A feral cat is one that was once domesticated, or whose
ancestors were once domesticated, but which has reverted to the wild
state. The cat was one of the last animals to be domesticated, and adapts
easily to a wild, free-living existence. However, the feral cat does
not live only in towns, for, in addition to the marauding alley cats
slinking in the shadows of back streets, generations of feral cats have
lived on the fells and other wild places of Britain. As we sailed on
voyages of exploration so the cats travelled as well and many islands
throughout the world now also have feral cat populations. The domestic
cat is closely related to the forest wild cat (Felis sylvestris) or,
as it has become to be known, the Scottish wild cat. This relationship
is made even closer in the fact that the two varieties can, and do,
Areas of suburban housing with their their high domestic
cat populations are not conducive for the establishment of feral colonies.
Therefore feral colonies tend to form in factories, hospitals, derelict
ground, shipyards and in the areas of large hotels. When living in close
proximity like this feral cats usually have a communal meeting area
such as a patch of open ground or a square, these areas are non-territorial
and are sometimes where food can be found, (see below).
In Britain a large percentage of the cat
population is living in a feral condition, usually by their own endeavours.
In towns and cities, and particularly in the large conurbation's such
as London, there is a far higher population of feral cats than the available
food will support. If it wasn't for the army of auxiliary feeders like
"little old ladies" the cats would find food very scarce.
When feral cats meet others of their group,
they may raise their tails in greeting and rub heads and flanks in a
very social manner - even though cats like to "keep their distance".
Similarly, during the day when much of their time is spent resting,
related cats may sleep side by side. In particular, sub-adults often
stay near their mother. As well as reinforcing social group bonds, such
contacts also transfer scent, which leads to group identity.
A lot of the cat family live in forest
and woodland areas where it is not possible to scan their territory
visually, and therefore scent marking is important. Tomcats (males)
have a home range approximately ten times greater than the area patrolled
by the Queens (females). Toms mark out their territory with a characteristic
strong smelling spray, but all cats also mark their territories in less
obvious ways. They have scent glands under their chin, on the top of
the head, along the midline of the back and also along the tail. The
glands that provide the scent during social contact are also used when
marking out the territory. Scent is normally transferred to some prominent
object so that it serves as a warning to other cats entering the territory.
The end of an obstacle such as a low twig or straw projecting into the
cat's path is closely investigated by sniffing, after which the cat
usually rubs the side of its chin against the end of the obstacle, or
at least rubs its body against it.
The picture above shows a tomcat examining
a scent stick, and a female chinning the ground, females will often
spend several minutes at this activity. Examining these scents can tell
one cat a lot about another cat; sex, state of sexual maturity, etc.
can all be derived from these sources. This explains why a cat will
examine these sources even if it can see the cat in question walking
on ahead. In the case of feral cats in towns scent sticks are replaced
by fences, gates, buildings and even car wheel trims for some reason...confusing
when the car moves.
The female cat may start
having oestrus cycles when only three and a half months old though this
is quite unusual. Seven months is more likely, perhaps even later in
the case of some of the long-hair cats. The oestrus period last for
about three weeks, but the signs will be particularly noticeable for
one week. Tom cats are unlikely to be mature before one year and in
some cases may not reach puberty until their second year. Gestation
period is approximately 63 - 66 days after mating. Most litters consist
of four kittens, but larger or smaller numbers are not uncommon. The
kittens are usually born at intervals of between 10 minutes and 1 hour.
The lifespan of cats varies
widely, but in the case of feral cats, these only survive for two years
or so due to disease, exposure to the elements and lack of food. The
main disease is colloquially known as "cat flu" but this is
actually two viral infections; (1) Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR)
(2) Feline calcivirus infection (FIE). The first signs of these infections
are depression, loss of appetite, followed by repeated attacks of sneezing.
The discharge from the eyes and nose will appear clear at first , turning
yellow and cloudy as the bacteria are present, and ulcers are present
in the mouth and upper surface of the tongue making eating painful and
difficult. There is no real treatment for this condition although antibiotics
should help to prevent serious bacterial complications. Vaccines are
available and so domestic cats are protected if the owner does their
job (Some don't), but in the case of feral cats obviously this
is not the case. Even after recovery, cats can continue excreting
the virus and infecting others for up to 11 months.
Eye sores are common in feral cats
Feral Cat Trapping:
Although distasteful, this
is a job which has to be carried out on occasion. As a cat owner myself
(we have three) it is not a job I relish. Some people who have a feral
cat problem will pay to have the cats trapped and speyed after which
they can be released once again in the area where they were trapped.
A lot of times though people only want rid of the problem and in these
cases the cats are trapped. If fully grown it would be impossible to
tame these creatures, believe me they are really wild and would readily
attack you, so they are taken to the vets where they are put down. In
the case of young kittens there is a chance to tame them, though it
is a long task and requires a great deal of patience. Some local organisations
will take these animals in and try and relocate them. As in our case,
I kept three of the kittens which I trapped and took the rest to the
local cat rescue.
Traps are set in the areas
where the cats have been reported before last light. The traps need
to be hidden as employees will either spring the traps or let any caged
animals free. When putting bait into the traps I tend to put a large
amount in so that the animal will have something to eat overnight. The
traps should be cleared in the early morning as it is against the law
to leave an animal in a cage for longer than eight hours and also to
prevent employees setting the animals free. Trapping would proceed for
a period of 5 days or until the known cats had be removed.
Usually when trapping it
would be the sub-adults or kittens which are caught first. The full
adult cats are very difficult to trap and in some cases impossible,
no matter which bait or food you use. It all depends whether the client
will pay for the time required on site as to the success of the exercise.
The future of Feral
Although in the countryside feral cats
have been very successful for centuries with little or no harmful effect
on the environment, in certain places that are considered, on health
grounds, to have been too successful. Hospitals in particular, with
underground networks of ducting, surrounding grounds with shrubs, huge
bins of waste and often a soft hearted nurse offering extra food, have
become a focal point for many feral cats. The health authorities have
for many years tried to enforce a policy of eradication, which in urban
areas has failed. More recently it has been realised that biological
control through an understanding of the feral cat's way of life is a
more acceptable way of dealing with the problem. As mentioned above,
instead of trapping and killing the cats, a proportion of the animals
are neutered, medically examined and then returned to the site. The
presence of these cats tends to stop others straying into their territories,
but means that numbers do not increase.
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