Seeking The truth about feral cats and the people who help them: NEW STUDY YIELDS CONTROVERSIAL FINDINGS

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1992:

BOSTON, MASS. –– The leading cause of death among homeless cats may be
humane euthanasia. Homeless cat colonies exist in almost every American neighborhood––but
four out of 10 homeless cats live in just 6% of the colonies, and two-thirds live in only 16%.
Over half of all stray and feral female cats are pregnant at any given time. Yet attrition is so high
that despite local fluctuations, the national homeless cat population is remarkably stable.
These and other challenges to conventional thinking about homeless cats emerge from
data gathered by ANIMAL PEOPLE and the Massachusetts SPCA, in the first-ever national
survey of cat-feeders and cat-rescuers. The controversial nature of the findings and the complex-
ity of interpreting the data in light of experience became apparent when even the ANIMAL
PEOPLE editors strongly differed over what some of the numbers may mean.

Some of the findings verify what many people who work with homeless cats have
known all along: most of the cats die young; their deaths are often violent or difficult; at least
one in cat in three was once a pet; homeless cats are heavily dependent upon human feeding, as
well as the refuse and vermin they find near
human dwellings; and contrary to the stereo-
type of cats as independent, homeless cats are
anything but solitary, typically living in
colonies of six to sixteen members.
But the survey also indicates that the
homeless cat population is somewhat self-reg-
ulating, tending to remain at or near a particu-
lar carrying capacity just as a wildlife popula-
tion would. Getting at the reasons why would
appear to be the crux of ending the homeless
cat problem. The survey both confirms that
widlife population dynamics don’t fully apply
to homeless cats, and that the factors govern-
ing wildlife population growth do need to be
considered in addressing feline homelessness.
On the one hand, the park pigeon and squirrel
populations in many big cities are apparently
comparably dependent upon deliberate human
feeding and other human-provided food
sources. Like feral cats, many of the pigeons
had domesticated ancestors––albeit mostly
many generations ago. On the other hand,
neither the squirrel nor pigeon breeding popu-
lation is augmented by wandering pets who go
back home after mating, and by the abandonment of huge
numbers of young animals who have been raised among
humans. The squirrel and pigeon breeding populations con-
sist entirely of animals who have grown up and survived
under essentially the same conditions their descendents will
face. Many of the cats who form the homeless cat breeding
population have not survived long away from a home, and
probably will not, in view of the extremely high mortality
rate (more than one in two) among feral females between
kittenhood and two years of age.
In terms of practical action, the survey indicates
that attempts to remove homeless cats from specific sites
without changing the habitat to discourage newcomers
would appear to be futile in the long run. If a given site is
friendly to cats, with abundant food and shelter, more cats
tend to appear. This may be because humans select such
sites as dumping places for cats and kittens; because sur-
vivors who escape capture breed at a faster pace, encour-
aged by the temporary reduction in competition for the
available food and shelter; or because newcomers from
nearby cat colonies wander in and breed, until the carrying
capacity is again reached. At most sites, a combination of
factors is probably at work. While both abandonments and
breeding may continue at a rapid pace after the carrying
capacity is reached, mortality then increases to insure that
the number of cats at any particular time does not signifi-
cantly vary––so long as the food and shelter sources remain
constant. The components of eradicating a homeless cat
colony thus must include not only removing the present
breeding population, whether through capture-and-euthana-
sia or neuter/release, but also responding to the arrival of
newcomers, from any source.
And ultimately the problem must be dealt with at
another level entirely, not on the street but in human homes:
the ultimate source of most homeless cats, whether they are
deliberately abandoned as either adults or unwanted litters,
run away, or breed while outdoors. As ANIMAL PEO-
PLE publisher Kim Bartlett declares, after extensive expe-
rience with neuter/release, “The fertile homeless cats have
such short lives and so many kittens die young before breed-
ing that it is obvious the most cost-effective thing to do is to
concentrate upon spaying and neutering cats in homes––who
may go on having litters and adding cats to the homeless
population for 10 years or more.”
