Feral Cat Feeding in NY. Is It Against the Law?


Feral cats are unowned domestic cats that live outdoors and avoid human contact. They form colonies in areas where they can find food and shelter. Many people care for feral cat colonies by regularly feeding them. However, there is debate around whether it is legal to feed feral cats, especially in dense urban areas like New York City.

This article will examine the legality of feeding feral cats under New York State and New York City laws. We’ll look at the perspectives both for and against feeding feral cats, enforcement issues, and alternatives to consider.

Definition of a Feral Cat

Feral cats are cats that were once domesticated but have reverted to a wild state and are unaccustomed to human contact. According to studies, there is no widely accepted definition of a feral cat [1]. However, feral cats are generally distinguished from stray cats and outdoor pet cats in the following ways:

Feral cats have had little to no human contact and do not allow humans to handle or touch them. They are fearful of people and survive on their own by hunting and scavenging. Stray cats may have once been pets or are lost or abandoned pets. They are accustomed to human contact to some degree. Outdoor pet cats are owned by people but are allowed to roam freely outdoors.

While stray cats are socialized to people and may approach them, feral cats almost always avoid human interaction. Feral cats form colonies in locations where food and shelter are available, while stray cats do not live in groups. Feral cats are considered unsocialized or under-socialized to humans [2].

Overall, feral cats display more aggressive behavior and an extreme fear of people compared to stray and outdoor pet cats. Their lack of socialization and dependence on humans is what defines them as feral [3].

New York State Laws

In New York state, there are no laws that specifically prohibit feeding feral cats. Feral cats are considered “companion animals” under Section 350 of New York’s Agriculture and Markets Law (Source 1). This means they have the same legal status as domesticated pet cats. There are also no state laws requiring cats to be licensed or vaccinated.

While feral cats are not considered “wildlife” under state law, the Department of Environmental Conservation does advise against feeding them for ecological reasons. The DEC states that feeding feral cats contributes to overpopulation and can negatively impact native wildlife that the cats may prey upon (Source 2). However, this is a recommendation and not legally enforceable.

Overall, there are no New York state laws prohibiting or restricting the feeding of feral cats. It is legal to do so, though not necessarily encouraged by state wildlife agencies.

New York City Laws

In New York City, there are no laws prohibiting individuals from feeding stray or feral cats. However, the NYC Health Code does prohibit actions that encourage animals to congregate in such a way that contributes to unsanitary conditions. This means that if feeding feral cats results in accumulation of cat feces, garbage or other issues, the feeder could potentially face fines. The health department recommends utilizing well-managed Trap-Neuter-Return programs to humanely manage feral cat colonies while avoiding nuisance conditions.


Laws against feeding feral cats in New York are not often strictly enforced. According to Bideawee, an animal welfare organization, while it is technically illegal to feed feral cats under New York state law, this law is rarely enforced unless someone makes a complaint. The organization notes that enforcement seems to focus more on mitigating nuisance issues rather than punishing people for feeding cats.

In New York City, the feral cat feeding ban is also not heavily enforced. The NYC Feral Cat Initiative, run by the NYC Animal Alliance, actively promotes Trap-Neuter-Return programs that involve feeding and caring for feral cats as a humane method of population control. They note that prosecution for feral cat feeding is extremely rare.

If penalties are enforced, they seem to be minor. Feeding bans violate public health codes, so fines would likely be imposed similar to a health code violation. However, there are few reports of any tickets or fines actually being issued to cat feeders in NY.

Perspectives Against Feeding

There are several arguments that people make against feeding feral cats. One common complaint is that feeding feral cats can lead to nuisance issues in neighborhoods. Feral cat colonies that are regularly fed can grow quite large, and the smell, noise, and mess created by large groups of cats can upset residents (Feline Research). Additionally, some argue that feeding feral cats enables them to reproduce more, exacerbating feral cat overpopulation. Providing a ready food source allows cats in colonies to thrive and produce more kittens that also become part of the colony (PetHelpful).

