Friday, October 9, 2015

What is a feral cat?

The late Lil Puss loved boxes, but hated veterinary hospitals and became very defensive. Was that enough to label her, even transiently, "feral"?

What do you mean when you use the term “feral" in relation to a cat? Do you use the word to refer to a cat that is a tad feisty? One that hisses at the vet? Or is this something you reserve for a cat you consider wild and untameable??

It turns out there is no real consensus about what “feral cat” means, which could be an issue as the welfare and management of feral cats depends very much on what we’re thinking when we use the term. I must admit to using the term “feral” to describe the behaviour of a small proportion of patients. For example, my own cat, the late Lil Puss, was a sweetie at home, but turned “feral” the moment I brought her into work. And by feral what I guess I mean is, beyond safe handling by any staff member, including myself. The use of the term in such circumstances is really shorthand for describing a type of behaviour.  

But there’s a dark side to the term. I grew up in a sociocultural context where the adjective “feral” immediately rendered a cat a status as lesser than. People would openly brag about how they (often inhumanely) dispatched with so-called feral cats. Yet one concern is that a normal reaction to a cat to a potentially terrifying situation (being handled by a strange human being) may risk it being deemed “feral”.

This cat was found approximately 20km from the nearest human settlement in the Northen Territory and immediately sought refuge when we walked past. Was it a lost moggie or a feral cat?
The question, “What is a feral cat?”, is the subject of a fascinating paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. According to the paper, which was published in 2013, the global population of domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) is around 272 million, of which the majority (58 per cent) are free-living and undomesticated.

There are concerns about this 58 per cent as a potential source of zoonotic diseases, as a reservoir for diseases that affect the other 42 per cent of cats, as a public nuisance and as predators of wildlife. In Australia, the Minister for the Environment, declared war on feral cats.

But who is the enemy? Depending on how you define feral, it could apply to any cat from one born and raised in the wild, hunting for survival, to a semi-owned cat or a grouchy housebound moggie.

According to a study of feline experts in the UK, a feral cat is one that is unapproachable in its free-ranging environment and can’t be caught without a trap. They are fearful of humans and have zero tolerance for human handling.
(As any vet can tell you, domesticated cats can demonstrate this exact behaviour, although in most cases one might expect a domesticated cat to acclimatise to human handling over a short period of time).

What the group could not agree on is whether actively or passively benefiting from human intervention (e.g. feeding) made a cat less feral. One potential compromise is the view that a feral cat can survive without human assistance, but will make the most of it if offered. Some semi-owned cats would fall into this category.

One surprise piece of information in the paper was that the earliest age at which any of the experts was willing to desex a cat was four months. As someone who was trained in early-age desexing, this seems a lost opportunity for population control as many of these cats would be easier to catch as kittens than as juvenile cats.

The experts were divided about whether feral cats could eventually be tamed.
The challenge with regard to population control is there is no inherent property of a cat by which it can be identified as feral. 

The final proposed definition of “feral cat” is this: “…a cat that is unapproachable in its free-roaming environment and is capable of surviving with or without direct human intervention, and may additionally show fearful or defensive behaviour on human contact.”