Pointing out that the normal range of such close
relatives of the domestic catas bobcats and lynx tends to be
50 to 300 square miles, ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt
Clifton observes that if homeless cats lived and reproduced
entirely according to the norms governing wildlife, there
would be no more than a few hundred thousand in the whole
United States, rather than the 30 to 35 million experts com-
monly estimate. “If the homeless cat population is reduced
to the population density of say the Scottish wildcat, the
Norwegian forest cat, or the authentic wild Maine coon cats,
the ones who aren’t living and breeding in barns,” Clifton
says, “and if it remains stable at that level, then we might
start considering that wildlife population models wholly
apply. At the present population density, it is clear that
humans are having a major influence on how many cats are
out there, at both ends of their lives––at reproduction and at
While the survey results do not make a case that
euthanizing homeless cats should be discontinued, they do
tend to indicate that euthanasia won’t lastingly reduce the
homeless cat population if undertaken in a vaccuum, with-
out parallel programs addressing habitat and human behav-
ior. Thus the data tends to suggest something more is need-
ed than the dual-focus eradication-through-euthanasia and
spay/neuter-your-pet approach advocated by the Humane
Society of the U.S. and People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals. The data also suggests there is a significant place
for the neuter/release approach to homeless cat population
control, when practicable, as advanced by the Universities
Federation for Animal Welfare in England and the Tufts
Center for Animals and Public Policy in the United States.
In classical neuter/release, cats are altered and vaccinated
against distemper and rabies, then are returned to their
habitat. This typically diminishes the cat population over a
period of two to five years, which enables slower-breeding
rival predators such as hawks and owls to take over non-
human-supplied food sources as the cats relinquish them.
(Human feedings need to be diminished proportionate to the
cat population, meanwhile, to avoid encouraging a rapid
influx of vermin that might draw more cats, if only because
more annoyed humans might drop cats off in the area.)
Who Done It?
Designed by ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt
Clifton and MSPCA humane services director Carter Luke,
who arranged for funding, the survey questionaire was
anonymously published in the July/August issue of T h e
Animals’ Agenda magazine, the last issue assembled by
Cifton and ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett.
The questionaires were collected and tabulated by A N I-
MAL PEOPLE contributing editor Cathy Young Czapla,
while Clifton did the preliminary data refinement and analy-
sis. Anonymity at the survey stage was necessary, the sur-
vey coordinators agreed, because if the people receiving the
questionaire believed it came from proponents of any partic-
ular point of view, the results might be compromised by
adherents of other philosophies failing to return completed
forms. Agreeing on the need for more information, the sur-
vey designers in fact represent generally opposing perspec-
tives: the MSPCA has generally been critical of cat-feeders
and neuter/release, while Clifton, who generally favors
neuter/release, kept detailed statistics on an experimental
neuter/release program that Bartlett formerly directed with
the aid of cat-feeders in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
In all, 159 cat-feeders and cat-rescuers returned
completed survey forms, often accompanied by extensive
documentary material. Response came from 38 of the 50
states and the province of Ontario, Canada. The geographic
distribution of U.S. survey respondents was only roughly
comparable to the population distribution of North America,
but since the data indicated that homeless cat populations
tended to be concentrated in urban areas, the under-report-
ing from the largely rural south and west may not signifi-
Region National Survey
Northeast 20% 30%
Midwest 24% 19%
South 34% 22%
West 4% 21%
Pacific 16% 23%
cantly affect the findings:
Ninety-two percent of the respondents were
female, a striking sexual imbalance even given that approx-
imately 80% of the group receiving the questionaire were
female. The age distribution of female respondents varied
from the national distribution of women in the same age
range chiefly in that many more were ages 30-39, and many
fewer were over 50––one of several findings that may refute
the common perception of cat-feeders and cat-rescuers as
elderly, childless, and isolated. It is to be noted, however,
that the age range of the group who received the question-
Age National Sample Base Survey
15-19 9% 4.9% 4%
20-29 20% 18.3% 21%
30-39 21% 34.9% 33%
41-44 23% 21.7% 20%
50+ 36% 20.0% 19%
aire follows a similar skew.
While only 16% of the respondents had children
under the age of 18, compared with 38% for the U.S. popu-
lation as a whole, 58% were married or living with a com-
panion, vs. 60% for the U.S. as a whole; 13% were living
with family other than husbands and children, and two per-
cent were living with friends. Only 28% were living alone,
not significantly more than the national figure of 25% living
The essential normalcy of cat-feeders and rescuers
except in the matter of compassion was underscored by what
respondents reported about their colleagues. Fully 84% of
the respondents know other cat-feeders. The total number of
cat-feeders known was 626, with a median per respondent
of just over three. Of the 612 whose sex was identified, 101
(17%) were men; 511 (83%) were women. Three percent
of the women were under age 21; 61% were ages 22-55;
and 36% were 55-plus. Support for the elderly/isolated
stereotype came mainly from the male side of the ledger:
55% of the men were ages 22-54, compared with 73% of
the male population over age 21; 44% were 55-plus,
markedly more than the 27% in that age bracket nationally.
