What to call cats, & why their name matters
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2009:
What to call cats, & why their name matters
Commentary by Merritt Clifton
In the beginning of the mass media era was just the word
“cat.” Cats were on the land and over the land, but cat-related
controversies were as seldom seen as cats themselves, in an urban
ecology then dominated by ubiquitous street dogs. From the debut of
rotary-printed newspapers in the mid-19th century, cats by any name
were not a visible problem for more than 60 years. The sum of
reportage and editorial attention to cats in the entire 19th century
was slight: just 192 items published in U.S. newspapers mentioned
“stray cats,” according to NewspaperArchive.com, which makes
accessible the newspaper holdings of the Library of Congress. “Alley
cats” were mentioned 32 times. The term “feral cat” was not used at
1910, however, was perhaps the worst year for the image of
cats in more than two centuries, since cats were last commonly
condemned as alleged “familiars” of “witches.” In 1910 the U.S.
Department of Agriculture reported that outbreaks of rabies,
diptheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox had been traced to “alley
cats” consorting with free-roaming pets.. “As much danger lurks in a
cat as in a rat,” the USDA warned.
Controlling disease by tracing vectors and trying to
eliminate them was already an old idea. This had been a primary
pretext for the medieval purges of alleged witches and familiars,
which actually had the net effect of purging whole regions of
traditional healers, and of extirpating one of the first lines of
community defense against disease-carrying rodents. Dogs consumed as
many rats and mice as ever, but they could not go everywhere a cat
can. Millions of people died because cats were persecuted.
The USDA in 1910 was trying to be scientific, but despite
having gained a basic understanding of the roles of microbes and
viruses, the USDA scientists still understood disease transmission
only slightly better than the judges at witch trials. Among the
then-common epidemic diseases that the USDA attributed to cats, only
rabies is actually easily transmissible by cats, and then only if
the cats have had exposure to other rabid species. As cats are not
the host species for any rabies strain, they are not a primary
“The stray cat therefore not having the proper attention
should be exterminated,” recommended the Washington Post in 1913.
“Some physicians are in favor not only of exterminating the stray cat
but of isolating the pet cat when there is disease present.”
Then as now, people concerned about cat proliferation scared
themselves and others with exaggerated estimates of feline fecundity.
“One stray cat will bring from ten to 50 kittens into the world,”
projected a syndicated article published by many Midwestern
newspapers in 1912. The tendency to exaggerate continued even after
John Marbanks conducted exhaustive research to put the U.S.
population of stray cats at circa 10 million in 1927, 20 million in
1937, and 30 million in 1950. The gist of Marbanks’ findings was
that cats were occupying habitat left by a declining population of
street dogs, at the rate of about three cats moving in to replace
each dog who could no longer make a living after refuse was mostly
buried or burned, sewers were enclosed, and automobiles replaced
animal-powered transport, resulting in an urban environment much
less congenial to dogs.
Birders decrying cat depredation and hunters clamoring for an
open season on cats responded to Marbanks by insisting that the cat
population at large was closer to 80 million.
“It is our duty to eliminate the vagrant or feral cat,”
editorialized the Indiana Progress, of Indiana, Pennsylvania, on
May 5, 1920. This appears to have been the first use of the term
“feral cat” in U.S. public discourse. The second use was no more
cat-friendly: “There can be but one solution to the feral cat
problem: shoot the cat wherever you find him,” recommended the
Connellsville Daily Courier, also of Pennsylvania, in 1931.
“Feral cat” did not catch on. “Stray cats” turned up in
8,602 articles published between 1900 and 1991; “alley cats”
appeared in 17,662 articles; “feral cats” were mentioned only nine
times before 1950, and just 74 times more in the next 40 years.
The Fremont Argus, of Fremont, California, published the
apparent first mainstream definition of “feral cat” on August 21,
1971: “A feral cat is any domestic pussy that has been neglected or
abandoned by its owner and returned to a state of nature. It hunts
to live. Mice make up a large portion of its diet.”
