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The Way of the Feral Cat
I am always amazed when people tell me that there are no feral cats in their neighborhood. Just because you can’t see them, does not mean they are not there. They are skilled in hiding. Hiding is a survival skill. They are so adept at hiding that there is currently no accurate count of how many feral cats there are in the United States. There is just speculation.
Feral cats will show up once you put food out, so will stray cats plus any cat in the neighborhood whose owner allows outside. Once you begin feeding a stray cat, other cats will come.
Putting out food for stray and feral cats comes with a large obligation.
If you are not intending to trap- neuter and release the cats, feeding them is not doing these cats any favors.
A group of cats, not neutered or spayed will eventually turn into a large number of cats who are inbreeding, fighting, and becoming out of control.
Cats’ have a feline network that is used to find food sources it's called marking.
Once the source is found, the cat that is feeding will begin marking the bushes with a special “safe” scent drawing other cats in.
Once the clowder gathers, they begin to colonize forming their social groups.
The Alphas take the lead after a battle to establish which Alpha cat will lead. The winner isn’t always a tomcat. Females have been known to achieve the level of Alpha.
The pariahs (or the loners) stay on the outskirts of the colony. They come in to feed after everyone is finished.
It is a life of balance, of power and body language that all the cats acknowledge.
Once the cats begin to colonize, they will begin to mate. One cat becomes two. Two can become six or more
During mating season the toms mate at every opportunity. They fight each other over the right to dominant the females. The battle leaves one tom injured and the other claiming the female.
The females can be mated with repeatedly, by more than one tom. This can result in a litter of kittens being born that have different toms that fathered the litter.
Uncontrolled breeding leads to inbreeding. Inbreeding leads to a greater kitten mortality rate. That is why trapping the cats, and getting the cats spayed or neutered is of prime importance.
Once the litter is born, the mom cat hides her kittens well. Tomcats, if given the chance can easily kill a kitten, or the whole litter to bring mom into a heat so that he can mate. It is a brutal existence.
The feral kittens are born in a dark, enclosed area with several quick escape routes. The kittens will be hidden during certain parts of the day. As they grow, the mom cat watches them carefully. If they start getting too active, she will pounce on them, biting and growling to get them quiet. Noise brings predators and she wants her family safe. She will leave them only to find food or to potty, than return to her nest. Many feral kittens are thus robbed of what domestic kittens enjoy within a loving home; the true pleasure of growing up an active kitten.
The feral mom will leave her brood and find a safe distance away where she will dig a deep hole to urinate. She will then cover her urine sniffing until she is satisfied she has buried it deep enough. Then she will move off an even greater distance repeat the process only defecating in this spot. She does this to keep predators away.
Returning to her nest, if she finds that the nest holds scent, she will grab a kitten’s scruff in her mouth, drag him off to a safer place, and then return to fetch the others.
When she hunts, she eats her fill away from home, buries the rest of the kill and then returns so her kittens can nurse. She will return later to her kill and eat her fill.
When her kittens are old enough to eat solid food, she teaches them to hunt.
Very rarely does she pull the prey into her nest, for this makes her a target.
If humans invade her space, she will attack. Feral moms are protective, swift and aggressive. They will flee first, but if there is no escape they will fight fiercely to protect their young.
It is a life of survival. These cats pit themselves against the elements and against people. They dodge encounters with predators and fight for every scrap of food. They are smart, cunning and easily spooked. If cornered they will fight or flee. They are the invisible creatures in the shadows and some organizations simply want them eliminated. They are a problem we created, and are in need of our help.
Mary Anne Miller is a freelance writer, website content provider and member of The Cat Writers’ Association. Her expertise lies in feral cat socialization, bottle babies and animal abuse issues.