry and don’t have to range so far hunting.
I recommend what they do to others who rescue animals. The cats and dogs that are unadoptable are often retired to horse ranches – one of them also a horse rescue as horses are like puppies & kittens, dogs & cats – there are too many and not enough homes for them even if they are offered at no cost. (Which I do NOT recommend because they end up at the packing plant if you do that.)
This is good for the ranches and the cats because the most common reason for being unadoptable is that the cat prefers being outside and hunting to being inside and humans. The best mouser I ever had would not eat anything she did not catch – not dry, not canned – not even steak or hamburger – raw, cooked or right off the grill. If you are an animal rescue in the city, seek out a horse person who can connect you with other horse people to rehome hunting cats who will never make good pets.
Paws Patrol spays and neuters every cat and dog and I encourage everyone to do the same. If you cat does have kittens and you live on a ranch DO NOT wean the kittens. Leave them with the mother who will teach them to hunt well until they are almost a year old and then find them hunting homes.
Since they will usually have a litter in the spring, find homes for them around Christmas if you have accustomed them to being handled since birth (best) or a new hunting home any time of year. If you rehome an entire litter together they won’t have many of the challenges Mia has so accurately described here.
If you know anyone who wants a horse send them my way. We have many we’ve fed through the drought in Texas that will be ready to find new homes in the next month or two.