The presumption that most feral cats once had a home, now
known to be false, was a carryover from common perception of
“strays.” The term “stray” is derived from the words “astray” and
“estray.” The former means “out of place,” while the latter is the
legal definition of an animal found at large. “Stray,” accordingly,
connotes an animal who should be somewhere else, under human care.
Consigning cats to an alley, humble though the habitat is,
suggests that the alley is their natural place.
Though “stray cat” and “alley cat” have always been used
more-or-less interchangeably, to describe the same animals,
“strays” have never gotten good press.
Conversely, “alley” cats have often been mentioned in
favorable and even admiring contexts, even when “strays” were least
accepted. A Mrs. Freeman, for instance, defended alley cats
against the USDA denunciation in 1910 by contending that she had been
“just a plain scrawny little alley cat herself in a past life,”
according to the Logansport Reporter, of Logansport, Indiana.
Alley cat exhibitions meant to improve the image of homeless cats
were held as early as 1928, apparently beginning in Masillon, Ohio.
Paradoxically, animal advocates of the mid-20th century
campaigned for the use of “stray.” This appears to have begun with
efforts to get people to take responsibility for cats they fed and
tolerated in their yards and under their porches. A “stray” cat was
a waif who should be adopted, according to humane literature of the
era. An “alley cat” was believed to be much less likely to find a
home–or to reman in one.
There was also an aesthetic aspect to the argument.
Contended a Miss Miller of Chicago to various media in 1941, “The
term ‘alley cat’ is not a nice way to designate cats.”
Unfortunately for many millions of cats, the gradual
ascendence of “stray” over “alley” coincided with intensified efforts
to kill them. “Alley” cats were largely left alone by “dogcatchers”
in the first half of the 20th century, despite the antipathy of
birders, hunters, and the USDA. Available records indicate,
however, that more “stray” cats were purged by animal control
agencies and humane societies in the 33 years between 1950 and 1983
than in the whole 331 years that cats were actively persecuted in
medieval Europe, from the Great Plague of 1334 through the London
Plague of 1665.
The next big change in public perception of cats– and public
policy toward cats–began with the 1982 publication of Maverick Cats,
by Vermont architect Ellen Perry Berkeley. In original definition,
a “maverick” is a heifer gone “estray.” Looking critically at the
concept of “stray” as applied to cats, Berkeley argued that cats are
by nature less a domesticated species than easily tamed wildlife.
Berkeley described three states of being of cats: true
ferals, who have never lived with humans; cats who are dependent
upon humans; and actual strays, who once depended on humans but
were abandoned or lost. Many cats move back and forth among the
categories, Berkeley acknowledged. However, she established that
the most resilient outdoor cats, most resistant to extermination,
are the true ferals. Their numbers are regulated by the abundance of
prey and extremes of climate, as are the numbers of other wild
Like coyotes, feral cats respond to persecution by raising
larger litters, more often. Because cats have evolved the fecundity
of a prey species, they can usually reoccupy a habitat from which
they have been extirpated faster than rival predators can arrive and
breed up to the vacated carrying capacity. Lastingly reducing the
feral cat population can accordingly be done only by either
eliminating their food sources or by inhibiting their fecundity.
Feral cats live mostly on mice. Humans have sought to
exterminate mice since the dawn of civilization, without success
sufficient to deplete the cat population through lack of food. Thus
further reducing the feral cat food supply is unlikely in most of the
places where feral cats persist. Neuter/return, however, is an
effective brake on fecundity.
To what extent Maverick Cats influenced the first large-scale
practitioners of neuter/return in the U.S. is difficult to say,
since hundreds of individuals had already quietly sterilized
thousands of cats in quiet private projects, some of them underway
as of 1982 for as long as 25 years. What can be said is that
Maverick Cats gave neuter/return a theoretical foundation and an
oft-cited scientific canon.
The first well-documented feral cat neuter/return project in
the U.S. appears to have begun at Stanford University in California
in 1988, led by Nathan Winograd, then a Stanford undergraduate,
now director of the No Kill Advocacy Center. But it was not
immediately influential, and for the first several years of the
project Winograd described the cats as “stray” rather than “feral,”
a term then still rarely applied to cats.
