Feral Felines. Is Cutting Off Their Food Supply Inhumane?


Feral cats, stray cats and domestic cats are all the same species of feline (Felis catus), but there are some key differences between them:

Feral cats are born in the wild and do not have any human contact or care. They are not socialized to humans, are fearful of people and do not make good pets. Feral cats form colonies and survive by hunting. They mostly interact with humans only for food and shelter. Stray cats are socialized to humans at some point, but have been lost or abandoned and left to fend for themselves. They may be less fearful of humans but are still unsocialized to being pets. Stray cats do not depend on humans to survive, but will often beg for food. Domestic cats have been socialized to live as pets, are comfortable around humans, are provided food and shelter by people, and do not hunt for survival. Most pet cats are unable to survive on their own outside the home. (source) The key difference is the level of socialization to humans.

Problems caused by feral cat colonies

Feral cats can cause several issues in environments where they are not native species. Some of the major problems caused by feral cats include:

Spread of diseases – Feral cats can spread diseases to other cats, wildlife, and humans. They are a common carrier of rabies, toxoplasmosis, and other infectious diseases (https://wildlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/FactSheet-FeralCats_FINAL-1.pdf). This presents risks to public health when feral cats interact with people and pets.

Attacks on wildlife – Feral cats are prolific hunters and can decimate local wildlife populations, especially birds. Studies show feral cats kill over a billion birds per year in the U.S. alone (https://wildlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/FactSheet-FeralCats_FINAL-1.pdf). They have contributed to the extinction of several bird species.

Public nuisance complaints – Feral cats cause noise, odor, and sanitation issues. Their feces and urine can spread parasites. Feral cats also damage property by digging in gardens, tearing up insulation, etc. This leads to many public complaints about free-roaming cats.

Why people feed feral cats

Many people feed feral cats out of compassion and concern for their well-being. Stray and feral cats often live in poor conditions, struggling to find food and shelter. By providing regular meals, people aim to improve the cats’ health and chances of survival [1]. Those who care for these community cats feel it is their ethical duty to help, even if the cats are unowned.

Another major motivation is a desire to help control the feral cat population. Regular feeding allows caretakers to monitor cats and bring them to be spayed/neutered. Well-fed cats are also less likely to breed. Thus feeding can be part of a larger effort to humanely reduce cat overpopulation [1].

Impact of feeding bans

One major concern with feeding bans is the risk of starvation for feral cats who have grown dependent on human feeding. Feral cats are not well equipped to hunt prey and often rely on trash or food left out by humans (https://www.mercurynews.com/2016/12/02/what-happens-when-you-stop-feeding-feral-cats/). When food sources are cut off, colonies can face serious risks of malnutrition and starvation, especially in harsh weather conditions.

Bans also often lead to the forced migration and spread of feral cats as they desperately search for new food sources. According to animal welfare experts, preventing starvation may require cats to disperse over wider territories to scavenge, increasing conflict with wildlife and people (https://www.quora.com/If-we-stop-feeding-feral-cats-how-long-will-it-take-for-them-to-go-away). This dispersal can counterproductively spread disease and increase predation. Maintaining stable colonies in set locations with regular feeding allows better population control.

Trap-Neuter-Return programs

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs work to humanely stabilize feral cat colonies. With TNR, feral cats are trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and then returned to their outdoor home where caretakers provide food and shelter (Alley Cat Allies). This approach prevents reproduction and many nuisance behaviors associated with unfixed cats, while also providing health benefits to the cats.

Studies show TNR can be very effective when implemented properly and over time. A long-term study on a university campus found a 66% decline in the cat population over 11 years using TNR, with no new kittens born after the first 4 years (Spehar and Wolf). Success depends on getting a high percentage of the colony fixed. TNR also improves the cats’ health and reduces fighting, caterwauling, and roaming behaviors.

Alternatives to Bans

While some communities have instituted bans on feeding feral cats, there are more humane and effective alternatives that allow these felines to be managed without outright starvation. The most popular alternative is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs.

With TNR, volunteers work to humanely trap feral cats, have them spayed/neutered and vaccinated, and then return them to their outdoor home. This stabilizes cat colonies by halting reproduction. TNR has been shown to be effective in gradually reducing feral cat populations over time.

