Do Feral Cats Help or Harm an Urban Environment?

“There’s the Buffy cat.” I announced to my cocker spaniel, Buffy, while we sat on the enclosed, heated front porch. My husband and I call this feral cat, the Buffy cat, because it is the same buff color as Buffy.

I’m sure you do that too. Black and white tuxedo cats with a white blaze, I call ‘Skippy cats,’ in honor of a springer mix I used to have. As you may be able tell, I’m a dog person. I’ve never owned a cat.

The day I spotted the Buffy cat it was bitterly cold, around ten degrees. Cat in the snow

I started wondering, how do these feral cats stay alive in the winter? I know Buffy would never survive in the cold. I’ve seen this particular cat for at least two years, so somehow it survives.

A few years back, I rarely saw a feral cat by my house. These cats are sometimes called “community cats.” Back then, we had a huge raccoon population living in the attics of houses on both sides of me. Now I rarely see raccoons. Although new people have moved into these homes and they have done some maintenance, still, I wondered if somehow the cats were deterring the coons.

My research unearthed a rat’s nest of information, most of which has sparked debates.

  • I knew that feral cats predate on birds and many birding enthusiasts and nature lovers deplore feral cats. According to Ecology Global Network, each cat kills about 34 – 46 birds each year, with pet cats killing fewer than feral cats.
    • I had thought that in urban areas, most of the birds would be non-native, so probably not really a problem for cats predating upon them—but I was wrong. Many cities, including Chicago are on a migratory flyway for native birds. Feral cats kill an estimated 1.3 – 4 BILLION birds worldwide each year and 6.3 – 22.3 BILLION mammals. This report by the Smithsonian states that the domestic cat is among the top 100 worst invasive species and has also contributed to animal extinctions.
  • Cats do not predate on raccoons or vice versa, although raccoons will sometimes kill cats (and small dogs). Leaving food out for feral cats is the main problem. Raccoons then steal their food. So feeding feral cats may actually help the local raccoon population. Apparently, our raccoon population dropped because of people fixing up their homes and not the presence of feral cats.
  • Overpopulation of feral cats is a significant problem. Trap—Neuter–Return Programs (TNR) are can be very effective at bringing down the number of feral cats. In my town, Waukegan, IL, Animal Control started a TNR program and the number of feral cats brought into Animal Control went way down within seven years, from 3,000 to 400.
    • Mathematical models predict that TNR would have to reach 75% or more of the cats to be effective. Models also predict reducing the cat population by lethal methods would need to reach 50% of the feral cats. According to this research study:

“Neither untargeted shelter euthanasia nor TNR is well-supported as a method to protect wildlife by eradicating or significantly reducing cat populations on a broad scale. TNR, however, has potential benefits for cat welfare, public health (if vaccination for rabies is included), and nuisance abatement which may still justify its use. “

  • The Cats at Work program in Chicago uses feral cats to control rats. One of my friends participates in this popular program. This “green” program eliminates the need to use rat poison, which can harm many other animals. The cats in this program came from Animal Control and likely euthanized. These cats are sterilized, vaccinated, microchipped, and have a clipped ear that indicates that they belong to someone. Several people care for them with regular feedings, water, and a small shelter to keep them warm.
    • According to the Cats at Work program, cats prefer to hunt rodents over birds since they are easier to catch.

Back to my question about how do feral cats survive the winter? The best thing to do is provide small shelters for them so that two to three cats can curl up together and keep warm. Do not line the shelter with blankets or towels that can get wet and moldy. Straw will help insulate them from the cold. If snow is not available, provide fresh water.  PetMD also offers tips on caring for feral cats in the winter.

So, as you can see, the topic of feral cats is very controversial.

Personally, I think the TNR program is a great way to help reduce the cat population. Although feral cats lead a hard life, they do help control rodents, another nuisance species. In the long run, areas that have TNR programs  should be more beneficial to bird populations than areas that don’t have them, since there will be fewer feral cats.

What are your thoughts on the TNR programs or on using feral cats to control rats?

More information is below:

The ASPCA position paper on community cats and programs

ASPCA A closer look at community cats

Is euthanasia at animal shelters an effective tool to decrease the impact of cat predation in the continental United States?  Feral Cats Kill Billions of Small Critters Each Year
Read more:

Feral cats weapon of choice for some residents facing influx of rats

How to Help Outdoor Cats Stay Warm and Safe in Winter Weather  

Photo by Pixaby 

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24 thoughts on “Do Feral Cats Help or Harm an Urban Environment?

  1. I fully support TNR as a humane way to control feral cat populations, and they work! Like someone else said, people want a quick fix but it does take time.

