Information About Cats
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Helping Stray and Feral Cats
(See the SCARS “Shake My Paw” Program)
Feral cats, wild cats, stray cats -- we have many names for the mysterious felines we sometimes see peeking out from under our porch or darting into abandoned buildings. Yet most of them share a single destiny: short, difficult lives.
Fortunately, helping feral or abandoned cats isn’t difficult. WebMD went to the experts in cat health and behavior for tips on how to make a difference in the lives of our feline friends who are living on the edge.
How the Problem of Feral Cats Multiplies
First, what is a feral cat? According to Margaret R. Slater, DVM, PhD, senior director of epidemiology, animal health services with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a feral cat is “any cat who is too poorly socialized to be handled ... and who cannot be placed into a typical pet home.”
According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, there are between 60 million and 100 million feral cats in the U.S. They are usually the offspring of cats who were lost or abandoned by their owners, and they grow up not socialized to humans.
Because a female cat can become pregnant as young as 16 weeks of age and go on to have two or three litters a year, the feral cat population -- and the problems associated with it -- grows and perpetuates. In seven years, a single female cat and her kittens can produce 420,000 more cats.
Wild in the Streets: The Life and Health of Stray and Feral Cats
Feral cats often live in vacant lots, dodge cars, and eat from trash cans; face infection, disease, and an endless cycle of pregnancy; and suffer extremes in treatment and weather. The life of a feral, stray, or abandoned cat is often short, sometimes lasting for just two or three years.
Of course, feral cats also leave issues on the human doorstep -- including noisy fights, odor, urinating to mark territory (also known as "spraying" or "marking"), flea infestations, and the inevitable breeding that creates even more unwanted cats.
Many experts agree that one of the best ways to help feral cats and cat groups -- called colonies -- is through neutering programs.
Trap-Neuter-Return Programs: The Key to Helping Cats
Trap-neuter-return (TNR) endeavors are geared toward reducing the number of unwanted cats by catching and then neutering or spaying them. Also called trap-neuter-spay-return or trap-neuter-vaccinate-return, they are endorsed by both the ASPCA and Humane Society.
According to web site of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, stray and feral cats are “humanely trapped, examined, vaccinated, and surgically sterilized by veterinarians.” Feral cats are then returned to their familiar environment and, hopefully, cared for by volunteers, who may provide food and shelter, and monitor them for sickness.
Proponents say the advantages include:
Benefits for feral cats. Neutered cats tend to gain weight and have fewer health problems -- such as breast, testicular, and uterine cancer. Spaying also reduces the risks that go along with pregnancy. Fewer females in heat also means fewer toms attracted to an area, and so fewer risky cat fights.
Benefits for people. Spaying and neutering feral cats offers population control. Behaviors like fighting and marking are also reduced, while benefits such as rodent control continue. Ultimately, less cat suffering also means less human suffering in the face of dying or injured cats.
Not everyone is a fan of TNR. Some fish and wildlife advocates maintain that re-releasing feral cats after neutering simply constitutes re-abandonment and doesn’t permanently address the larger problem.
The Problem With Relocation and Eradication
Some people advocate relocating or “putting down” feral cats instead. Relocation may sound like a humane solution, but it is ultimately ineffective due to the “vacuum effect.” Feral cats gather where there are resources: food, water, and shelter. When an existing colony is relocated (or eradicated), before long a new flock of feral cats will discover the same resources and move in to “fill the vacuum.”
Relocation is unappealing for other reasons. Because cats are very territorial, a relocated cat may try to find its way home, suffering accident or death on the way. The relocation area may already have an established colony or it may lack food, water, or shelter. Unless a colony’s life is in danger, most experts agree that relocation is almost always a bad solution.
Most people are not willing to support eradication, either. With a TNR effort, “people will give their time, money, and resources,” says Slater, author of Community Approaches to Feral Cats. “But if you’re catching and euthanizing cats, in most cases you just won’t get volunteers to do that.”
She also sees TNR as a teaching tool. “It gets people to think about how we can prevent cats from ending up on the street and how we can manage cat populations.”
Why Feral Cat Adoption Is Not an Option
Many experts agree that feral adult cats simply can’t be tamed. They are wild animals, like raccoons. They tend to stay away from humans, hide during the day, and when adopted, are very difficult to socialize. Just like you would never try to handle a raccoon, you should never try to pick up a feral cat. Call for assistance from the humane society or other animal welfare center.
The ASPCA advocates adopting the many available domestic cats and kittens rather than trying to tame feral cats.
