Felis catus

(Domestic Cat)

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, interbreed.

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 as above

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 Cats:

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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