The Secret Lives of Feral Cats

Free-roaming, unowned kitties live differently from our beloved pets

Feral cats can roam over great distances, a new study finds.
Feral cats can roam over great distances, a new study finds. Image courtesy of flickr user 37prime

Do feral kitties live good lives? The Washington Post asked that question last week in a story that examined the practice of controlling feral cat populations by trapping cats, spaying or neutering them, and then releasing them back into their former home environments (it’s often called Trap-Neuter-Return or TNR).

The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and other supporters say the nation’s estimated 50 million to 150 million feral felines often live healthy lives. They also say TNR has added benefits: After a cat colony is sterilized, nuisance behaviors such as fighting and yowling are reduced, and the feral population stabilizes. Feral cats can keep rats in check, too.

Skeptics, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and some veterinarians, argue the life of an alley cat is rarely pleasant. In many cases, they say it’s actually more humane to euthanize cats, rather than condemn them to a harsh life on the streets.

Some insight into the lives of both feral and owned kitties comes from a new study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, in which researchers set out to track free-roaming feral and owned cats by placing radio transmitters on 42 kitties in and around Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Twenty-three of those transmitters also had tilt and vibration sensors that measured activity.

The scientists found that the feral cats had home ranges that stretched across large areas; one male kitty’s range covered 1,351 acres (2.1 square miles). They roamed over a wide variety of habitats, most often in urban areas and grasslands, including a restored prairie. In winter, they preferred urban spots, forests and farmland, all places that would provide greater shelter from bad weather and help them keep warm. Cats that had owners, meanwhile, tended to stick close to home, with their range sizes averaging a mere 4.9 acres.

Feral kitties were also more active than cats that had homes. Unowned cats spent 14 percent of their time in what the scientists classified as “high activity” (running or hunting, for example), compared with only 3 percent for kitties with owners. “The unowned cats have to find food to survive, and their activity is significantly greater than the owned cats throughout the day and through the year, especially in winter,” says study co-author Jeff Horn of the University of Illinois.

In addition, the feral cats’ daily activity patterns—sleeping during the day and being active at night, which likely reflects the behavior of their prey, small mammals, as well as lets them better avoid humans—was very different from kitties with homes. Those animals were most active in the morning and evening, when their owners were likely home and awake.

Only one owned kitty died during the study, compared with six feral cats. Two of the feral cats were killed by coyotes, and the researchers believe that at least some of the others were killed by other cats, as the owned kitty was. Cats that live outdoors, even just part of the time, are at risk of death from other cats as well as diseases such as rabies, feline leukemia and parasites, the researchers note.

And of course there’s the fact that cats, owned and unowned, kill wildlife. “Owned cats may have less impact on other wildlife than unowned cats because of their localized ranging behavior, or conversely, they may have a very high impact withing their smaller home ranges,” the scientists write. “Free-roaming cats do kill wildlife and pose a disease risk; cat owners should keep pets indoors.”

But there’s nothing in this study that convinces me that feral cats are living such harsh lives that death would be better, as PETA and other TNR skeptics have contended. Feral cats do have harder and shorter lives than our pets. They have to find their own food and water and shelter, and this isn’t easy. But that’s what any wild creature has to do, and to imply that their lives are worthless because they are hard is, frankly, ridiculous.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.