    I support a TNR program in Cape Town, South Africa, called TUFCAT and they have been practicing trap neuter return at one of the citie’s major universities for the past 21 years. The University campus is home to 28 colonies totaling 160 cats when they started in 1999 there counted approximately 356 cats! Fast forward to today, their program has been so successful that other universities and organizations around the country have implemented their model.

    They have also won the Green campus award two years in a row due to the cats’ environmentally friendly rodent control. In addition, not only are the cats surviving but they’re thriving and living into old age. They provide much-needed pet therapy for the students and staff alike and they’re simply known as the campus cats.

    Thanks for highlighting this topic!

  2. I agree that TNR programs are the best way to manage feral cats. Cats have been in the US for a few hundred years now and have become a part of our ecosystem. They do have benefits in reducing rodent populations around human populations (without using all kinds of pesticides around where people live).

  3. I think it is wonderful to participate in a TNR program where they are available and where not, starting one up is a great idea too. Thank you for all of the wonderful resources!

  4. Every time any population doesn’t really fit within a given ecosystem, it is a problem for both the animals and the environment. In this day and age, though, it’s a very common problem. Do you think feral cats are a problem? My mom lives in a CITY (back in my country) and they have a problem with wild boars.

    • I do a lot of work with restoring natural ecosystems, mostly plants. There are so many non-native species these days, it is very hard to get back to a natural condition. People are non-native in most areas. Our forest preserve has to hire sharpshooters since we have eliminated our top predator, the wolf. If a non-native species works to control a problem, I say we should keep it.

  5. Our city is implementing a “no outdoor cats” policy … will be interesting to see what happens….also all pets must be registered and tagged and you get a huge discount if spayed or neutered. This is now making it easier to spot a pet versus a feral cat. But we have a LONG way to go.

  6. We have a couple community cats in our neighborhood. I know my neighbor feeds them so they hang around. I have all the supplies for a car shelter, just have to put it together. Can’t stand thinking about those cats in this cold!

  7. I remember reading about a huge FERAL cat problem in the NYC area. I forget the town. Some wanted to fight to leave the feral cats alone and other not for reasons you mentioned about killing millions of other wildlife. Honestly, I want both protected…the feral cats and the wildlife. TNR does work but the populations are so big. It’s really such a complicated issue with no clear cut black and white solution. 🙁

  8. You will always find someone, somewhere able to produce statistics anti cat doing one thing or another. New Zealand is full of them, all led by a brainless fool of an economist. There are also plenty of pro-cat people fighting back – hard. They are the TNR heroes that make these projects extremely effective.

    I visited Project Bay Cat in the SF Bay area two years ago. There the feral cat population had been reduced over a period of tine by over 75% and it was still falling in 2016. In fact PBC was launching a massive effort to move cats from an area being developed further down the coast – it seemed to be working. What the authorities want is instant results and they want it cheap. As politicians they should realise that isn’t going to happen anywhere in the world.

    Ferals as an issue is the fault of people dumping cats like dirt, and cats not being neutered. Blame the stupid, brainless, cheapskate humans for that.

  9. I’m not an expert on cats at all. I think that using healthy, neutered cats for rodent control in an urban area is a great idea. I also believe (again, not an expert) that TNR is a humane way to care for feral cats. I’ve read a lot of posts saying that birds are being threatened by cats, and also articles that say they aren’t. I honestly just don’t know. However, I have noticed that in the 20 years of living in my neighborhood, we went from having lots of feral cats to just a few or none. When we moved in, there were gray squirrels but no chipmunks or red squirrels. Now we have a lot of chipmunks and red squirrels. I think there is a correlation with the cat population.

  10. I am all for TNR and for cat to control rats. As long as they are being fed and given shelter. This may sound mean, but I don’t care about the birds, I only care about the cats.

  11. We have very few feral or community cats in my neighborhood. There once was an orange female (she was always in heat) who lived around here, but I haven’t seen her in a couple of years. My parents have a bad problem with them in their neighborhood. Many of the older people in that neighborhood will trap them and call animal control. They have no idea about TNR.

  12. I don’t think there is an easy solution that will make anyone happy. TNR seems to be a step in the right direction. Without the ability to reproduce it brings down the local feral population.

    There needs to be more consideration for reducing the reasons for cats becoming feral too. Domestic breeds of cats are not natural to our environments and they can upset the balance of wildlife populations.

  13. Great post Sandy! A lot of our local communities do TNR and I have seen the success of them. Sadly there are still towns that wold rather see cats killed than to implement these types of programs… is such a slow process, but does seem to work. Thanks for tackling this subject!

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