There are also ecological arguments against feeding feral cats. Since cats are natural predators, large groups of feral cats can negatively impact local wildlife populations, including songbirds and small mammals. Regular feeding enables feral cats to be healthier and better hunters, increasing their impact on wildlife. Some conservationists argue that the harm to local ecosystems caused by feeding feral cats outweighs any benefit to the cats themselves (RMHBH).

Perspectives For Feeding

Many argue that feeding feral cats is a humane and compassionate act. There are several reasons people support feeding community cats:

Preventing starvation – Feral cats rely on human food sources to survive. If feeding is stopped, they could starve. Feeding allows the cats to live without suffering from hunger.

Animal welfare – For cat lovers, not feeding a hungry animal in need goes against their ethics. They view feeding as an act of kindness.

Population control – Regular feeding keeps cats in one area and easier to trap for spay/neuter programs. Unfed cats may spread out over larger areas searching for food.

Reducing public health risks – Feeding keeps the cats healthy and reduce the spread of diseases. Well-fed cats also have less reason to hunt wildlife or look in trash for food scraps.

According to Alley Cat Allies, an advocacy group, banning feeding can lead to “inhumane repercussions” for cats. They argue that community cats become dependent on feeding and suffer without this regular food source (Source 1).

Impacts on Feral Cat Colonies

Research has shown that continuously feeding feral cat colonies can actually lead to an increase in the cat population size over time. One study conducted by Faunalytics tracked a feral cat colony in Florida for two years. During the study period, residents and caretakers consistently fed the cats, yet only 30-50% of the cats were sterilized. At the end of the two years, the total cat population had increased despite the regular feeding. The researchers concluded that the abundant food source allowed the cats to breed and have larger litters.

In contrast, discontinuing feeding can help reduce feral cat colonies naturally over time. A report by the National Feline Research Council reviewed several cases where bans on feeding feral cats were implemented. In almost every case, the size of the cat colony decreased by attrition over a period of months. While discontinuing feeding is controversial, it puts pressure on caretakers to trap, neuter, and return the cats so they cannot reproduce. This more actively controls the population rather than enabling it to grow unchecked.

Overall, continuously feeding an untrapped feral cat colony can lead to population increases, while discontinuing feeding encourages natural and non-lethal colony reduction over time. The impacts depend significantly on whether the cats have been sterilized before feeding occurs. However, discontinuing feeding appears to be an effective method to motivate caretakers to implement trap-neuter-return programs that will humanely reduce the colony size.

Alternatives to Feeding

There are alternatives to directly feeding feral cats that can help manage colonies humanely and effectively. One of the most widely recommended approaches is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs. In TNR programs, volunteers work to humanely trap feral cats, have them spayed/neutered and vaccinated, and then return them to their outdoor colony locations. TNR helps stabilize and gradually reduce feral cat populations since the cats cannot reproduce. TNR also has health benefits since vaccinated cats are less prone to disease spread.

Many animal welfare organizations and shelters coordinate TNR efforts and provide resources for community volunteers to get involved. For example, the ASPCA has a comprehensive TNR program offering guidance and free/discounted services in some areas. Neighborhood Cats also provides an online TNR how-to guide and directory of TNR resources across the U.S.

Instead of direct feeding, concerned residents can support organizations that carry out TNR and then provide ongoing care and monitoring of cat colonies. This organized approach helps avoid potential unintended consequences of unmanaged colonies and ad-hoc feeding. Ultimately, TNR paired with public education offers the most sustainable and humane solution for community cats.


The issue of feeding feral cats in New York is a complex one with no easy answers. Laws prohibit feeding in some areas, but are rarely enforced. While those opposed argue it leads to increased populations and environmental damage, proponents say it’s the humane choice for preventing starvation. The impacts on colonies and alternatives like TNR remain debated. There are reasonable points on both sides, highlighting the need for further discussion and study to find an ethical approach balancing animal welfare, public health, and environmental concerns. The takeaway is that this is a nuanced issue requiring compromise and continued work to address the underlying causes humanely and effectively. Questions remain about the best paths forward. But with open and compassionate dialogue, New Yorkers can hopefully find solutions that reduce feral populations and suffering while protecting nature and communities.

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