On October 16, 1991 Louise Holton and Becky Robinson formed
the national advocacy group Alley Cat Allies, after working together
to sterilize a cat colony inhabiting an alley in Washington D.C.,
and after extensive discussion of the ideas in Maverick Cats with Kim
Bartlett, then editor of the Animals’ Agenda magazine, and myself,
then the Animals’ Agenda news editor.
Soon afterward Bartlett initiated a neuter/return project
that handled 330 cats in seven months from eight colony habitats in
northern Fairfield County, Connecticut. This project, closely
monitored and extensively publicized, in May 1992 became the first
activity of ANIMAL PEOPLE.
As Holton and Robinson mostly used the term “alley cat” at
first, the Connecticut feral cat project appears to have introduced
prominent use of the term “feral” cats. Alley Cat Allies was quick
to recognize that “feral” was gaining acceptance. When Alley Cat
Allies began organizing an annual day of cat awareness activity to
mark their formation, it was called “National Feral Cat Day.” This
day now attracts more media notice than many “days” declared by
humane organizations that are decades older.
From 1920 through 1991, according to Newspaper-Archive,
“feral cats” had been mentioned in U.S. daily newspapers just 134
times. From 1992 to October 2009, “feral cats” have been mentioned
11,615 times–2,000 mentions fewer than “stray cats,” but 3,000
mentions more than “alley cats,” the prevailing term before 1950.
About 70% of the cats killed in U.S. shelters are now said to
be “feral.” Nonetheless, the advent of high-volume neuter/return has
held the toll of cats killed in shelters during the past decade to
about two million per year. This was approximately 25% of the toll
in 1990 and less than 10% of the peak reached in the early 1970s.
Neuter/return was and remains the tool used to effect this
dramatic drop in shelter killing. The concept encouraging the humane
community to accept neuter/return was that a substantial part of the
“stray” cat population are in truth ferals, as capable of looking
out for themselves as any other wildlife. Animal advocates may not
want them to be at large, for reasons including preventing
predation on wildlife and avoiding the risk that the cats will be
cruelly treated. Yet feral cats are now widely appreciated as
anything but the miserable helpless waifs depicted in earlier humane
literature, who must be killed for their own good because they
cannot survive outside of a kind human home without unnatural
What dogs have to do with it
While this transition in perception of feral cats was
underway, the rest of the world was approaching through a process of
parallel evolution a whole new approach to rabies control and coping
with street dogs.
Historically, street dogs have usually been tolerated as a
constant if occasionally problematic presence, between rabies
outbreaks. In response to rabies outbreaks, dogs were and often
still are killed in great numbers, but street dog populations
inevitably rebound from massacres within a matter of months–like
feral cats–and have usually been ignored after rebounding until the
next rabies episode.
Three developments are gradually changing the paradigm for
street dogs, decades after each was introduced.
First, longtime Blue Cross of India chief executive Chinny
Krishna in 1966 began demonstrating neuter/return of street dogs.
Krishna was so far ahead of his time that even the U.S. then had only
one low-cost dog and cat sterilization program. Thirty years elapsed
before Krishna’s approach became the official policy of the city of
Chennai, but within another year his Animal Birth Control program
became the national policy of India. Krishna’s original ABC program,
augmented by others, had by 2006 eradicated rabies from Chennai.
Parallel programs eradicated rabies from Jaipur and Visakhapatnam.
Federally subsidized ABC projects are now underway throughout India.
ABC meanwhile became national policy in Costa Rica in 2001, and in
Turkey in 2003. Similar programs are underway in many other parts of
Before sterilizing and vaccinating street dogs could become
accepted, animal control officials had to learn–and accept–that
traditional high-volume killing had never really quelled rabies
outbreaks, and that a new method was necessary. As animal control
agencies worldwide mostly work under public health departments, the
impetus to change directions had to come from public health directors.
A breakthrough came in 1983 from William G. Winkler M.D., of
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wrote Winkler in the
National Academy of Sciences’ handbook Control of Rabies:
“Persistent trapping or poisoning campaigns as a means to
rabies control should be abolished. There is no evidence that these
costly and politically attractive programs reduce either wildlife
reservoirs or rabies incidence.”