A simple explanation is that retired men have more
time available to feed cats, a relatively inexpensive pastime
for the majority. Income distribution among the population
surveyed was markedly higher than the national average in
the upper income brackets, and comparable in the middle
brackets, but there appeared to be little correlation between
expenditures on cat-feeding and personal resources.
Although three respondents reported spending more than
$100 a week to feed homeless cats, sixty-five percent spend
under $10 per week; 15% spend $11 to $20 a week; and
only 20% spend more than $20 a week.
Obviously the majority are not feeding large num-
bers of cats. At the time of the survey, respondents were
feeding 1,421 homeless cats in all, an average of nine
apiece. However, 76% of the feeders were feeding nine
cats or fewer, with the median at three; 16% were feeding
10-20 cats; 10% were feeding 20-100 cats; and 4% were
feeding 100-plus cats. (The percentages add up to more than
100 because of rounding off.) Other cat-feeders known to
the respondents were feeding 1,719 homeless cats at the
time of the survey; a median of 35 cats apiece but an aver-
age of only three apiece. (The huge gap between the median
and the average was because a small number of respondents
[6] knew individuals who were feeding over 100 cats
Do Feeders Cause Breeding?
One of the primary goals of the survey was to find
out what effect people who feed homeless cats may have
upon the growth of feral cat colonies. Animal control agen-
cies conventionally suppose that cat-feeders attract colonies
and stimulate breeding; hence a spate of ordinances against
feeding homeless cats in areas where there have been out-
breaks of rabies or other problems that might be associated
with large unowned cat populations.
The survey data demonstrated rather emphatically
that on the whole, the homeless cat population is both extra-
ordinarily stable and resiliant. Of 1,381 cats being fed at the
time of the survey (summer) by respondents who completed
the first of two relevant parts of the questionaire, 160
(11.6%) were kittens. Kittens who were not yet weaned
probably escaped the count. Three months earlier (spring),
1,204 cats were being fed, of whom 119 (10%) were kit-
tens. This count, coming after the peak period for attrition,
but before the primary birthing season, was the low ebb of
the population. At the onset of winter, six months earlier,
1,336 cats were being fed, of whom 128 (10%) were kit-
tens. One year earlier (summer 1991), 1,313 cats were
being fed, of whom 164 (12.5%) were kittens. Again, kit-
tens who were not yet weaned don’t appear to have been
A second set of questions directed at the same
issue obtained reliable four-season population counts,
including kittens not yet weaned when their presence was
known to the respondents, from a total of 68 homeless cat
colonies. The fall 1991 count came to 429, including 44
kittens (10%): 98% of the annual high. The winter 1992
count, the low ebb, was 384, including 38 kittens (10%):
88% of the high. The spring 1992 count brought the popu-
lation back to 425, including 133 kittens (31%): 97% of the
high. The peak population was reached in summer 1992:
438, including 148 kittens (34%). Although the summer
1992 population was marginally higher than the summer
1991 population, the variance could be the result of just two
more cats raising litters to the age at which they were seen
and counted, and does not necessarily indicate that any real
growth took place, since two litters might have been missed
a year earlier. It is likely that the actual population fluctua-
tions are greater than was recorded, when kitten mortality is
taken into consideration. Studies of kittens in both feral
colonies and home environments have established that under
any circumstances, approximately half of all the kittens
born do not survive past weaning. Because kittens born out-
doors tend to be sequestered well away from human eyes,
only kittens who have survived weaning are likely to have
been counted by the majority of respondents.
Still, the number of adult cats is so steady as to
indicate a quasi-natural carrying capacity, probably closely
related in most cases to the amount of food set out by
humans to augment refuse and prey. The reported sizes of
individual colonies pointed in the same direction: toward a
relatively stable number who can congenially and comfort-
ably share a given habitat, a number exceeded only under
rare circumstances, the most significant of which seems to
be the presence of an extraordinarily dedicated cat-feeder.
This does not necessarily mean the feeders have anything to
do with the reasons the cats are born. Feeders who do not
also spay or neuter will tend to encourage reproduction, but
the cats who did not originate in a fed colony would have
been somewhere anyway. Except perhaps at some very
public locations, feeding cannot be assumed to encourage
abandonments––only to encourage cats who have been
abandoned to congregate in a particular place.
Seven common feeding locations were identified,
each with distinctive population characteristics:
71% of active feeders feed homeless cats on
their doorstep. The median doorstep colony is 7.5 cats; the
average is five. Information was received on 80 doorstep
colonies, including 393 total cats, or 28% of the reported
homeless cat population. Although the survey questions did
not ask about the rate of adoption per type of colony,
doorstep cats would appear to be those most accustomed to
human caretakers. Dumped former pets, in particular,
would be more likely to head for the nearest doorway than
cats born outdoors, away from humans. Doorstep cats are
therefore probably those with the greatest likelihood of
being adopted Further research is necessary to find out if
doorstep cats (and colonies) have greater longevity, being
perhaps less likely to be rounded up as nuisances and/or to
be captured for euthanasia by someone other than the prima-
ry feeder. Many doorstep cats may in fact be quasi-outdoor
pets, rather than strays or ferals in the strictest sense of
either term.
