Feeding Stray Cats … Cruel or Kind?

A complex situation with a wider problem at hand – the importance of thinking twice before feeding stray cats.

ARTICLE BY: Dr Tess Vitesnik, Ten Lives Head Veterinarian.

On any given day, most people would seek to provide food and shelter to a hungry homeless animal that crosses their path. There is an immediate problem and an immediate solution: ‘You are hungry, and I can feed you’. As a vet, I know how rewarding it can be to provide care and fulfill the needs of a vulnerable animal and most of us wouldn’t need to search very far to encounter a stray cat who would happily accept a meal or three. When I kept running into ‘Spot’ on my walks past an abandoned house in my neighborhood, my instinct was to reach for a can of cat food. I couldn’t help but wonder about the complexity of the situation and the wider problem at hand. Why are there so many stray cats out there? And is feeding them helping them? Is it kind, or can it do more harm than good?

A stray cat is an unowned cat that relies on humans for at least some of its needs. This can be indirectly through scavenging in bins or at tips, or directly by people providing cat food or scraps. The population of strays may interact with true feral cats, who do not rely on humans for any of their needs, and with domestic cats who have an owner to care for them. A cat that is not responsibly cared for by an owner will live where it is able to satisfy its need for food and shelter. This may be in the bush hunting for native animals and rodents, behind a café where there is access to food in bins, or in a residential area where there is a person who doles out the cat food without taking ownership of the cat/s.

The more food that is available, the more cats will frequent a location. The more food that is available, the higher the pregnancy rates are in females. The more food that is available, the larger the litter sizes a female will produce. The more food that is available, the higher the carrying capacity of the environment at hand. By providing a food source to one or more undesexed cats a person is directly causing an increase in the stray problem. At a bare minimum, the person regularly feeding a cat needs to ensure it is desexed.

The welfare of unowned urban or suburban stray cats tends to be low, especially when numbers start to rise. Nutrition tends to be poor, internal and external parasites are untreated, and contagious illnesses such as flu and ringworm can be common as other pressures compromise the immune system. These animals tend to live tough, short lives. One friendly, undesexed stray can give birth to many kittens. If provided with access to food and no positive handling by humans, these kittens will quickly become ‘wild’, unable to be handled or rehomed.

What should be done instead? At Ten Lives we have been accepting unowned cats, either friendly strays or cats in traps, for decades. Despite this, the cats keep coming. Giving a hungry cat a meal should be a first step in trying to help not only this cat, but also the kittens this cat may produce and the wildlife this cat may eat. By assessing the situation, a more coordinated approach can be used.

Are you feeding a stray cat? Finding out if the cat is owned or was previously owned is a good first step. Does it have a collar, a desex tattoo, or a microchip? If it isn’t owned, can you find it a home, adopt it yourself, or contact Ten Lives to see if it can be rehomed.

Are you feeding a group of stray or loosely owned cats? If these cats are not desexed, then the numbers of hungry mouths to feed will rise and rise, and the cats’ quality of life will fall and fall. Do you need to trap and desex these cats? Ten Lives may be able to help, please call us on 6278 2111 to discuss your options.

So, while feeding the hungry cat in and of itself is not a crime, there are likely negative outcomes for the cat, the wider cat population, and for native animals if further steps aren’t taken. Ten Lives is trying to assist people in taking these further steps. I know I have plans to trap ‘Spot’ and bring him into Ten Lives so he can be desexed and have a chance at being adopted. And I’ll be sure he has a full stomach when I do.

A few stray cats can quickly become many stray cats, with more and more mouths to feed.