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Feral cats prefer to live their lives without any direct interaction with humans. Feral cats will avoid direct human contact. They may live anywhere there is a supply of food, water and shelter. These free-roaming cats have reverted to their wild ways for survival. They take care of themselves in a world that is often hostile and dangerous for them, and their life expectancy is low. If a feral makes it past kittenhood but lives on his own, his life expectancy is about two years. If the feral cat lives in a cat colony with a regular caretaker, he may live to be as much as ten years old.
Some feral cats live in cat colonies that loosely resemble lion prides. A cat colony consists of a group of usually related female cats and their offspring. The size of the cat colonies depend upon the availability of food and other resources. Adult male cats do not live in cat colonies, but friendly behavior between females and males can occur, especially when familiarity exists.
Within cat colonies, female cats, known as queens, will share many activities together such as raising kittens and guarding the cat colony from intruders. The queen cats will nurse, groom and guard each other’s kittens, and they will teach the kittens appropriate behaviors. The queens in cat colonies will often band together to repel other animals, including lone cats and cats from other cat colonies that encroach on their territory. Sometimes a stray cat may eventually be allowed into the cat colony after a number of interactions.
The one activity cats do not share is hunting. Each cat will hunt on its own in its own territory. Territories may overlap, but there is no cooperation between cats in catching prey.
Members of cat colonies will groom each other and rub their bodies up against one another to reinforce their group identity by transferring scents. Inter-cat aggression is not common in cat colonies since the strong familiarity among females helps keep aggression to a minimum. In-group fighting can occur, but this is more likely to happen when resources are scarce.
What Is a Cat Colony?
The living arrangements of free-living domestic cats can be divided into those in which females form small groups or cat colonies, loosely resembling a pride of lions, and those that remain solitary with individual territories.
Since cats are a species of essentially solitary hunters, it is important for cats to establish a hunting territory and that it is defined in such a way as to generally avoid conflict with other cats. This is necessary for the survival of the species. So cats mark their territories using scent from facial glands, urine, feces and anal glands. This territorial marking, together with an extremely sensitive sense of smell, helps cats to communicate effectively and to minimize direct conflicts. In the wild, territories may overlap with neutral areas where cats may greet and interact with each other. If a strange cat encroaches into another cat’s territory, it will normally provoke an aggressive interaction to chase off the cat through staring, hissing and growling. If that is not effective, there will be a short, noisy, violent attack.
Feral cats can and will form small cat colonies based around available food resources. This does not inevitably happen and some will choose to live singly, but it is not uncommon for small groups of cooperating females and kittens to develop. While there may be a very loose dominance hierarchy in these groups, the relationships are complex. They do not form an interdependent hierarchy as would occur with dogs. Relationships in cat colonies are complex, with stronger affiliations between some cats and less affiliation with others. This may be influenced in part by how they are related, age, etc. But they do not develop a social survival strategy nor a pack mentality and they continue to be solitary hunters. So cats are not pack animals, but they have the ability to adapt to form social groups.
Cat colonies appear to only work well when the members of the colony are familiar and when there is no competition over food or other resources. Cats can form strong social relationships with familiar individuals. In feral cat colonies, kittens may often be nursed by more than one lactating queen. There may be a larger central cat colony of females associated with the major food source and smaller peripheral groups that develop around the central colony that have poorer access to the food source, poorer health and poorer reproductive performance.
Male cats are not commonly part of the cat colonies, and they tend to exist on the periphery with large territories that may overlap several groups of females.
Aggression is not common within the female cat colonies. Strong familiarity and relatedness between females helps to keep aggression to a minimum. Aggression most commonly occurs when male kittens reach sexual maturity and are excluded from the group, or between males and females as the tom patrols his territory. Toms are rarely aggressive toward females, but females (unless sexually receptive) will often be aggressive to males that wander too close. Amicable behavior between females and males can also occur, especially where there is considerable familiarity.
How Cat Colonies Form
How do cat colonies form? Cats tend to form groups around available food sources and go off to scavenge on their own only when food is scarce. The size of cat colonies can vary greatly, from as little as two cats up to about 15 cats.
Within the cat colonies, feral cats are quite sociable, forming close friendships with other cats and collectively rearing their young.
Related females and their young form the core of a feral cat colony. One or more older males are also usually attached to the group as well, though they may also mate with females of other cat colonies. Some tomcats stay relatively close to a single cat colony while others have wide-ranging territories.
The overall size of the cat colonies depend upon the availability of food sources and resting and hiding places. Some areas support bigger cat colonies than others. When cats have to depend solely on hunting for their food, groups tend to be smaller. When there are scavenging opportunities nearby, larger cat colonies are found.
Female cats in a cat colony will often band together to repel other animals, including lone cats and cats from other cat colonies that encroach on their territory. They may eventually allow a stranger to join after a number of interactions, but unknown cats can’t just walk into a territory and expect to be accepted.
How You Can Help Feral Cats Get Into a TRN Program or Get Adopted
Cat colonies are lucky to have a human caretaker who brings food and water every day. These caretakers are usually concerned with cat lovers who want to help feral cats survive. They provide nourishment for the cat colony and often keep track of the members’ health.
The best way to control the feral cat population humanely is for a caretaker or rescue group to use the Trap Neuter Return (TNR) technique with the cat colony. TNR involves trapping community cat members, transporting them to the vet for spaying or neutering and rabies vaccination, and returning them safely to the cat colonies.
Adoption is not usually an option for cats in cat colonies since these feral cats are not socialized to humans.
For more information about rescuing stray and feral cats, read our article Stray Cat Rescue: How to Help Your Community.
For more information on feral cats, read or article, Should You Feed Stray or Feral Cats?