31% of active feeders feed homeless cats
in/around a public building. The median public building
colony is 15 cats; the average is eight. Information was
received on 35 public building colonies, including 288 total
cats, or 20% of the reported homeless cat population. Like
doorstep cats, public building cats would appear to be pri-
marily dependent upon handouts for their food, and would
appear also to be primarily dumpees, since a public building
is not inherently somewhere a hungry cat unaccustomed to
humans would choose to go, but the volume of human traf-
fic does increase a former pet’s chances of wangling a hand-
out or adoption. The number of cats tolerated in and around
public buildings is significantly high compared with the
number found at other workplaces. This may reflect the
greater likelihood of public buildings being surrounded by
green space, especially in older metropolitan areas. No
other explanation comes quickly to mind.
24% of active feeders feed homeless cats at their
workplace. The median workplace colony is 11-12 cats; the
average is four. Information was received on 27 workplace
colonies, including 112 total cats; just 8% of the reported
homeless cat population. Apparently, a small cat population
is welcome in the typical workplace, for rodent control and
as mascots. Large colonies, however, seem to be actively
discouraged. Workplace cats are probably also mainly
dumpees, who arrive at a workplace in lieu of finding a
sympathetic doorstep or congenial public building.
23% of active feeders feed homeless cats in
wooded areas. The median woods colony is 30 cats; the
average is 8.5. Information was received on 26 woods
colonies, including 132 total cats; 9% of the reported home-
less cat population. The relatively large median size of
woods colonies seems surprising at first. However, the
average is close to the average for all locations. Further,
rural colonies in general are significantly larger than urban
colonies. This may be because secure places to sleep are
fewer, causing more cats to congregate in the safe places;
because prey animals are more abundant in the country;
because car traffic is lighter; or because rural colonies are
less vulnerable to capture, being more distant from shelters
and veterinarians and being typically located on private
property without routine public access. Although woods
colonies undoubtedly start with dumpees, and seem to be
augmented frequently with more dumpees, they probably
also include a high percentage of the true ferals––the cats
born and raised completely away from humans.
15% of active feeders feed homeless cats behind a
shopping center or restaurant. The median shopping
center/restaurant colony is 15 cats; the average is eight.
Information was received on 16 shopping center colonies,
including 122 total cats, or 9% of the reported homeless cat
population. There appear to be three distinct shopping cen-
ter/restaurant subpopulations, whose relative size and influ-
ence upon the colony population dynamics has as yet been
quantified only through the Connecticut neuter/release sta-
tistics, and then for less than a single year (albeit at five
locations). One subpopulation consists of cats who are
abandoned at such sites because the abandoners see other
cats around, perhaps see feeders, and imagine that the
abandoned cats will either find adequate food or be adopted
by a passerby. The second subpopulation consists of cats
both homeless and owned but wandering, who may be
attracted either by the food supply or by the presence of
potential mates. These also tend to be essentially tame cats.
The third subpopulation consists of true ferals, who might
be attracted first by refuse, vermin, and other cats, rather
than by human feeders, whose contribution to their diet is
initially supplementary. Whatever the population balance,
human feeders apparently enable shopping center/restaurant
colonies to grow somewhat beyond the level that refuse and
vermin alone would support; without them, only some of
the true ferals would persist in the vicinity. .
Although homeless cats are stereotypically
known as “alley cats,” only 11% of active feeders feed
homeless cats in an alley. The median alley colony is 16
cats; the average is six. Information was received on 12
alley colonies, including 47 total cats: just three percent of
the reported homeless cat population. Alleys may have his-
torically been a more important homeless cat habitat than
they are now. A generation ago, many more food stores
and restaurants backed up against alleys than were located
in shopping plazas and strip developments. Further, more
of the human population lived downtown, near alleys, so
that more feeders may have frequented alleys for other rea-
sons than simply aiding cats––and more people may have
allowed pet cats to wander in alleys. In short, the relative
insignificance of alleys as a habitat today is probably a
direct reflection of changing patterns of human dwelling and
commerce. Most alley cat colonies today probably form in
much the same manner as supermarket/restaurant colonies,
but in decades past they might have more closely resembled
doorstep, public building, and workplace colonies. It is
possible but not documented that some alley colonies might
have existed for very long periods of time, since many
alleys, especially in older cities, predate most other habitats,
and historical evidence indicates most cities have had home-
less cats almost since they were founded.
