Domestic cats have coexisted with humans for thousands of years in a mutually beneficial way. In fact, it’s thought that it was that mutually beneficial relationship that lead to cats being domesticated! Mice and rats have long been attracted to the crops and agricultural byproducts produced by humans; in turn, cats followed the rodents and came into close and frequent contact with humans. There actually aren’t many major genetic differences between the modern domestic cats we know and love and their wild counterparts. However, one major difference is that almost all wild cat species (lions being the exception) are solitary creatures. Domestic cats with access to the outdoors are still solitary hunters but can form close bonds with other cats and will have complex social and cooperative relationships.

Those relationships can sometimes be seen in feral and community cat colonies. Community cats is an umbrella term used by some animal welfare groups, like the ASPCA, that refers to any unowned cats.

This includes strays, neighborhood cats, and feral cats, all of which have a range of behaviors and degrees of socialization. Stray cats tend to have some history with humans and because of that, they could become a pet/indoor cat again. Feral cats, on the other hand, are unsocialized outdoor cats that are quite fearful of people. Telling the difference between the two can be a bit difficult at times, as there’s definitely some overlap at times.

Colony Life For Feral Cats

Sometimes, feral cats form small colonies based around available food and water sources; these colonies can have a very loose hierarchy and complex relationships. Unlike dogs, cats aren’t pack animals but do have the ability to form social groups, which is why feral cat colonies have complex and interesting hierarchies. Unfortunately, colonies of feral cats can result in many problems. Female cats are able to get pregnant at just 16 weeks old and there are some estimates that a single pair of cats and their offspring could produce 420,000 cats in just seven years. By simply leaving feral cats on their own, the population can drastically rise to unhealthy levels and have an even more devastating effect on the environment. That’s where TNR programs come in.

TNR Programs

If you’re interested in cats, you may have heard “TNR” used by some organizations and individuals before. This acronym stands for “trap, neuter, return” and refers to the humane approach of dealing with stray or feral cat populations. Also called “trap, neuter vaccinate, return”, these programs are endorsed by many animal welfare organizations, as feral cats are safely and humanely trapped, given a medical exam, vaccinated, and altered before being returned back to familiar environments.

Because it’s so rare and difficult to fully socialize a feral cat and turn them into an indoor cat, current TNR programs are popular among animal advocates because they often help care for the cats without dumping them back outside or euthanizing them. It is possible to tame and socialize an adult feral cat but the process is very long and complex with no guarantee that it’ll actually work.

There are plenty of benefits to TNR programs and similar projects, like working cat adoptions. By spaying or neutering community cats, TNR programs can theoretically reduce the size of feral cat colonies. Neutered cats are also less likely to mark their territory and fight with other cats, resulting in less of a smell and less noise where there are feral cat colonies. People and feral cats alike benefit from working cat programs, which adopt feral cats out to work as pest control on farms or other properties. The people gain a safe, nontoxic, and around-the-clock rodent control while the feral cats are altered, vaccinated, and gain access to shelter, regular access to food, and medical care without being forced into a house.

There are some controversies and different approaches when it comes to dealing with feral, stray, and other community cats. As predators and carriers for parasites, domestic cats easily can have a negative impact on the environment, particularly in isolated regions where cats were brought to. This has prompted debates over the most effective and humane way of dealing with these cats while also protecting local wildlife. There is no easy answer to this problem and is far more complex.

In the end, feral cats are outdoor domesticated cats that are not socialized to humans and aren’t particularly tame. These types of cats, and other community cats, can be found all around the world and in all sorts of environments. The domestic cat is an incredibly adaptable species, which is great for them but because they are also predators, their adaptability and unchecked populations can have disastrous effects on wildlife.

While stray cats are more socialized and friendly to humans (and more likely to become adopted indoor cats), it takes years of work and patience to properly socialize a feral. That’s why so many animal advocates are in favor of TNR and working cat programs. By working with a feral cat’s nature, these programs are able to spay or neuter the cats and give them a home on a farm, shop, or similar property that provides shelter, food, and possible medical care without making them stressed. Even if feral cats don’t end up as working cats, TNR programs still help to reduce the number of unaltered cats out in the world.