As you go about your day, leaving or returning to your home for work or errands, you keep seeing a cat in your neighborhood. It’s kind of always there, hanging around, lounging in the sun, or hiding behind the front lawn bushes of your house. You’re puzzled: whose cat is this? It seems to be in good shape at first glance, and your initial impulse is to leave it alone as you come and go.
Many people believe cats are completely self-sufficient animals who will be just fine when left to their own devices. We think they can hunt and instinctively find safe places to be whenever needed. Some people also firmly believe cats are not attached to humans in any meaningful way, thinking that these animals are more bonded to their surroundings rather than the people in it.
The fact is that cats are animals that humans have spent thousands of years domesticating. They have since evolved to depend on us and develop long-lasting bonds with the people who care for them. Cats rely on us to be safe and healthy. A community cat may face daunting odds of survival if left to fend for itself.
The term “community cat” is used to refer to cats who are unowned and roam a neighborhood. They may be a stray cat that was abandoned by its owner or lost, and therefore friendly and accepting of humans, or a feral cat, i.e. not socialized to accept humans as a kitten and now fearful and skittish around people.
Stray cats can always be rehomed and live as pets, and a few feral cats may be tamed over a long period of time and be socialized enough to live around humans, but most of them cannot ever hope to be someone’s pet. Community cats can be by themselves or live in colonies, as cats are social animals who live in groups organized by hierarchy and cultivate complex relationships among themselves.
Contrary to common belief, a community cat will not live a happy or healthy life if left to its own devices. Research done with feral cats shows they live up to 2 or 3 years, facing diseases and parasites, food and shelter insecurity, inclement weather, human cruelty, constant traffic on busy streets, and fights over food and territory with other animals. About half of kittens born in these conditions are projected to die before they reach the age of 1.
With such challenging prospects in store for them, it is our duty to help community cats in a way that will be conducive to both population control and a colony of healthy cats.
When dealing with community cats, compassion and constant monitoring is key. Cats need us and we can substantially improve their lives by intervening in a respectful and evidence-based manner. Offering food and water is great, but it should be just the start of a routine of management that looks at their overall state and offers them a better chance at a long, healthy life, whether as someone’s pet or the pride of their neighborhood!
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