10% of active feeders feed homeless cats in a
barn. The median barn colony is 40+ cats; the average is
12. Information was received on 11 barn colonies, includ-
ing 132 total cats, or nine percent of the homeless cat popu-
lation. Barn colonies are easily the largest, partly for the-
same reasons that woods colonies colonies tend to be large,
and partly also because barns offer a uniquely favorable
combination of safe sleeping quarters and abundant prey, in
the mice, rats, and birds who are drawn to stored grain.
Most barn colonies are multigenerational; several, in
England, Canada, and the U.S., have had documented his-
tories dating back 20 years or more. While newcomers
including abandonees make a noteworthy contribution to
genetic diversity, barn colonies would appear to be primari-
ly self-sustaining. A case can be made that like cats in
doorstep colonies, the majority of cats in barn colonies are
outdoor pets rather than either strays or true ferals.
19% of active feeders feed homeless cats at other
locations, including near houses but not actually in yards or
on doorsteps; in burned buildings; at vacant houses; in
cemeteries; at campgrounds; in playgrounds; under
bridges; at country clubs; and at project housing, a vari-
ant of the doorstep.
Considering that the range of colony sizes was
from one to more than 100, the typical cat population of six
to sixteen is noteworthy. Nearly a third of the cats (31%)
were in colonies of 10 or fewer. About a fourth (24%) were
in colonies of 10-20 cats. Although only six percent of the
homeless cat colonies included 20 cats or more, such mega-
colonies included 39% of the feline total––and a full 63% of
the cats were in just 16% of the colonies.
In all, 20% of the homeless cats fed by survey
respondents occupy rural habitat; 37% were in residental
areas. 10% were in the vicinity of shopping centers and/or
restaurants; and 32% were at other urban locations. This
finding somewhat parallels the U.S. human population struc-
ture: 27% rural, 73% urban. But the variance may be
important. Although rural colonies tend to be larger, they
cumulatively include fewer than the expected number of
cats, if the feline and human populations are directly paral-
lel. Possibly the shortfall is because the survey failed to
reach enough rural cat-feeders and rescuers, especially in the
south, where the warmer climate is conducive to year-round
reproduction. But again, urban habitat may favor a larger
homeless cat population with more abundant shelter, more
edible vermin, more feeders in less area, and fewer native
predators to compete for food.
Various complex psychological explanations have
been advanced as to why cat-feeders and cat-rescuers do
what they do, but the simplest and most obvious explana-
tion indicated by the survey data is that they simply love
cats. Ninety-two percent of the survey respondents keep
pet cats. Some critics of homeless cat-feeders have asserted
that they may be little different from animal collectors, but
survey responses showed little basis for this belief. Ninety
percent keep between two and 20 pet cats, the normal range
for cat guardians in the U.S.; 57% have two to five pet cats,
closely comparing to the regionally varying average and
median among cat-keepers of three to four cats (reported
and confirmed by a variety of surveys of pet owners under-
taken over the past decade). Another 28% keep six to
twelve cats. Only four percent keep more than 20. There
were several suspected animal collectors among the respon-
dents, whose data was vague, involved huge numbers of
cats, and was anonymously provided. However, even if all
of them actually are collectors, they would still make up
under 2% of the sample.
Of all the one-time homeless cat-feeders who
responded to the survey, 73% are still feeding. Those who
quit usually cited burnout; changes of residence and/or
workplace that separated them from the colonies they for-
merly served; and financial stress, usually caused by job
loss. None said they quit because they had doubts about the
value of cat-feeding.
Among the active homeless cat-feeders, feeding
seems to be part of a lifelong devotion to cats. Twenty-
seven percent had fed homeless cats for two years or
less––approximately the same percentage as were age 25 or
younger. Another 27% had fed homeless cats for three to
seven years; 18% had fed homeless cats for eight to ten
years; 16% had fed homeless cats for 11 to 20 years; and
19% had fed homeless cats for more than 20 years, approx-
imately the same percentage as were age 55 or older.
Age similarly seemed to be the main determinant
with respect to the length of time respondents had been
helping cats in any capacity. Sixty-three of respondents had
helped cats for at least 10 years; 34% for at least 20 years;
22% for at least 30 years; 9% for at least 40 years; and 4%
for at least 50 years.
Feed a cat and she’s yours?
The most popular manner of helping homeless
cats, other than feeding them, seems to be adoption.
