Help! A stray cat has turned up in my garden
I often receive messages from readers asking for help, and when possible, I do my best to respond. This week, a topical query came in: about a stray cat. The unowned cat population reaches a peak in the summer, as cats are seasonal breeders, with many kittens being born in the spring. As the months pass, kittens grow into young adults, and seek their own territory. So many other readers may experience similar episodes to the following saga, which arrived in my email in-tray from Mandy.
Recently, I noticed a young black cat in my garden and I assumed a neighbour had a new cat. However it seemed very wary and nervous, and then the kids around told me that it was a stray. They said a far neighbour had brought it to the vet as its ears had been covered in ticks, and after treating it the vet had scanned the cat, and it didn't have a microchip. Anyway, I offered the cat some food, and now it arrives at my door morning and evening, miaowing loudly to be fed. I feel duty bound to give it some food but I do worry that if it's female, she will get pregnant. I also worry that she will need vaccinations, worming and flea treatment. She is not used to being handled, and she hisses at me if I make any sudden movements. But if I just sit there after she eats, she does roll over as if to say "I trust you... just don't touch me!"
I have no experience with cats and know nothing of their language. I wondered if we should leave her alone or should I intervene and perhaps have her neutered? I worry that if I brought her to an animal charity they might take her in, and she would never be adopted because she is so nervous, and she might end up living in a cage instead of a free life as she does now.
What should I do?
Mandy's dilemma is easy to understand: a free-living cat may look as if they are having an enjoyable, unrestricted existence, perhaps just as nature intended. However the truth is far less pleasant. Unowned cats face all sorts of risks and hazards, from shortage of food supply to predators to road traffic accidents, as well as viral diseases and parasites. Without human assistance, around 50% of feral kittens die before their first birthday, and the average life span of a feral cat fending for itself is less than two years. If a human is around to take care of a feral cat, providing food and health care, they can live for as long as a pet cat, but studies have shown that the average life expectancy is still short, at around seven years of age.
And the other problem is that if Mandy did nothing, it would not just be the cat herself who would suffer: she would almost certainly go on to have kittens, and those kittens would go on to have more kittens. So within a few years, there would be dozens of cats making up a colony in Mandy's back garden. The suffering of that one free living cat would be multiplied, with many cats going hungry, falling ill and suffering from other consequences of having no health care.
So what is the best thing to do?
There are a number of possibilities, but the most effective answer is to engage with a process known as Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR). This involves using a cat trap to catch the cat, and taking her to the local vet. She will then be given a full health check (testing her for common infectious diseases like Feline Leukaemia and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus), she will be vaccinated, wormed, treated for fleas and spayed (to stop her from breeding). She will also usually be microchipped (so that she can be easily identified if trapped again) and she may have the tip of one ear clipped so that it's easy to spot from afar that she has already been trapped and looked after.
Once a feral cat has been trapped, neutered and medically cared for, the next stage to consider is the "release". In many cases, a cat can be released back to the place where they came from: they know this area, there is often a human who is prepared to care for them, and now that their health needs have been taken care of, they will be far more likely to thrive. I have seen many feral cats that have gone on to live till old age in this type of situation.
There are other instances where a cat cannot be returned to its original location: if there are no humans who are prepared to offer them basic care, then it's irresponsible to expect them to be able to fend entirely for themselves. In such cases, an animal welfare group will do their best to find an alternative home: examples include farms and warehouses where there's a rodent problem. A resident feral cat can be an effective way of controlling rats and mice. And as long as there is someone there to take responsibility for them, they can have a good life in such situations.
Mandy's fear - of the cat being confined to a cage for life - is very unlikely to happen. Animal welfare groups want cats to enjoy life, so the aim is always to release the cat to a safe place where they can enjoy freedom.
It is not easy carrying out Trap Neuter and Release programmes on your own, as an inexperienced member of the public. Talk to your local vet, or visit a feral cat website to find out how you can get help to achieve the goal: to keep that feral cat as healthy and happy as possible.
Visit www.feralcatsireland.org for more information.