However, feral kittens -- especially those less than 8 weeks old -- often can be socialized. Abandoned and lost cats can also be reintroduced to domestic living.
How can you tell a stray from a feral cat? Lost or abandoned felines are usually comfortable around people and will frequently attempt to live near humans -- under porches, or in garages, sheds, or backyards.
Still, Slater maintains that TNR is the most humane and effective long-term solution. “What we’ve done historically hasn’t gotten us anywhere,” she says. “We need to try something different. We’re not talking about neutering cats and then dumping them. What we’re really talking about is managed colonies, with a human feeding the cats, caring for them, getting them health care, providing them shelter.”
5 Ways You Can Help Stray and Feral Cats
From little to big, there are many ways to help stray and feral cats. Here are some, beginning with one you can do at home:
Don’t contribute to the problem. “It goes without saying that you should spay and neuter your own cats,” says Linda P. Case, MS, author of Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends. She also suggests keeping your cat indoors -- not only for her safety, but also to prevent her from getting lost and ending up part of a feral colony.
Don’t feed and forget feral cats. Feeding feral and stray cats is generous, but they need health care as well. If you can’t manage ongoing care, “at the very least, get the cat neutered,” suggests Case.
Show you care with cash. A little money can go a long way to help a cat. Spay/neuter surgeries may cost as little as $17 for shelters to perform, so a single $20 donation can dramatically change the life of a feral cat. Contact your nearest Humane Society to find out if they’ve got a TNR program; if they don’t, they’ll know who does. You can also donate money to animal welfare groups through an estate or will.
Volunteer your time. TNR and similar programs are often run by nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteer help. If you can’t aid in a clinical setting, you can be involved at the community level -- contacting local veterinarians and businesses, writing letters, fund-raising, or staffing a booth at a community event.
Become a colony caretaker. “In a managed colony, cats can live to be 12 to 16 years old,” says Slater. In fact, she adds, studies of 100,000 managed feral cats in TNR programs found that most were in good health. If you think you can provide ongoing shelter, food, or health care to a group of feral cats, contact your local Humane Society, veterinary hospital, or other animal welfare group to find out how to get started. But before you do, understand that committing to care for a colony is a big responsibility. The colony will become dependent on you, just as a domestic cat would be. If you go away or move, it’s vital you find someone else to care for the cats in your absence.
“As part of living in a civilized society, it is our obligation to look after those who are weak, sick, or powerless,” says Slater. “Our responsibility includes our domestic animals, whom we took from the wild and made dependent on us.”
Introducing Your New Cat to Your Dog
It’s important to have realistic expectations when introducing a new pet to a resident pet. Some cats are more social than other cats. For example, an eight-year-old cat that has never been around other animals may never learn to share her territory (and her people) with other pets in the household. However, an eight-week-old kitten separated from her mom and littermates for the first time, might prefer to have a cat or dog companion.
Cats are territorial and need to be introduced to other animals very slowly in order to give them time to get used to each other before there is a face-to-face confrontation. Slow introductions help prevent fear and aggression problems from developing.
PLEASE NOTE: When you introduce pets to each other, one of them may send “play” signals that can be misinterpreted by the other pet. If those signals are interpreted as aggression by one animal, then you should handle the situation as “aggressive.”
Confine your new cat to one medium-sized room with her litter box, food, water and a bed. Feed your resident pets and the newcomer on each side of the door to this room. This will help all of them to associate something enjoyable (eating!) with each other’s smells. Don’t put the food so close to the door that the animals are too upset by each other’s presence to eat. Gradually move the dishes closer to the door until your pets can eat calmly, directly on either side of the door. Next, use two doorstops to prop open the door just enough to allow the animals to see each other, and repeat the whole process.
Switch sleeping blankets or beds between your new cat and your resident animals so they have a chance to become accustomed to each other’s scent. Rub a towel on one animal and put it underneath the food dish of another animal. You should do this with each animal in the house.
Switch living areas
Once your new cat is using her litter box and eating regularly while confined, let her have free time in the house while confining your other animals to the new cat’s room. This switch provides another way for the animals to experience each other’s scents without a face-to-face meeting. It also allows the newcomer to become familiar with her new surroundings without being frightened by the other animals.
Avoid fearful and aggressive meetings
Avoid any interactions between your pets that result in either fearful or aggressive behavior. If these responses are allowed to become a habit, they can be difficult to change. It’s better to introduce your pets to each other so gradually that neither animal becomes afraid or aggressive. You can expect mild forms of these behaviors, but don’t give them the opportunity to intensify. If either animal becomes fearful or aggressive, separate them, and start over with the introduction process in a series of very small, gradual steps, as outlined above.