Winkler referred to botched efforts to control the
mid-Atlantic states raccoon rabies pandemic of 1976-1996. Triggered
by trappers and coonhunters who translocated several thousand
raccoons from a rabies area in Florida to the Great Smokey Mountains
of West Virginia, the pandemic advanced for 15 years at the rate of
about 50 miles per year, while wildlife agencies in state after
state tried to stop it by urging trappers and coonhunters to kill
The pandemic was at last stopped by deploying oral rabies
vaccine pellets, bio-engineered to attract raccoons and be activated
only by raccoons’ digestive systems.
A decade of controversy after Winkler wrote, the National
Association of State Public Health Veterinarians conceded in the 1994
edition of their annual Compendium of Animal Rabies Control that
“Continuous and persistent government-funded programs for trapping or
poisoning wildlife are not cost effective in reducing wildlife rabies
reservoirs on a statewide basis.” Similar passages have appeared in
each subsequent update of the Compendium of Animal Rabies Control.
The conceptual leap to recognizing street dogs as wildlife
was accomplished in the mid-1980s by Oscar Pedro Larghi, M.D., of
Argentina. First Larghi eradicated rabies in the cities of Buenos
Aires, Lima, and Sao Paolo by vaccinating from 60% to 80% of their
estimated dog populations during a series of three-month neighborhood
blitzes. Then his vaccination teams eradicated canine rabies
entirely from Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay by vaccinating more
than a million dogs. As the Larghi project was not followed up,
and not accompanied by a vigorous dog sterilization program, all
three nations again have vulnerable dog populations. Canine rabies
has reappeared in two remote corners of Argentina.
In addition, since routine animal control dog-killing
continued where Larghi worked, his results are not unequivocal proof
of the efficacy of mass vaccination in lieu of killing. Nonetheless,
Larghi showed that vaccinating street dogs under developing world
conditions can be done with great success.
Among the first to notice were Calum N.L. MacPherson,
Francois X. Meslin, and Alexander I. Wandeler, who in 1990
co-authored Dogs, Zoonoses, & Public Health. Updated several
times, this is still a much-used standard reference.
Before writing the book, recalls Meslin, who heads the
rabies control division of the World Health Organization, “We
defined through a WHO consultation held in the late 1980s the terms
and categories of animals, mostly dogs, in relation to rabies
control or elimination, along a continuum from ‘fully owned’ to
‘strictly feral,’ acknowledging that all states in between might
exist under certain circumstances.”
The purpose of the consultation was twofold. One purpose was
to establish priorities for response. The other was to harmonize the
terminology that might be used by anyone working to control any
disease carried by street animals–dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs,
The animals of most concern to the public health sector are
those who both have frequent contact with humans and roam at large,
able to contract and spread disease from a variety of sources.
Strictly feral animals are of concern if they have contact with
animals who associate with people, but are considered to represent a
much lower order of risk than animals who themselves seek–or
The WHO Steering Committee for Rabies Control in Asia in 2003
did not even mention feral dogs in defining the three categories of
dog who are of most concern:
Community dog: A dog without a single owner and cared for by
Pet dog: A dog owned by a household.
Stray dog: An ownerless dog, free roaming and not cared for
by any household in a community.
The main distinction between a “community” dog and a “stray”
is that the “community” dog is fed by people who do not otherwise
take responsibility for the dog’s well-being.
A pet dog might be vaccinated, de-wormed, and kept away
from contact with diseased animals. A stray dog may welcome human
contact, but not receive much.
The “community” dog represents the top priority of concern
because this dog is neither protected from disease as much as a pet
might be, nor likely to avoid humans if ill.
Since 2003, “community” animals, primarily dogs, have been
the subject of nearly four times more international public health
alerts and peer-reviewed papers about zoonotic disease control than
But the humane sector and the public health sector
communicate surprisingly little, even though both are integrally
involved in both animal control and disease control. Except in
India, where Meslin coordinates activity with the Animal Welfare
Board of India, WHO works chiefly in nations with underdeveloped
humane networks–or none.