Eighty-nine percent of respondents (142 of 159) had adopt-
ed strays or ferals other than from shelters. The median
number of strays and ferals adopted other than from shelters
was four, two males and two females, which is interesting-
ly close to the median number of homeless cats being fed by
doorstep feeders at the time of the survey. These numbers
tend to confirm the impression that feeding a homeless cat
is often the first step toward adoption, and that becoming
part of a fed colony is the surest route into a home for a cat
without one.
Eighty-one percent of respondents knew other
people who have adopted homeless cats, other than from
shelters. The combined figures indicate that adopting home-
less cats might even be more commonplace than feeding
them: in all, 838 adopters were identified, compared with
779 feeders. The combined total of feeders were reportedly
feeding exactly 4,000 cats at the time of the survey, while
the combined total of adopters had taken in 5,096 homeless
cats. The 696 adopters who were not part of the survey had
reportedly adopted a median of 2.8 cats apiece, slightly
under the adoption rate among survey participants.
Of the 2,114 homeless cats adopted by the survey
participants, 575 (27%) were still in kittenhood. The sexes
of 804 of the former strays and ferals were identified: 388
(45%) were toms, while 466 (55%) were queens. Two hun-
dred sixty-six of the queens were pregnant at adoption.
These figures all coincide with the data ANIMAL PEO-
PLE gathered on the homeless cat population of Fairfield
County, Connecticut, as well as with various behavioral
studies of individual feral cat colonies. Regardless of
source, the available information agrees that approximately
twice as many females as males are born, but that females
suffer such heavy mortality within the first year, probably
due to early pregnancy, that the sex ratio is nearly equal
among feral cats of more than one year of age, and is
skewed toward males among feral cats of more than two
years of age.
Ninety-two percent of the respondents who have
adopted homeless cats have had some or all of the adoptees
spayed or neutered. Eighty-one percent of the homeless cats
(1,708) who were adopted were subsequently spayed or
neutered, while another 4.3% (91) had already been spayed
or neutered when picked up. The majority of the 15.7%
who were not spayed or neutered would appear to have been
taken in by the same individuals who reported having the
largest numbers of pet cats––the two or three suspected ani-
mal collectors among the respondents.
The adoption statistics provided important clues to
the ratio of strays, including abandonees, to ferals (among
them the wild-born offspring of some cats who have
homes). The Humane Society of the U.S. has long contend-
ed that the majority of homeless cats are abandoned former
pets (strays). Many neuter/release proponents counter that
the self-sustaining nature of homeless cat colonies indicates
that while the progenitors may have been former pets, the
majority now are feral. The limited available data from
humane society pickup records is inherently unreliable
because most humane societies don’t actively attempt to
round up whole feral cat colonies; rather, they see mainly
the sick and injured cats that patrons bring in. These may be
the cats who are least able to cope with independent living,
by reason of having been raised as pets––whereas the true
ferals may be sufficiently able to cope that they are rarely
taken to humane societies; if sick or injured, they crawl off
to die or recover, rather than seeking human aid.
It is similarly possible that homeless cats who are
adopted tend to be the most sociable: the former pets, who
may also be those most attracted to doorsteps, while the fer-
als prefer feeding locations with less proximity to people.
However, because at least a third of the feeders who
responded to the survey are feeding at multiple locations,
and because they are going to where the cats are, survey
respondents are likely to see a better cross-section of the
homeless cat population that anyone else who has tried to
quantify strays vs. ferals.
As noted above, 4.3% of the homeless cats who
were adopted had already been spayed or neutered. Since
neuter/release hasn’t been practiced on any great scale in the
U.S. yet, in all likelihood these were former pets. Thirty-two
percent of respondents, moreover, had adopted at least one
previously altered cat; they weren’t all coming from the same
few locations, where a neuter/release project might have
been undertaken by someone else. In addition, 78% of the
respondents had adopted homeless cats who seemed used to
human handling––an indicator , if not infalliable, of cats who
had been pets. A total of 626 cats fell into this category;
30% of the the adoptees.
Thirty-four percent of the homeless cats who were
adopted became socialized in less than one week. This neatly
equals the number of cats who were previously altered plus
the number who seemed used to human handling, but those
two statistics really can’t be tallied up into one, because they
might overlap. Still, the confluence of all the numbers sug-
gests that about a third of the homeless cat population are
strays, while the balance are ferals (who may have tame
mothers). Some might also want to count as probable former
pets the 27% who required more than a week of socialization,
but became socialized in less than one month, a number that
coincides with the percentage of adoptees who were kittens.
Maybe. The Connecticut neuter/release project statistics tend
to indicate otherwise, and the most conservative interpreta-
tion of the data is that the 61% of the adoptees who were
socialized in a month or less include both the overwhelming
majority of strays and the overwhelming majority of kittens,
who tend to be more easily socialized than adult cats no
matter where they’re born.
