Free-roaming cats are a normal everyday sight in Bradford and Tioga counties, as well as much of the surrounding area. Those of us who live here are well acquainted with cat overpopulation, and the many challenges that come with it. Who among us hasn’t had their garbage torn into, their garage sprayed on, their sleep rudely interrupted by the caterwauling of female cats advertising for tomcat boyfriends? That’s without mentioning the subsequent kittens found under porches, in sheds, and on doorsteps throughout kitten season—which lasts most of the year for us, March through November. Many among you, being animal lovers, have probably also run into the dilemma that plagues many kind-hearted individuals in our community: Should I feed these cats?

It’s definitely a tough question. For some, the answer is obvious—“Yes, of course I should feed them! They’re going to starve otherwise!” For others, an equally obvious answer—“No way, that’ll just encourage them to stick around!”

So who’s right?

Unfortunately, the real answer is not so obvious, and that’s why this question is one that we all wrestle with. The real answer is simply: “It depends.”

It depends on what your plan is from there. I know, who has a plan for stray cats that decide to make a home out of your backyard? Most people don’t, but it’s important to think this problem through if you are faced with this choice, because it’s surprisingly easy to get into a really tough spot here if you don’t.

Animals have a few main drives that are hard-wired into them to ensure survival. Food, shelter and safety come first, because the animal has to ensure its individual survival. If those things are provided for, it can move on to the next highest priority: ensuring the survival of the species by making babies. Cats in particular produce LOTS of babies! I know, kittens are absolutely adorable and everyone loves them, myself included, but let’s not get sidetracked—let’s think about this from your point of view as the Good Samaritan who’s feeding a cat that showed up at your house. Did you want kittens, too? (Assume all free-roaming cats are either pregnant, looking to get pregnant, or already nursing kittens—and if it’s a boy, he’s looking for a girlfriend so you’re still going to end up with a female cat.)

So those adorable kittens–How about when they get to be 6 months old, and they start looking for baby-making buddies of their own? If they’ve got a comfortable home base that provides everything they need, they’re just going to invite their friends to come party at your house, and trust me, that situation gets out of hand very fast. Did you know that cats can have 2 or more litters per year? Even if you’re lucky and your stray cat only has 2 kittens in a litter (usually more like 4-5), if she has 2 litters you’ve got five cats before the end of the summer. Even worse, because our community is so inundated with cats, shelters are often limited on how many cats they can help at any given time. So it can be harder than you’d think to find new homes for all those cats. And, the cost of cat food adds up, doesn’t it? It’s expensive to feed an ever-expanding colony of cats!

 Whoa, right? That’s a lot more than you signed up for! Let’s pause here, because I don’t want to lose you to the visions of oodles and oodles of cats—I think the point here makes itself. Most of us mean well when we want to feed that stray cat, but we don’t think about how crazy that can get! So let’s look at other options, shall we? Because that first option doesn’t sound like fun.

Let’s look at the other “easy” answer—don’t feed the cat. Conventional wisdom says that if you don’t feed the cat, it will move on to another place where it can find food. Now, this does actually work for some cats, as hard as it may be on us to go the “tough love” route. However, there are a couple of things to think about here as well. If it’s a very friendly cat, it may not be “street-savvy” enough to move on and find food for itself. Feral cats are much more likely to assess the situation, determine there’s not enough food, and find a place to live that can support their needs. Keep in mind, though, that just because you aren’t putting food out for it doesn’t mean that there isn’t food around for the cat! If your neighbor feeds the cat, the trash in your neighborhood isn’t well secured, or there’s lots of good hunting around, the cat may be able to support itself anyway—in which case you may not have the food bill, but to get back to our earlier point about all the babies, you could still end up with a colony of cats very quickly.

So, I said “It depends” when we’re talking about which is the right answer, right? Well, here’s my solution—and it’s not perfect, I’ll admit that up front—If you feed the cat, fix it.

Now, many people don’t like this idea, and like I said, it isn’t perfect. It means an investment of time and money on your part to take the cat to a vet and have surgery done to make sure the cat can’t have kittens. When you didn’t ask for or choose to have the cat, that’s a hard thing to do, especially for many people in our community who don’t have a lot of money. However, it does come with several pros that are worth mentioning:

  1. You don’t end up with an inbred cat colony in your backyard.
  2. It saves you money in the long run, because you’re feeding one cat instead of dozens.
  3. The cat is healthier, because it’s not constantly producing kittens. Also the risk of testicular, ovarian, uterine and mammary cancers is reduced to almost nothing.
  4. You and your family/neighborhood are protected because the cat has been vaccinated for rabies.
  5. Many of the obnoxious behaviors cats do—the yowling all hours of the night, the spraying—are part of the mating process, so those tend to go away after they’ve been fixed.
  6. Your new outdoor cat will keep other new cats from joining the party once it no longer wants baby-making buddies, further reducing the risk that you’ll end up with a ton of cats in your backyard.

If you end up in this situation, our clinic would be more than happy to spay or neuter your cat for a reduced cost. We can also help equip you to give your outdoor cat the best care possible—check out our other blogs for information on caring for outdoor cats during the winter, plus we’re always happy to give advice and answer questions.


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