On October 16, 2009 the Best Friends Animal Society marked
National Feral Cat Day by announcing a campaign to rename yet again
the animals who have been variously recognized as feral cats, stray
cats, and alley cats.
“Best Friends believes that the needs of free-roaming cats
and the issues surrounding them-which exist in every community-are
best encapsulated in the term ‘community cats,'” asserted Best
Friends “Focus on Felines” campaign specialist Shelly Kotter. “These
homeless cats are the result of a failure in the
community–unneutered housecats who wandered away from home, cats
abandoned when the family moved, or cats who have never been
socialized to people,” continued Kotter. “None would be on the
streets if people had spayed or neutered their pets and kept their
Best Friends turned out to be unaware that their argument
paralleled the arguments made against “alley cat” and in favor of
“stray cat” more than half a century earlier.
Public health concerns
Of more serious concern, Best Friends also turned out to be
oblivious to the established meaning of “community” as applied to
animals by the public health sector–a sector with frequent
influential input into every hospital, most medical doctors’
offices, and political decision-making processes.
The USDA, when it recommended feral cat extermination in
1910, had a mere fraction of the reach and credibility that public
health policy makers enjoy today. Indeed, the 2008 USA
Today/Gallup poll rating the honesty and ethics of workers in 21
different professions found that nurses, pharmacists, and medical
doctors rated first, second, and fourth.
Fortunately for feral cats, the U.S. public health sector
has in recent decades mostly not joined wildlife conservation
agencies and advocacy groups in seeking cat extirpation from outdoor
habitat, and has mostly been sympathetic toward efforts to ensure
that feral cats are vaccinated and sterilized.
The sympathetic neutrality of the public health sector is no
small consideration for neuter/return practitioners, since just one
anti-feral cat organization, The Nature Conservancy, by itself
receives annual donated income amounting to about half of the total
income of the entire U.S. humane sector.
The U.S. public health sector is concerned about many
diseases, besides rabies, which have recently been associated with
feral cats and have killed people, especially the immune
compromised. Among these diseases are Sudden Acute Respiratory
Syndrome, bubonic plague, the H5N1 avian flu, bartonella,
caliciviruses, distemper, hantaviruses, toxoplasmosis, and a
variety of nasty ailments carried by ticks.
Most of the human fatalities linked to contact with feral
cats have occurred abroad, but U.S. public health policy makers are
aware that the U.S. has far more cats per capita than most of the
rest of the world, and there is some misapprehension–chiefly due to
exaggerated activist claims–that the U.S. feral cat population is
six to ten times larger than it really is. Inherent in using the
term “community cats” is the risk that some of the public health
sector will understand the introduction of “community” in place of
“feral” to mean that the formerly small, isolated, and scattered
feral cat population has become a larger and more dangerous reservoir
of potential disease vectors, like the “community” animals abroad.
“You make good and probably historically accurate points,”
conceded Best Friends cofounder Francis Battista, “but we have
transited the point where public policy operates independently of
public opinion, and unless cats start flying into jet engines like
Canada geese, your nightmare scenario is about as likely as a return
to population control by mass drowning. In the U.S.,” Battista
claimed, “animal control agencies no longer operate outside the
scrutiny of public watchdogs and pets enjoy significantly higher
status than in countries where culling and poisoning are accepted.”
Yet, though the U.S. now kills only about a sixth as many
homeless cats and dogs per year as 40 years ago, the U.S. still
kills more than the whole of Europe, and more than India did at peak.
“‘Community cats’ is an appropriate term,” Battista
continued, “for precisely the reason that the cats do belong where
they are, not because we say so, but because the residents of the
communities concerned say so. In Jacksonville, Florida, for
example, free-roaming cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated,
microchipped and returned to their colonies by animal control
officers, not just feral cat caregivers. If they come back into
the shelter system, they are returned to the colony identified on
their chip. Community satisfaction surveys run at 90% positive.
