A few years ago, Justine’s parents were walking through Rathfarnham when they noticed a colony of feral cats at the back of a garage. Most of the cats scattered as they drew close to them, but there was one black and white individual who appeared sickly. As the family approached, the cat stood his ground, looking at them and miaowing, despite the fact that the rest of the cats had bolted. They tried to get close enough to the cat to pet him, but he was too shy to let them do this, and he moved away. But he continued to miaow at them, as if he was trying to talk to them.
When the family went home that evening, they could not put the miaowing cat out of their thoughts. The cat looked as if he needed help, and without an owner, who was going to help him?
Colonies of feral, unowned cats are common all over Ireland. They develop directly because owners of pet cats refuse to have their own pets neutered or spayed. Unwanted kittens become ‘wild’ animals (so-called “feral cats”) because they have to fend for themselves, without close human contact. Cat colonies usually live close to humans, because they need a regular food source, but they do not allow themselves to be handled, and are very wary when approached. They are never aggressive to passers-by, but they are highly defensive of their own freedom, and will bite and scratch in an effort to get away if efforts are made to restrain them.
There are positive aspects to feral cat colonies. They are highly effective at controlling local populations of rats and mice, and contrary to the common belief, they very rarely carry any disease which is likely to put human health at risk. Many people grow fond of the ‘regular’ feral cats in their neighbourhood, giving them names and feeding them regularly.
There is one serious problem with feral cat colonies: the number of cats in the colony tends to increase year by year, because they are not neutered. In one study, the birth rate in a feral cat colony was around six kittens per female cat per year and the kitten mortality rate was around 75% before reproductive age. This means that a typical feral cat colony will double in size every couple of years.
As the cat colonies get bigger, problems develop. There is not enough food to go around, so the cats become starved and underweight. They begin to make a nuisance of themselves in their search for food, raiding bins and sometimes harassing pet cats. The feral cats suffer from starvation, and from other illnesses which affect them more severely because of their run-down condition.
The cat that the family had found was one of these “excess” feral cats, and without help, he was unlikely to survive.
Justine’s father could not sleep that night, because he kept thinking about the unfortunate cat, miaowing for help. The following day, he went back, equipped to catch the cat. He threw a large blanket over the cat, and bundled it into a cage. He brought him straight to our practice, where we gave him a thorough check-over.
Apart from being half-starved, and having fleas and worms, the cat (now christened “Freddie”), was surprisingly healthy. We carried out blood tests for AIDS and Leukaemia, common viruses in cat colonies, and he was virus-free. It seemed that he was just a smaller-than-average cat who was having difficulty coping in the tough world of a feral cat colony. We fed him up with high energy diets for a few days, then we sent him back to his new home with the Whittakers.
Freddie was completely wild for the first few weeks, but Justine and her family persisted in their efforts to tame him. They kept him in a large cage in their living room, and he gradually became accustomed to the presence of humans nearby. After a while, he began to allow humans to pet him, and soon they were able to let him out of his cage for short spells. When he had become calmer, they moved his cage to their back yard. Soon, he was leaving his cage, and voluntarily returning to it. He is still a nervous cat, but he is now as tame as many cats who have lived with humans since kittenhood.
There are two other pet cats in the Whittaker household – Puss and Boots. Freddie has gradually fitted in well with them too. He seems to bully Boots, but he is friendly with Puss, and they spend time close to each other. Freddie must have had a traumatic time when he was the runt of the feral cat colony, and he still gets easily frightened.
Freddie has bonded particularly well with Justine. Soon after he had been tamed, he began to sleep on the end of her bed, and nowadays, he even talks to her. He miaows, she replies, and he miaows again. Freddie is a cat who seems to have been born with a inbuilt knowledge that it is possible to communicate with humans by miaowing. Miaowing saved his life when he communicated with Justine’s parents, and right up until now, he continues to enjoy his daily chats with Justine. He may be nervous, but he is a talker!
Feral cats are pet cats that have “gone wild”
They are terrified of human contact at first
With time and patience, feral cats can sometimes be tamed