If one of your pets has a medical problem or is injured, this could stall the introduction process. Check with your veterinarian to be sure that all of your pets are healthy. You’ll also want to have at least one litter box per cat, and you’ll probably need to clean all of the litter boxes more frequently. Make sure that none of the cats are being “ambushed” by another while trying to use the litter box. Try to keep your resident pets’ schedule as close as possible to what it was before the newcomer’s appearance. Cats can make lots of noise, pull each other’s hair, and roll around quite dramatically without either cat being injured. If small spats do occur between your cats, you shouldn’t attempt to intervene directly to separate the cats. Instead, make a loud noise, throw a pillow, or use a squirt bottle with water and vinegar to separate the cats. Give them a chance to calm down before re-introducing them to each other. Be sure each cat has a safe hiding place.
Dogs can kill a cat very easily, even if they’re only playing. All it takes is one shake and the cat’s neck can break. Some dogs have such a high prey drive they should never be left alone with a cat. Dogs usually want to chase and play with cats, and cats usually become afraid and defensive. Use the techniques described above to begin introducing your new cat to your resident dog. In addition:
If your dog doesn’t already know the commands “sit,” “down,” “come” and “stay,” you should begin working on them. Small pieces of food will increase your dog’s motivation to perform, which will be necessary in the presence of such a strong distraction as a new cat. Even if your dog already knows these commands, work with obeying commands in return for a tidbit.
After your new cat and resident dog have become comfortable eating on opposite sides of the door, and have been exposed to each other’s scents as described above, you can attempt a face-to-face introduction in a controlled manner. Put your dog’s leash on, and using treats, have him either sit or lie down and stay.
Have another family member or friend enter the room and quietly sit down next to your new cat, but don’t have them physically restrain her. Have this person offer your cat some special pieces of food or catnip. At first, the cat and the dog should be on opposite sides of the room.
Lots of short visits are better than a few long visits. Don’t drag out the visit so long that the dog becomes uncontrollable. Repeat this step several times until both the cat and dog are tolerating each other’s presence without fear, aggression or other undesirable behavior.
Let your cat go
Next, allow your cat freedom to explore your dog at her own pace, with the dog still on-leash and in a “down-stay.” Meanwhile, keep giving your dog treats and praise for his calm behavior. If your dog gets up from his “stay” position, he should be repositioned with a treat lure, and praised and rewarded for obeying the “stay” command. If your cat runs away or becomes aggressive, you’re progressing too fast. Go back to the previous introduction steps.
Although your dog must be taught that chasing or being rough with your cat is unacceptable behavior, he must also be taught how to behave appropriately, and be rewarded for doing so, such as sitting, coming when called, or lying down in return for a treat. If your dog is always punished when your cat is around, and never has “good things” happen in the cat’s presence, your dog may redirect aggression toward the cat.
Directly supervise all interactions between your dog and cat
You may want to keep your dog on-leash and with you whenever your cat is free in the house during the introduction process. Be sure that your cat has an escape route and a place to hide. Keep your dog and cat separated when you aren’t home until you’re certain your cat will be safe.
Dogs like to eat cat food. You should keep the cat food out of your dog’s reach (in a closet or on a high shelf). Eating cat feces is also a relatively common behavior in dogs. Although there are no health hazards to your dog, it’s probably distasteful to you. It’s also upsetting to your cat to have such an important object “invaded.”
Unfortunately, attempts to keep your dog out of the litter box by “booby trapping” it will also keep your cat away as well. Punishment after the fact will not change your dog’s behavior. The best solution is to place the litter box where your dog can’t access it, for example: behind a baby gate; in a closet with the door anchored open from both sides and just wide enough for your cat; or inside a tall, topless cardboard box with easy access for your cat.
A word about kittens and puppies
Because they’re so much smaller, kittens are in more danger of being injured, of being killed by a young energetic dog, or by a predatory dog. A kitten will need to be kept separate from an especially energetic dog until she is fully grown, and even then she should never be left alone with the dog. Usually, a well-socialized cat will be able to keep a puppy in its place, but some cats don’t have enough confidence to do this. If you have an especially shy cat, you might need to keep her separated from your puppy until he matures enough to have more self-control.
When to get help
If introductions don’t go smoothly, seek professional help immediately. Animals can be severely injured in fights, and the longer the problem continues, the harder it can be to resolve. Conflicts between pets in the same family can often be resolved with professional help. Punishment won’t work, though, and could make things worse.
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