Almost certain to have been ferals were the 18%
who required more than a month of socialization, but
became socialized in less than one year, together with the
2% who eventually became socialized, but required more
than one year of socialization to adapt, and the 9% who
never became socialized. These totals combined come to
Socialization time was not reported for 10% of the
adoptees, who were presumably still in the socialization
process at the time the survey was taken.
What becomes of them?
Sixty respondents (37.7%) had captured homeless
cats and taken them to an animal shelter. The total number
of homeless cats captured and taken to shelters was 751.
The median number of homeless cats captured and taken to
shelters per respondent was 5.5. Four respondents had
taken over 100 cats apiece to shelters. Further, 44% of
respondents knew other people (a total of 213) who also
take homeless cats to shelters. These people are believed to
take 2,604 homeless cats a year to shelters in all. Since the
euthanasia rate for cats taken to shelters, nationwide, runs
around 80%, and since shelters usually euthanize cats who
are sick, injured, or hard to handle as promptly as possible,
it is reasonable to assume that virtually all of the cats deliv-
ered to shelters by survey respondents were euthanized.
Twenty percent of respondents (32) had captured
homeless cats expressly for euthanasia. The median was
two cats apiece; the total was 848 cats, of whom over 500
were captured by a single individual. Eighteen percent of
respondents also knew other people (a total of 83) who cap-
ture homeless cats expressly for euthanasia. These people
were said to be euthanizing 292 cats a month: 3,504 per
The significance of euthanasia as a cause of
homeless cat mortality was underscored when respondents
were asked to quantify the causes of death for as many
individual cats as they could.
Cause of death              %                    % not euthanized
Euthanasia 49 ––
Nuisance removal 10 20
Hit by cars 10 20
Unknown 8 16
Non-respiratory disease 12
Respiratory disease 10
Poisoning (both deliberate and accidental) 4 8
Cruelty 3 6
Predation 2 4
Malnutrition 2 3
Sold to laboratories 2
Furbearer traps .3 .3
Respondents were able to attest to the causes of
death of 2,638 homeless cats. A skew toward euthanasia
was expected because these are the deaths that cat rescuers
are most likely to know about, inasmuch as they require
human involvement, usually the involvement of the person
or persons in closest contact with the cats in question.
Deaths from other causes are more likely to occur outside
the observation of feeders and rescuers. The skew was
indeed high: 48.5% of the known homeless cat deaths
came via euthanasia. Another 10% of the cats were
removed from feeding locations as nuisances; 20% of the
remainder after subtracting those euthanized by rescuers.
Most or all of these were probably also euthanized, bring-
ing the probable total percentage of euthanasias to 58%.
Even if three times as many homeless cats die of
each of the other known causes of death as were reported,
euthanasia would still be the single leading cause––and
that’s not even counting the nuisance removals. Although
most euthanizers might be appalled to be defined as preda-
tors, in ecological terms they are fulfilling the role of top
predator in the homeless cat jungle, maintaining a crude
balance between the numbers of cats and the amount of food
available. Without the euthanizers, the homeless cat popu-
lation might rise by half; researchers Carol Haspel and
Robert Calhoon discovered in 1981-1982 that at least in two
sections of Brooklyn, “The food provided by feeders alone
was estimated to support 1.71 to 2.10 cats per acre, a densi-
ty that is 1.35 times greater than the actual population.”
Then, at that point or whatever point the homeless cat popu-
lation actually exceeded the food supply, mortality associat-
ed with malnutrition would increase to prevent further
growth in numbers. Both the survey and records from the
Connecticut neuter/release project indicate that malnutrition
presently afflicts about three percent of homeless cats;
assuming the Haspel/Calhoon data can be used to project the
potential for homeless cat population growth, and that the
increase in malnutrition would be exponential rather than
linear, relative to other causes of mortality, as many as nine
percent of homeless cats would be starving without the pre-
sent rate of preventive euthanasia. In round numbers, avail-
able data suggests that if 35 million cats are now homeless,
about 1.5 million of them are severely malnourished; 4.5
million would be if the population grew to 50 million.
There is the question of whether euthanasia is
indeed more humane than the various other ends that home-
less cats meet. Only the six percent of euthanasias that were
performed by the survey respondents themselves appear
likely to have been done on site. The 47% of the
euthanasias done by veterinarians and the 41% done by shel-
ters almost certainly required transportation, as well as the
trauma of capture, and therefore involved much the same
kinds of stress as neuter/release, which is criticized in some
quarters as too stressful to be humane. Of the other cited
causes of death, those from being hit by cars and predation
tend to be swift. But deaths from the remaining causes are
more likely to be prolonged and even more stressful than
live-trapping and transport. The question of what is humane
then becomes a question of what quality of life the cats
have, and for how long, before encountering the cause of
their eventual demise.