Relocation of feral cats to barns, warehouses, or other outdoor locations is another alternative. This allows the cats to live out their lives without reproducing. Managed colonies involve regularly feeding and providing medical care to feral cats in designated areas.

TNR, relocation, and managed colonies allow communities to control feral cat populations while avoiding the cruelty of starvation. These programs require effort and expense, but are more ethical than bans that essentially sentence healthy cats to death.

Public health concerns

Feral cats can pose a risk to public health by spreading diseases that are transmissible to humans. Some of the main diseases of concern include rabies, cat scratch disease, toxoplasmosis, and ringworm.[1] Rabies is one of the most serious diseases as it is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. While rare, rabies transmission from feral cats to humans can occur from bites or scratches. According to the CDC, domestic cats are the main source of rabies transmission to humans in the US.[1]

Cat scratch disease is caused by a bacterium called Bartonella henselae which can be passed to humans via a bite or scratch. Symptoms include fever, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes near the scratch. While cat scratch disease is rarely serious in healthy adults, it can lead to more severe complications in children, the elderly, or immunocompromised individuals.[1]

Other diseases like ringworm and toxoplasmosis are less serious but can still pose risks, especially for pregnant women in the case of toxoplasmosis. Feral cats may also attract wildlife like rodents which carry their own diseases.

In addition to disease risks, feral cats can cause injuries from bites and scratches which may require medical treatment. Their feces can also contaminate soil and water sources.

Ecological impact

Feral cats can have a devastating impact on native wildlife and ecosystems. As skilled predators that hunt by instinct, feral cats often kill native birds, reptiles, and small mammals for food (https://blog.catbandit.com/why-are-cats-a-problem-in-australia-understanding-the-impact-of-feral-cats-on-the-environment/). Researchers estimate that each feral cat kills between 5 to 30 animals per day, depending on availability and other factors.

This can pose a significant threat, especially to endangered species. Feral cats have contributed to the extinction of some birds and small mammals on islands and in other sensitive habitats. Even in robust ecosystems, the presence of feral cats can reduce native animal populations and disrupt the natural balance.

In addition to preying on native wildlife, feral cats can spread diseases and parasites to wildlife populations. Feral cats host numerous infectious organisms like toxoplasmosis, rabies, feline leukemia virus, etc. that can infect other animals (https://blog.catbandit.com/why-feral-cats-are-becoming-a-growing-problem/). The presence of feral cats has also aided the introduction and spread of some non-native species that impact native ecosystems.

Overall, feral cat predation and the diseases they carry pose a significant ecological threat. Managing their populations is crucial for protecting wildlife, ecosystems, and biodiversity.

Ethical considerations

There are ethical concerns on both sides of feral cat feeding bans. On one hand, some argue it is cruel to suddenly cut off a food source that feral cats have come to rely on, which could lead to suffering or starvation if the cats are unable to find adequate food on their own (Feral cat feeding bans: The reasoning, risks, and results). Feral cats generally live difficult lives, facing weather extremes, injuries, parasites, and more. Taking away a regular food source adds another layer of challenge to their survival. Animals rights groups like PETA argue that continuing feeding, along with Trap-Neuter-Return programs, can help reduce feral cat populations humanely over time.

On the other hand, conservation groups argue that feral cats are a threat to wildlife if allowed to proliferate. Well-meaning cat feeders can inadvertently help sustain artificially high populations of feral cats that hunt and kill birds, small mammals, and reptiles. This contributes to declines in native wildlife. Banning feeding curtails this, helping protect ecosystem balance. However wildlife may still suffer from other impacts of feral cats even if feeding is banned, so a multifaceted approach may be needed.


In summary, there are reasonable arguments on both sides of banning the feeding of feral cats. On one hand, feeding bans may help reduce nuisance complaints and some of the ecological impacts from feral cats. However, research shows that banning feeding is largely ineffective at controlling feral cat populations and may be inhumane if alternative programs like TNR are not supported.

Going forward, communities could consider compromises such as setting designated feeding times/locations, requiring feeders to register, limiting feeding to TNR programs only, or implementing public education campaigns. Bans are controversial and tend to galvanize both sides, so solutions that bring together stakeholders to find a middle ground may have the best chance of success. With a collaborative approach, communities can work to address concerns about feral cats while still providing options for their proper care and management.

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