Feral cats are an overlooked invasive species

A few weeks ago I wrote about invasive species. Usually we think of plants when we use that term, but several animals fit the definition too. Domestic cats are a good example.

My neighborhood is overrun with feral cats. There are times I have over a dozen on my front porch. The most likely reason is that I have an outdoor cat and I feed her outside. I might have to change that.

It’s not that I hate cats. In fact I like the fact that I have never seen a mouse or rat around my house. I do feel somewhat sorry for the little felines, so I don’t begrudge that they steal about half of my own cat’s food.

My biggest problem with feral cats is that they can spread disease both to pets and people. They carry toxoplasmosis and other diseases. Toxoplasmosis is a potential nightmare for pregnant women and it’s spread through cat feces. Feral cats also fight with pet cats and these wounds can get infected and cause other problems.

We also can’t overlook the possibility of rabies, which is spread in the saliva of infected animals. Bats, skunks, foxes and raccoons have been the leading traditional suspects, but feral cats are becoming increasingly problematic. In many places they may now be the biggest rabies transmitter. Compared to wild animals, people don’t think about a house cat giving them rabies. The problem is that these cats are wild animals. While a smaller percentage might be infected, interaction with humans or their pets is greater.

Cats are prolific breeders. They become sexually mature at about six months of age and their gestation is slightly over two months. Furthermore, cats are what we call induced ovulators. That means that the act of breeding stimulates a female cat to release her eggs. Because of this and the overabundance of tomcats, virtually all wild queens will become pregnant. If they receive good nutrition cats can easily raise three litters in a year.

Feral cats can have a drastic impact on wildlife populations. Cats are very efficient predators. Many birds and small mammals both game and non-game fall prey to them. Feeding them calls in other animals like raccoons, opossums, skunks and foxes.

Killing feral cats is not a practice acceptable to the general public. I agree for several reasons. Human safety, property damage and killing someone’s pet are just three. One popular practice is the trap, neuter and release program. Once caught, females are spayed, males are neutered and both are released back into the same environment.

Failing to catch the entire population weakens the effectiveness of this technique. Sometimes feral cat populations aren’t greatly affected even if a majority of the animals are caught and sterilized. Furthermore, sterilized cats have much longer lifespans, particularly in high traffic areas.

So what do we do? Feral cats are difficult to tame and therefore are poor candidates for pets. I think the long-term solution is to make sure all domestic cats are spayed or neutered. Feral cats are a human induced problem that gradually worsened and we need to work together to solve it regardless of our strategy. It won’t be a quick fix.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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1 Response to Feral cats are an overlooked invasive species

  1. I believe your solution is the right one. I see the differences between how most northerners, in general, treat their pets, and our neighbors to the south. Spray and neuter the standard in our region. Although I do dislike the feeling that my peers would view me disapprovingly if I didn’t conform to their expectations, nonetheless almost all pets are sterilized and we have almost no feral cats. I imagine the brutal winters are an unmeasured ally in this, but still. As you say, it’s a human created problem, we can solve it.

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