Dear Dr. Thompson: We have four feral cats in our neighborhood that two neighbors feed. They seem well taken care of but we do not like them in our gardens. We have tried granules to keep them away, but it doesn't seem to help. Do you have any suggestions?
I understand your concerns and I think that you have a legitimate problem. Feral cats in a neighborhood bring a wide array of problems and I am sure we will not solve the complex issue of free-roaming cats in the confines of this column. However, people need to remember that however good their intentions are when they feed stray cats, it can have wide-reaching implications.
Feral, or semi-wild, cats are not unlike other wild animals in that they will seek out an easy source of food and shelter. By feeding the cats your neighbors are attracting more and more as they realize the easy pickings on the back porch. These animals will also reproduce more readily if allowed.
These animals can be a source of disease that can infect humans and pets. Recently, people in south Florida were treated for hookworm infections linked to a local feral cat colony. Hookworm is an intestinal parasite that can infect people and pets through contact with bare skin, typically feet. They cause irritation to the exposed skin and work their way to the intestines where they attach and feed off blood, which can lead to anemia. Ringworm, rabies, toxoplasmosis, and other intestinal parasites are all human health concerns associated with feral cats. These animals can bring these same parasites and some infectious diseases in contact with pets as well, which is a strong case for keeping your own cats indoors if at all possible. While not all feral cats are infected with these diseases, the potential exists with any population.
My goal is not to create any discord between you and your neighbors over this issue. However, feral cats will not respect property lines and I think a mature, civil discussion about this issue may be the most productive. Ask if they would consider taking these cats in as pets if possible and work together to develop a strategy for solving this problem.
Free-roaming cats pose a significant problem. Solutions include keeping cats inside if possible, spaying or neutering your pets, and trap-neuter and release (TNR) programs. However, I would encourage anyone to think twice about feeding strays. It can be hard to say no to the cute, fuzzy faces on the back porch and I realize this is a problem that has its origins in irresponsible pet owners allowing free-roaming cats to reproduce. But the other health issues associated with these animals need to be considered as well.
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