It is to be noted, as well, that survey respondents
reported six percent of the cats they originally slated for
euthanasia were not euthanized after all. Some apparently
died first of grievous illness or injuries. Others demonstrat-
ed qualities during the capture and transport interval that
bought them a reprieve––and in most cases, a home.
In all, survey respondents identified only 115 peo-
ple, including themselves, who captured homeless cats
specifically for euthanasia, by far the lowest number
involved in any kind of response to the situation. It is clear,
though, that these 115 people are exceptionally dedicated to
what they are doing, and are correspondingly having a
much greater effect upon homeless cat population dynamics
than they might imagine.
Non-respondents to the survey who are known
euthanizers were reportedly less likely than respondents to
take the cats to a veterinarian (only 35% did), more likely
to take them to a shelter (54% did), and more likely to do
the euthanasia themselves (12% did.) One euthanizer
reported using chloroform; the others all used lethal injec-
tions or other forms of administering barbituates.
Although neuter/release is a relatively new method
of addressing the homeless cat problem, 61 respondents
said they had attempted it––one more than had taken home-
less cats to an animal shelter. The large number of
neuter/release practioners in the sample base may, however,
reflect the attention paid to neuter/release by Bartlett and
Clifton at The Animals’ Agenda, which may have encour-
aged more experimentation that would have been found
among non-readers. Still, 35% of the respondents knew
other people who have tried neuter/release, and the total
number of neuter/release practioners identified (249) was
surprisingly close to the total number of people who take
homeless cats to humane societies (273). At the time of the
survey, they had altered and released 4,714 cats.
Forty-five of those who had attempted
neuter/release (74%) said it had effectively halted breeding
in the habitat. Sixteen percent said it had not, presumably
because of a continued influx of fertile cats from other
sources. Ten percent didn’t answer the question.
While critics of neuter/release have often called it
“neuter/abandonment,” 97% of neuter/release practioners
had arranged for the released cats to be fed regularly, and
presumably are continuing to monitor their well-being.
The survey confirmed that access to low-cost neu-
tering is almost a prerequisite for attempting neuter/release
on any serious scale. Seventy-seven
percent of
neuter/release practioners had only their own money to
work with; only 23% got donations from other sources.
Sixty-seven percent, however, had access to discount
spay/neuter operations. Thirty-four percent, just over a
third, got discount rates from a veterinarian, despite the
opposition of major veterinary groups to discounting.
(Another 23% reported having a supportive veterinarian,
even though they didn’t get discount rates.) Twenty-nine
percent got discount rates from a humane society
spay/neuter clinic, indicating that nearly a third of the
humane societies with in-house neutering programs are at
least willing to give neuter/release a try. Twenty-three per-
cent got discount rates through other nonprofit animal pro-
tection groups, while 13% got discount rates through
Friends of Animals (the only national animal protection
group to fund spay/neuter on a nationwide basis.)
The survey confirmed that neuter/release isn’t
going to work everywhere, no matter how well it works in
specific locations. Only 12% of neuter/release practicioners
reported a generally supportive public attitude toward feral
cat colonies in their community; 43% reported that feral cat
colonies are generally viewed as a nuisance; 29% reported
general indifference; and 9% reported mixed community
response. Thus in up to 88% of the feral cat colony loca-
tions, cats released after neutering could encounter hostili-
ty. Where the response is mainly indifferent or mixed,
colonies might be protected by vigilance for a time while
neuter/release practioners work to win greater sympathy.
Elsewhere, neuter/release will probably be successful only
in large self-contained properties such as warehouses and
equipment yards, with limited public access, which are
owned and controlled by members of the sympathetic
The survey finally confirmed that no matter what
methods are used to help homeless cats, plenty of room
remains for all hands to try out ideas. Forty percent of
respondents were personally aware of only one homeless
cat colony, but 19% were aware of two; 18% were aware
of three; 10% are aware of four; 4% are aware of five; 4%
are aware of 10; and 3% are aware of more than 10.
ANIMAL PEOPLE will seek funding for follow-
up study to see whether the stability in homeless cat num-
bers found by this study continues to show up in future
years; to compare the longterm success of neuter/release
and euthanasia in specific comparable locations; and to
answer whatever other questions the first round of findings
may raise. We hope to publish as many letters of comment,
information, and discussion on the findings as we can in
future issues.
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