The Cat Chose Me … So Now What Do I Do?

Few people will argue the point that stray cats have a sixth sense that allows them to hone in on those houses that contain, in cat language, "the person who gives food." Cats have perfected the "pitiful, hungry stare" guaranteed to send certain householders hurrying into the kitchen to bring out plates of tasty morsels.

Various studies estimate that as many as 40 million cats in the U.S. are unowned/feral/free-roaming. A national survey done in 1992 by the Humane Society revealed that nearly 25 percent of all households feed these cats; another study, from the California-based National Pet Alliance, shows that 10 percent do. Eventually, many of the cats make the transition from panhandler to pet: A 1996 study sponsored by American Pet Product Manufacturers Association (APPMA) put the number of pet cats originally adopted as strays at an impressive 49 percent – a figure that far exceeds any other source of adoption, including shelters, breeders and pet shops.

Ideally, all of the cats currently unowned but amenable to a change in status would be able to find owners. But some cats – by the very nature of their homelessness – will never be able to make that transition.

Feral Vs. Owned

The difference between the feral cat and the owned companion is a continuum, at the center of which is what Joan Miller of the Cat Fancier Association defined as "the touch barrier" in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association several years ago. This barrier defines whether a cat can or cannot be successfully transitioned from unowned feline to pet cat.

According to Miller, at one end of the scale are feral cats, which totally shun human touch and must be trapped to be handled. These animals are deemed by shelters or rescue organizations as unadoptable and efforts to "tame" all but the youngest of kittens (six weeks or younger) could well be futile. Trap-Neuter-Return (T-N-R) programs are the more humane and successful alternatives to control these feral populations, as opposed to the generally utilized Trap-And-Kill methods. In the T-N-R program, sterilized, vaccinated cats are returned to a managed colony, commonly in parks or industrial areas, where the stabilized population continues its centuries-old public service of rodent control.

Cats near the middle of this "touch barrier" can, with some patience, be accustomed to acceptance of human handling, and thus become pets. Some of the less wary feral cats, as well as cats that were once owned, but have strayed or been abandoned, will move closer to human habitations, lured by prospects of food and shelter. Miller describes an "interdependent" relationship in which some may still shy from human touch, while others express a more ready willingness for closer human companionship.

"Backdoor-Fed Cats"

These are the "backdoor-fed" or "loosely owned" cats that live in legal and social limbo. Unless they are claimed as "owned," vital veterinary care, including sterilization, and the more complete relationship involved in "ownership" is lacking. Additionally, their cost to the community is great, as they are a primary source of shelter intakes and euthanasia. T-N-R programs are usually done in public or commercial areas of concentration, or colonies, leaving these "backdoor fed" cats to reproduce unchecked in urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Communities and humane organizations are beginning to recognize this "hole in the dike" of controlling surplus births. The city government of San Jose, Calif., for example, provides free neutering or spaying of cats – with no questions asked about ownership. In other cities, humane organizations have advertised programs such as "Neuter Scooter for a Nickle," and "Spay Day USA," and most have ongoing programs of low-cost sterilization, either at their own facilities or through cooperative programs with local veterinarians. Likewise, most larger humane organizations and shelters have low-cost vaccination clinics on site or can direct callers to these services.

Voluntary, incentive-based programs work. The San Francisco SPCA, which in partnership with the city government has built the most successful animal welfare and control program in the country, has condemned the passage of local ordinances that would mandate obligations to these cats. It stresses that threat of fines or punishment will have the opposite effect of discouraging the process of strays and people adopting one another and will lead to the abandonment of yet more cats.