The National Feline Research Council estimates that there are 32 million feral cats currently living in the United States, with 76 percent of the population living in urban areas. Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, feral cats are not the same as stray cats. Feral cats are domestic cats that are unowned; they are free roaming, “wild” cats that are not socialized to humans. Stray cats refer to cats that were once owned and have become lost or otherwise disconnected from their original homes.
According to Joe Elmore, president and CEO of the Charleston Animal Society, the feral cat population has exploded over the past several decades nationwide, and with the accelerated development in the Tri-County area, more and more cats are being flushed out of the areas that were once their natural habitat. Data from the American Veterinary Association (AVMA) shows feline and canine population growth is proportional to human population growth.
Cats can become pregnant at just five months of age, quickly escalating into an overwhelming number of kitten litters when cats are left unaltered and free to roam. Animal rescue organizations had to take a definitive approach to control the population.
“Charleston Animal Society led the effort in 2010 to launch one of the most aggressive trap-vaccinate-alter-return to habitat (TVAR) strategies in the country to bring down the free roaming cat population,” Elmore stated. “It has worked and is both a national and international model of success. Based on shelter intake data over a 10-year period, cats in Charleston County have declined approximately 20%, which is amazing considering the amount of growth and development that has taken place.”
The Animal Society’s goal is to reduce free roaming cat colonies with the TVAR approach, rather than using trapping and killing. Elmore explained that TVAR is the most effective and humane strategy because people participate in high numbers by reporting the cats who can be brought in for vaccination and sterilization. The Animal Society sterilizes thousands of cats each year, with kittens and friendly cats directed to adoptions; only the feral cats are returned to their natural, outdoor environments. Before returning to
their habitats, the cats will have their left ears clipped to indicate that they have been spayed or neutered.
What should you do if you find a colony of feral kittens?
“Keep in mind, nearly always, feral cats are frightened of strangers and will leave the area before the stranger sees them,” suggested Elmore. “Then, when the stranger leaves, the cat returns to her litter. If the kittens are clean, plump, and sleeping quietly in a heap, odds are that they have an attentive mom and should be left alone. Abandoned kittens will be dirty and the nest will be soiled, and they will cry continuously because they’re hungry.”
Elmore recommends watching from a distance for several hours before removing the kittens to be sure the mother is not returning.
Kittens receive the vital nutrients they need from their mothers, including important antibodies that help fight disease. The routine of natural feeding from the parent is impossible to replicate. Once the kittens are healthy and not dependent on the mother’s care,
contact Charleston Animal Society or a local animal organization to determine if they can take them in and prepare them for adoption. Request guidance and instructions on how to trap the mother cat, which is critical to preventing future litters.
Elmore continued, “Hundreds of kittens will begin flooding Charleston Animal Society this month and now is the critical time of year that foster volunteers are needed to care for the kittens (approximately two to four weeks) until they are healthy enough to be spayed or neutered, then placed for adoption.”
More information on foster opportunities and training may be found at CharlestonAnimalSociety.org/foster.
Feral Cat Helpers, a nonprofit cat rescue organization in Mount Pleasant, also employs a TVAR program that has helped over 300 cats. They also have a dedicated group of volunteers who feed and provide outdoors shelters to current cat colonies, caring for 50 feral cats each day.
Feral Cat Helpers joined forces with PetSmart, and together, they have hosted events that have facilitated over 120 adoptions of cats and kittens. To learn more about Feral Cat Helpers, visit their Facebook page or find them online at FeralCatHelpers.com.