Rather than cause deaths,” Battista said, “the ‘community cat’
solution in Jacksonville has seen a 50% reduction in shelter cat
deaths, simply because neuter/return has been owned at a community
Added Best Friends chief executive and fellow cofounder
Gregory Castle, “Why do you think it is that epidemiologists, who
apparently use scientific methods, continue to buy into and promote
anachronistic, fear-based ideas about zoonotic diseases being spread
by cats? If there is any statistical evidence of this, it pales
into insignificance compared to other, real public health threats.
It would be better if they looked at facts rather than derive facts
Hoped F.X. Meslin of WHO, “If a human community accepts and
partially even indirectly supports a population of feral
spayed/neutered ‘wild’ cats, then those may be considered ‘community
owned,’ rather than pests, as an integral part of that community’s
environment, as are red foxes in many suburban areas of western
But Centers for Disease Control Prevention rabies control
chief Charles Rupprecht agreed “in large measure” that introducing
the term “community cats” may increase apprehension that cats at
large are a disease vector.
“In practical terms ‘feral’ and ‘community’ are opposite ends
of a length of string,” said Louisiana State University epidemiology
professor emeritus Martin Hugh Jones.
“I had no idea that Best Friends was so misguided,” said
Texas A&M University professor Tam Garland, who advises the
Department of Homeland Security about agricultural defense. “I
completely agree with you,” Garland said, “regarding the problem
this is going to bring down on all of us. It will change the
dynamics of populations and result in a flurry of euthanasia,
trapping and killing and a lot more panic about some diseases, such
as rabies,” Garland predicted.
“I completely agree with you on this one,” echoed medical
transcriptionist and cat rescuer Judith Webster, of Vancouver,
British Columbia, who has a foot in both the epidemiological and
animal advocacy worlds. “If ‘feral’ cats become ‘community’ cats,”
Webster said, “this would have serious implications for disease
control, given the many viral diseases cats harbor, or have been
found to catch and potentially spread. The term ‘community’
positions feral cats in a high-profile role in relation to likelihood
of interaction with domestic animals and people.
“‘Community cat’ is terminology conducive to
lumping abandoned pet cats and feral cats in the same category,”
Webster added, “which is probably the single biggest problem in
negative perceptions of feral cats among normal people, not
including conservation biologists. The term ‘feral cat’ needs to be
rigorously used, not be confused with abandoned pets.”
In particular, Webster worried, to people outside the
public health sector, “‘community cats’ sounds so positive.
Therefore, it might encourage dumping and abandonment. If the
community is supposed to care about ‘community cats,’ why worry if
your cat is outside at night, or gets lost? Why even look? Your
cat will at worst join other community cats, indeed be free at
last, and the community will take care of her. Also, calling them
‘community cats’ to me seems as if they are being presented as
a positive and welcome addition to a city or environment. It seems
to me that this is losing sight of the goal of feral cat management,
to eradicate the population by attrition in the most humane way
Alley Cat Allies chief executive Becky Robinson apparently
learned that feral cats were to become “community cats” from ANIMAL
PEOPLE. Robinson acknowledged the success of the Jacksonville
program, but wondered whether the use of “community” would obscure
the distinctions among true feral cats, outdoor pets, and strays.
“Some established national groups, from the beginning of
neuter/return in the U.S.,” Robinson recalled, “wanted people to be
forever responsible for colonies. Eventually caregiver and colony
registration were advocated, requiring feeders and caregivers to be
nothing less than owners, as if the cats were in their homes. We
demonstrated and wrote about how some cats just live in an area,
sometimes with a caregiver, but often not. Feral cats survive
usually from our dumpsters and hunting small rodents.”
What will become of the term “community cats” and what actual
influence it may have remains to be seen. Putnam County, Florida
cat rescuer Bonnie Carolin has suggested to Best Friends and ANIMAL
PEOPLE that all of the positive connotations of “community” could be
obtained, without running afoul of any history, by using the term
“neighborhood cats” instead. Those who believe changing the names of
cats might help could give it a try.
But as virologist Charles H. Calisher told ANIMAL PEOPLE,
“Redefining doesn’t change anything in the real world. If cats are
on the loose they are a community problem,” the dimensions of which
may be debated but not denied.