Public Opinions on Feral Cat Management

TNR is seen as the most humane option for feral cats, survey shows.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

What should be done about feral cats? A recent survey in Athens, Georgia, investigated people’s preferences for three different methods: catch and euthanize, trap neuter and release (TNR), and the establishment of a feral cat sanctuary. Opponents of catch and euthanize schemes argue that it is inhumane to kill cats, and simply creates a cat-free area into which new feral cats will move. Trap, neuter and release programmes involve catching the cats and neutering or spaying them before releasing them; the cats continue to live in the same place, but are unable to breed. The third option in the survey was to “capture and place feral cats in a sanctuary just for them”.

Athens was an interesting place for the study, since the issue of feral cats had been in the local news for some time. A new law was passed just prior to the survey, which effectively meant that TNR was the only option for dealing with feral cats. Previously, anyone who fed stray cats was deemed to be their owner.

Two ginger kittens curled up together on some straw outside a barn
Photo: Shutterstock

People were selected at random and mailed a card which asked them to take part in a survey on the internet. Questions were about knowledge of cats, experiences with feral and owned cats, beliefs about wildlife in the area, and opinions on different options for managing the feral cat population. There were 298 respondents which was a response rate of about 10%.

About 60% of people had seen a feral cat in the last year, and 28% reported seeing a feral cat almost every day. Half of people said that feral cats were “a nuisance”, and 65% felt that something needed to be done about them.  The idea of cat sanctuaries had the most support, with 56% of people agreeing this was an acceptable management strategy; in contrast, 49% said TNR is acceptable and 46% said euthanasia is acceptable.

This level of support for euthanasia reminds me of the American Humane Association's recent survey which found that cats have an image problem - 35% of non-cat owners said they just don't like cats. The survey in Athens found most people recognize that feral cats have a hard life; only 10% agreed that "feral cats live a healthy, happy life". On a more positive note, about a third of participants had adopted a feral cat at some point.

So how did the public rate different management strategies? When questions compared catch-and-euthanize to TNR, TNR was seen as less effective but the most humane, and also the method on which people would prefer tax dollars to be spent. The survey does not seem to have asked whether the cat sanctuary option was considered effective, humane, or a good use of tax dollars.

The study also looked at whether people’s attitudes to cats, knowledge about cats, and experiences of feral cats would predict their views on management practices. Attitudes were important, but knowledge and experience were not. People with positive attitudes about feral cats were more likely to support TNR. Beliefs that were important in predicting support for TNR were those about cat rights, preventing cat euthanasia, healthy ecosystems, and protecting wildlife. Those who felt protecting wildlife and having healthy ecosystems were important were less likely to support TNR, perhaps because they perceived cats as a threat to wildlife. Those who felt cat rights and preventing cat euthanasia were important were more likely to support TNR.

The researchers say that although cat sanctuaries were the preferred option, there are few examples of these in practice, and they would be more expensive than TNR. Given the recent passage of TNR legislation in Athens, they were surprised TNR was not the most supported option, and say that public support for policies cannot be assumed. 

The survey found widespread support for more education about feral cats. This suggests that public education should be part of any feral cat management strategy. 

Do you have stray/feral cats in your neighbourhood?

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Loyd, K., & Hernandez, S. (2012). Public Perceptions of Domestic Cats and Preferences for Feral Cat Management in the Southeastern United States Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 25 (3), 337-351 DOI: 10.2752/175303712X13403555186299

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  1. I'd be interested in knowing how the study defined 'feral' and whether this definition was provided to the participants. As your question at the end suggests, most 'feral' cats are actually strays and family pets who have been abandoned by owners who move and leave them behind. Some are simply outdoor cats who do have a home they return to for food but live their lives roaming the town, screaming in heat under people's windows, pooping in people's gardens. Those who are truly born in the wild (from unspayed family pets and strays) often don't survive birth or kittenhood.
    Here on Vancouver Island, BC, there are groups that do TNR, there are communities that euthanize (sometimes inhumanely using gas chambers), and there is Bamfield, BC, which has created a lovely boardwalk for the feral and stray population (with a TNR component) with whimsical houses, community fundraising, healthy food - the boardwalk has, in fact, become a tourist attraction.
    Near where I live, a very large and vocal bird watching group has opposed all attempts to make TNR the mandated approach to management.

  2. Hi Jean,

    Thanks for your comments. That's an excellent question. Throughout the report, they refer to them as feral cats. They have this to say about how they defined them for participants: "'Feral' cats were defined as stray, un-owned domestic cats - they may be somewhat tame strays or completely afraid of people. Free-roaming pet cats were defined as owned cats that are allowed to roam outside without supervision."

    So they did draw a distinction between cats with homes that roam, and feral cats. That's because they also asked a few questions about whether pet cats should be allowed outdoors, that I didn't report on here. If you're interested, 44% agreed or strongly agreed that pet cats should be kept indoors, and 50% agreed or strongly agreed that pet cats should be allowed to roam outdoors.

    I think the wording could affect responses, and their definition of feral as 'somewhat tame or completely afraid' would seem to not include strays that are completely tame. Actually your question reminds me of a study published last year that found that, in New Zealand, it made a difference whether they are called stray or feral. Maybe I'll write about that soon.

    It's interesting to learn about the situation on Vancouver Island. It sounds like the bird-watching group would be similar to the people in the survey who said protecting wildlife was important, and were less likely to support TNR. I hadn't heard about Bamfield - it sounds lovely, and how nice that it is has become a tourist attraction!

  3. In Bangkok the Buddhist temples are chock full of cats, strutting around like they own the place :) I guess the monks feed them because it would be un-Buddhist not to.

  4. I wonder who responded to what opinions about the way they take care of the stray cats. Many more women might have an emotional connection to the animals and prefer they be in a cat sanctuary. Men might of been opposed the idea due to a "gender schema theory", linking liking cats to being immasculine and a woman's duty. Perhaps men were most likely the ones to find them a "nuisance" due to the fact that they felt like they personally couldn't help them as a male figure, women are supposed to be the ones that like furry animals, it's more of their gender role in society. Men could just of easily feed the cats and let them stay around, but it might jepordize their gender identity as a male.

  5. Hi Meaghan. It's an interesting idea, since there are some gender stereotypes about cat ownership. But there isn't any evidence of gender differences in this study. Looking at the American Humane Association's survey that I referenced, there aren't any gender differences there either. So I don't think it comes down to that. It was really just the attitudes to feral cats and wildlife that made a significant difference. It's a good thought though - always worth checking these things out.

  6. I'm surprised that the people who expressed concern about having healthy ecosystems were less likely to support TNR. I figured that removing cats out of an area would create a sudden in-road for unknown predators, or an explosive growth in the usual prey that cats contain. I thought TNR was a good medium because not every cat is going to be neutered, but it would help keep the region balanced from getting an overgrowth in cat population, and let other species thrive. I'm not sure on any of this, but it's good to see other's perspectives.


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