Community Cats: Our Furry Neighbours

There are as many as 100,000 feral cats in the Greater Toronto Area.  Unlike lost pets or stray cats, ferals shy away from humans, don’t meow, and have a life expectancy of only 2 to 3 years.  They live a hard outdoor life scavenging for food and shelter wherever they can find it, driven by a strong instinct to reproduce as often as possible.

Feral cats can get pregnant as young as 4 months old and have litters of up to 6 kittens as often as every 12 weeks, which quickly leads to a population explosion, usually in the early spring.  Sadly, many of the kittens fall ill, suffer from malnutrition, and don’t survive harsh weather and predators. Feral cats will mate even if they are ill or starving, taking a huge toll on the health of females. Male ferals will spray and fight to establish and protect a territorial area, leading to those night time “cat fights” that can sometimes be heard in the distance.

To address this problem, cat-loving volunteers from animal welfare organizations including the Toronto Humane Society, Toronto Street Cats, Annex Cat Rescue, and the city’s Toronto Animal Services created Community Cats Toronto with the mission of making a difference in the lives of community cats through education, advocacy, and collaboration.

Volunteers take a formal workshop to learn about the best practices for helping feral cats.  The primary focus is on Trap, Neuter, and Return, or TNR, which has been shown in numerous studies in large metropolitan areas across North American to be effective in reducing the population of feral cats and improving the lives of the cats already living in our communities.  Once spayed or neutered, feral cats roam less, fight less, spray less, and the population normalizes through natural deaths instead of disease, exposure, and malnutrition.

Volunteers are trained on humanely trapping feral cats, minimizing their distress and discomfort.  The cats are then taken to a clinic where a veterinarian performs a spay or neuter surgery, depending on the sex of the cat. Every cat is vaccinated for rabies and other common diseases.  A small tip is removed from the left ear of each cat to mark it as a feral from a monitored colony.  A microchip is inserted below the skin of the neck, which, along with the ear tip, ensures that the cat swill not accidentally be picked up by the city pound and can be returned to their local colonies if lost.  After a recovery period, the cats are released where they were originally trapped.  Insulated winter shelters are built and distributed to colony locations to provide the cats with comfort during the coldest months.  Feeders provide food and fresh water to the cats on a daily basis, sometimes donated by companies such as Purina or Whiskas.  They also monitor the cats for signs of injury or distress and arrange for veterinary care as necessary.

In the past, many cat lovers in our community took care of feral cats in secret out of fear that neighbours would blame them for the cats’ presence in the area.  In fact, studies have shown that feeding cats does not increase their population.  Rather, feeding the cats is the first step in identifying and handling a feral colony through a local TNR program.  The City of Toronto established by-laws that authorize feeding and management of feral colonies, recognizing their importance in reduce the overall cat population in the city over time.

It’s thanks to tireless volunteers who care about feline welfare that there aren’t hundreds of thousands of more cats on the streets of the GTA!  Community cats are our furry neighbors who do their part for pest control and help keep other animal species such as raccoons and squirrels in balance in the urban ecosystem.  With care and love and education these cats can be safe, welcome local companions as they have been in cities worldwide for millennia, such as in Istanbul, Turkey, as recounted in the documentary film “Kedi” that is playing at cinemas around the world (www.kedifilm.com).

If you would like more information about feral cats or need help managing a feral colony in your area, please contact Community Cats Toronto (www.communitycats.ca).

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