One of the many services Borders Animal Welfare Association provides is to help neuter and find homes for feral cats.
Here is an explanation of how cats can become feral
When an unneutered female pet cat gets lost or is abandoned, unneutered male cats will mate her. She will give birth to the kittens wherever she can. This may be under or in a garden shed, in a derelict car, in thick bushes, in an empty building, in an abandoned settee or anywhere she feels she may be safe.
Unless the kittens are discovered when they are very young, generally the first anyone will be aware of them will be when they are brought out by their mother to look for solid food at around six weeks old.
At this age the kittens will already be nervous of human contact because they have not been handled and socialized. This nervousness is sometimes termed 'wild' this is the result of lack of handling. If the cat and her kittens are rescued, the kittens can be tamed. The younger the kittens are the easier this is. Taming kittens takes time, patience and gentle handling but is ultimately very rewarding.
If the kittens are not rescued, they will themselves be capable of breeding at six months old, and a colony of cats rapidly grows.
If a pet cat has kittens, and her owners do not handle those kittens, her kittens will be equally nervous and may be described as ‘feral’.
The Problem of the Unneutered Male
Unneutered male cats are particularly likely to become stray as they wander looking for females. Their fighting with owned cats and the offensive smell of their urine spraying to mark their territory makes them unpopular with people who shoo them away.
Once rescued and neutered it may only be a matter of days or it sometimes takes several weeks for those cats to regain their trust in people and restore them to loving pets.
Homes for Feral Cats
Cats returned to colonies have the top of their left ear clipped.
This is known as 'ear-tipping' and does not cause the cat any distress. This is done so that they can be easily identified by anyone, as neutered. Ear-tipping is a standard practice used by all animal rescue organisations working with feral cats.
BAWA tries to rehome neutered adult feral cats to farms, stables, smallholdings and even gardens. Families of cats in danger on the street, demolition sites, living under cars or with no reliable food source are taken into our care and rehomed to suitable new homes as far as our resources allow.
Once these cats have been delivered to their new homes, the cats are confined to a holding pen containing beds, litter trays and food and water for 2 to 3 weeks. It is essential to confine the cats initially or they would just run away. This is the same principle as keeping a pet in when moving house. Once released, the cats return for their daily feeds. We do insist that the cats are fed the same quality and quantity of cat food as a pet cat. An added attraction is that feral cats earn their keep controlling rodents on farms and stables.
You may not be aware of this because of the cats' nervous nature, which leads them to be largely active at night.
There are estimated to be 2 million strays on U.K streets and the true figure may be much higher.
Whether cats are taken away for rehoming, or neutered and returned to site it is important that action is taken quickly. Cats breed rapidly. A cat and a litter of kittens can easily grow to a colony of fifteen to twenty within a year and forty the next year.
We are frequently dismayed to hear some of the cruel and ill-informed advice being given to people seeking help with feral cat situations. They are often told, 'Don't feed them and they'll go away'. They may well move along the road until they find someone who will feed them, but what if they are repeatedly turned away, what then? The domestic cat whether tame of feral has learnt to be reliant on humans either deliberately feeding them or being able to scavenge their leftovers. Withholding food could easily result in extreme suffering and also the deaths of kittens belonging to malnourished mothers.
Rehoming feral cats is important work, but there is a limit to the numbers of new homes for them. Farms often have breeding colonies of cats.
The cats are not to be viewed as a nuisance and once neutered, they will not fight with neighbourhood cats, they will cease spraying to mark their territory and their numbers will no longer increase. Most attractively, they will catch mice and rats.
Kittens born hidden under sheds, in derelict buildings, cellars, old cars, amongst rubbish in bushes and so on, do not receive the handling and TLC that a litter born in a home usually do. Missing out on this early contact with humans leaves them wary of people and this nervous disposition is termed 'feral'.
Kittens born in a home can also become feral if they are not handled, this often occurs in multi-cat households.
Feral kittens can be tamed, and 100% of those we rescue under 12 – 14 weeks are rehomed to domestic homes.
So how does an initially hissing, spitting, terrified bundle of fur end up as a contented fireside pet?
The short answer is they receive lots of gentle patient coaxing and attention, hand feeding, playing and gentle handling to get them used to human contact. Some kittens are 'tame' within days, others take two or three weeks or longer, generally the younger they are the easier taming is, older kittens of four months or more can take many weeks to 'tame'. There are certainly differences between kittens as to the ease with which their confidence can be gained, even within the same litter when all the kittens receive the same amount of attention some progress faster than others.
In order to aid taming feral kittens they do need to be accommodated in a relatively restricted space so that they can be handled without having to effectively chase them about to make physical contact.
Feral kittens usually end up as friendly as any domestic cat with their owners but often remain shy of strangers, disappearing out of sight when the doorbell goes only to miraculously reappear the moment they leave.
For most people taming feral kittens is a deeply rewarding experience but lots of patience is needed and some people are frustrated or disheartened if progress is slower than expected. Feral kittens do require calm and patience in order to settle and therefore are not suited to homes with young children or very busy households.