In her practice, Dr. Jacqui sees dogs and cats with a variety of behavioral problems from aggression to house-soiling. She frequently lectures to veteranarians and the public about canine and feline behavior.
The term "feral" means "untamed" or "wild"; therefore a feral cat refers to an untamed or wild cat. Feral cats may be previously owned cats that were abandoned and reverted to a wild state or a cat that was the offspring of a feral/stray mother and never had significant human contact.
A stray cat is a cat that has strayed from its home, perhaps in search of a mate. These lost cats are usually a bit more comfortable around people but may eventually become wary of people and revert to a more feral state. Their offspring, if born outdoors and without human contact are likely to be feral.
Often times it is hard to see feral cats; they tend to be very wary of humans and therefore we often only get fleeting glimpses of them as they scamper away. If you did get a good look, you would see that feral cats look just like housecats - a wide range of colors, hair length and body size is represented. If they aren't finding proper nutrition, their hair coat and body weight may appear unthrifty. Often they are intact (not spayed or neutered) which will result in the male cats having testosterone-linked thick cheeks (called shields) and the females having distended, pregnant bellies.
Feral cats live everywhere outdoors: in parks, industrial areas, downtown, in neighborhoods, etc. They often congregate around a food source, such as a restaurant, a farm, a backyard food bowl or in a public park with garbage cans. Groups of feral cats are considered a colony.
Feral cats are domesticated cats that have reverted to a wild state. Because they are domesticated animals, they are not well equipped to live successfully as true wild animals, such as lions or bobcats. In addition, our communities contain lots of hazards for a cat including cars, dogs and diseases. If intact, females will become pregnant adding to the physical demands that her body must endure. So while some do survive for a period of time living as a feral cat, it is often a life of suffering unless a human provides assistance.
There are many different ways to help feral cats. Often the most pressing issue to relieve animal suffering is identifying a caregiver who is dedicated to providing the colony or individual feral cat with a reliable and balanced food source. Once this is established, the caregiver must ensure that all the cats are sterilized (spayed/neutered) so they can no longer reproduce. Cats are very prolific reproducers - a single female cat will usually have about 8 kittens per year (2 litters of four kittens). Sterilization is often accomplished with the assistance of local organizations that are dedicated to trap-neuter-return programs for feral cats. Volunteering time and/or donating money to organizations that help feral cats or promote pet sterilization can also have a positive impact on the feral cat situation. Another very important thing that can be done is educating people about pet overpopulation and the need for responsible pet ownership and sterilization.