Feral cat colonies, numbering from a few individuals to over a hundred, are found in both urban and rural areas. They consist of domestic cats that have abandoned or been abandoned by their owners, and their descendants, all of whom have learned to lead a largely independent life, free from any human restraints. These cats exhibit some social and sexual characteristics inherited from their wild ancestors, but also retain some of the qualities of a domestic cat.
Like some other members of the cat family, feral cats live in communities – however loose the social structure may be. Although they vary in number, such communities have many common features.
A group of feral cats will usually consist of several queens and at least one torn. In an established community, all members of the community will be genetically related. The tom’s role is to maintain the social unit and to protect the queens from other groups in the area, particularly from other toms.
The home range, or territory, is centred on an area where prey is plentiful, such as a barn, an urban restaurant, a hedgerow or a rabbit warren. The amount of available food appears to determine the size of the territory. A study of farm cats showed that the average size of the territory of a queen was in the region of 6 hectares (43/4 acres). As with domestic cats, entire males have a much larger territory – between three and ten times the size – the boundaries of which are maintained by scent marking.
Within this, each queen maintains her own home range, which may or may not overlap with that of other queens in the group. For example, studies have shown that when food is scarce the home ranges remain separate, but when food is plentiful they are likely to overlap.
Q. I have been offered a young kitten which was born to a feral cat. Will it make a good pet, or will it always be wild?
Kittens born to feral mothers and taken into care have not usually been handled by humans from birth, so they may not be very affectionate, and will resent being picked up. They are also outdoor cats and may be difficult to get back in once let out. However, if you are prepared to spend a lot of time handling and training a kitten, there is no reason why you should not go ahead.
Q. I put food out in our garden for a feral cat from time to time. Now I’ve been told that I shouldn’t, because it may have cat AIDS. Could it infect our cat?
If the feral cat is carrying any infectious disease it could infect your cat. It is particularly important to discourage it from defecating or urinating in areas where your cat goes.
- On average, feral cats will spend as much as 45 per cent of their time hunting for prey. However, they are more active in the summer than they are in the winter.
- A feral tom does not provide food for the queen while she is nursing her kittens, but he will make sure it is available by keeping intruders away from her home range.
- In a feral cat colony, all the queens tend to synchronise the time when they come into heat. The tom associated with a particular group will be given priority for mating over toms living in the area.