Andrew Rowan, former director of Tufts University’s Center for
Animals and Public Policy, estimates that between 30 and 40 million
homeless cats live in the United States.(1) Many of these cats are feral
or “wild” cats, the descendants of unaltered tame cats who were
abandoned and gave birth to kittens who never had contact with humans.
Although ferals are fearful of humans, they are still domesticated and
ill-equipped to survive on their own. Feral cats do not die of “old
age.” They are poisoned, shot, tortured by cruel people, attacked by
other animals, or hit by cars, or they die of exposure, starvation, or
highly contagious fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline AIDS, feline
leukemia, and feline infectious peritonitis. In one feral cat colony,
half of the 32 cats were shot by a man who claimed that they were
“attacking” his children.(2) Cats in another colony were shot with
darts.(3) A loose dog killed several cats in another colony.(4)
easily treatable conditions can be deadly for cats who cannot be handled
and regularly taken to a veterinarian. Minor cuts or puncture wounds can
turn into raging infections and abscesses. Untreated upper respiratory
infections lead to eyes and noses so caked with mucus that animals can
barely see or breathe. Ferals often scratch their ears bloody, driven
crazy by the pain and itching of ear mites and accompanying infections.
Others die of blood loss or anemia from worms and fleas. Urinary tract
infections, which frequently lead to blockage in male cats, cause
extremely painful, lingering deaths if not treated.
themselves are also a threat to wildlife. The American Bird Conservancy
estimates that free-roaming cats kill millions of birds and small
mammals in the U.S. every year, including endangered species, such as
the least tern and the piping plover.
Cats Can’t Live on “Bread” Alone
Many people who encounter feral cats start feeding them, but feeding
alone can actually make the situation worse. Feeding ferals increases
their ability to give birth to even more kittens who are destined to
suffer and die premature deaths. It is essential to get these cats off
the streets in order to prevent not only their own suffering, but that
of their offspring. Feeding should only be done as a prelude to
trapping, to get cats accustomed to eating in a certain place at a
Trapping Do’s and Don’t’s
Before you trap, it is prudent to obtain written permission from the
owner of the property on which the cats roam.(5) Also, wear thick
gloves, as handling feral cats can be dangerous for both the cat and the
handler. Be gentle: Even humane traps (box traps) can terrify animals
who have never been confined.
Line the bottom of the trap with a
piece of cloth, a folded newspaper, or an old towel. It will not
interfere with the spring mechanism, and the animal will be afforded a
small measure of comfort.
Do not use the same towel/cloth again
for the same purpose unless you have washed it well—animals are very
sensitive to smells.
Do not set a trap and leave it unattended,
even for a few minutes.
Anything could happen while you’re away.
Set your trap, then back off, but stay within sight of it. Be patient.
Plan to do your trapping when you have enough time to spend on site.
Avoid trapping in bad or extremely hot weather. Cats are most likely to
be up and about during early morning or late evening hours.
the trap on firm, flat ground so that it does not wobble when
Turn the trap so that when the animals enter, they can
keep an eye on your car, your door, you, or whatever danger they would
not wish to turn their backs on.
Place a small trail of food
leading to a large feeding clump at the back of the trap. Use a smelly
canned food as bait, and place it on a paper plate or piece of
newspaper. Avoid putting bowls or cans inside the trap. When animals
enter, they may thrash around trying to escape, and a bowl could cause
Immediately after the animal goes in, cover the trap with
a towel or blanket (if you are trapping in cold weather) or a sheet (in
hot weather). A trapped animal calms down more quickly when
Gently carry the trap to your vehicle. The cat will be
frightened, so be aware that even small movements or noises can
aggravate the cat’s stress. Don’t slam doors. Always use a vehicle. Even
if the animal you want to trap is just a few blocks away, drive or have
a friend drive you. It can be difficult to walk even a short distance
with a terrified cat struggling in a trap.
ahead of time for where to take the cat after he or she has been
trapped. Never assume that the animal will be accepted unannounced. If
you plan to rehabilitate and adopt out the cat, it is best to take the
cat immediately to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated,
tested for leukemia and AIDS, and treated for worm and flea
If it isn’t possible to take the cat directly to a
veterinarian or animal shelter, transfer him or her to a larger carrier
equipped with a litter pan, food, and water by abutting the opened
carrier to the trap and opening the trap door.
Never turn feral
cats loose in the house— you may not see them again for days and will
probably be faced with trapping them again to take them to a
veterinarian or animal shelter.
After bringing cats home from the
vet, put them in a quiet place separated from other animals for a week
or two to allow them to recover from surgery and become accustomed to
their new surroundings. When the cats have recuperated, they can be
released into the house, but it may take months (or years) of patience
and kindness before the animals begin to trust you. Do not allow feral
cats outside, even after months of living in your home. They are easily
frightened and may bolt and become lost.
Because of the huge
number of feral cats and the severe shortage of good homes, the
difficulty of socialization, and the dangers lurking where most feral
cats live, it may be necessary and
the most compassionate choice to
euthanize feral cats. You can ask your veterinarian to do this or, if
your local shelter uses an injection of sodium pentobarbital, take the
cats there. Please do not allow the prospect of euthanasia to deter you
from trapping cats. If you leave them where they are, they will almost
certainly die a painful death. A painless injection is far kinder than
any fate that feral cats will meet if left to survive on their own.
Where to Get a Trap
If your local animal shelter will not lend you a box trap, invest in
one of your own. Cat traps cost $40 to $50. Humane box traps are
available from the following companies:
ACES (Animal Care Equipment & Services, Inc.)
Crestline, CA 92325
Heart of the Earth Marketing
Fruitdale, SD 57742
Tomahawk Live Trap Co.
Tomahawk, WI 54487
1. Paula Abend and Karyn Miller-Medzon, “Stray Cats: Friends in
Need,” Animals, July/August 1995, p. 26.
2. John Tuohy,
“Man Fined in Shooting Death of Cat,” Florida Today, 3 July
1999, p. 1B.
3. Pat Omandam, “Cat Lovers Upset at UH Treatment
of Feral Felines,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 25 September
4. Terry Davis, “Fate of Homeless Cats Up In Air,”
Daily Press, 5 August 1999, p. C1.
5. Jennifer Williams
“How to Use a Humane Trap,” Cat Fancy, September 1988, pp.