National Animal Welfare Trust has been researching the topic of feral cats in the UK this year via online and paper surveys.

Our study had just under 800 responses from people all over the UK and has provided us with a great insight into what people think of our unowned kitties.

We targeted animal welfare groups and our own supporter community, including readers of our charity magazine, Animate, as part of our research. From this we have gained well-informed insights from a community that has much involvement with feral cats.

What do we mean by the term feral cat?

A large majority of respondents are cat owners (84%) and are familiar with the term ‘feral cat’ and could easily tell the difference between a feral cat and a stray cat. The difference being feral cats have had no human interaction whatsoever and are born in the wild, whereas stray cats often had a home and were lost or abandoned and ended up living on the streets.

Around 80% of our respondents live in an urban (built up) area and just under half of respondents said they were aware of feral cats living in their neighbourhood. This could suggest that feral cats tend to be more visible in the UK’s cities and towns, where there are more opportunities to find food and shelter rather than villages and rural areas.

Are feral cats considered a problem?

Our results suggest ferals are far from being a problem, with only 18% saying such cats were an issue in their neighbourhood. The clear majority of respondents did not. Those that do see feral cats as a problem say the most common problems are over-population (too many cats and kittens) and feral cats fighting with domestic cats. 

With so many respondents being cat owners, we might have expected the answer to be higher, suggesting a degree of tolerance and even concern for ferals. 

In fact, when it comes to the care of ferals, over half of respondents told us that someone was looking after ferals in their neighbourhood, nearly half of them (41%) were looking after them themselves.  Other people said they knew of other locals who were looking after feral cats, as well as neighbours and local welfare organisations. This answer ties in well with the fact that feral cats are not perceived as a problem – so people are happy to feed them and look after them.

However, worryingly, while 663 respondents told us that someone looks after the ferals in their community, only 385 could tell us who that person or organisation is. This could suggest that people assume feral cats are being looked after when they are not. It could also suggest that multiple different parties are looking after feral cats and no one carries that sole responsibility – which leads us on to our next question…

Who should be looking after our feral cats?

Cats do not have the same legal status as dogs do.  Therefore, making sure the right organisation oversees their welfare is extremely important to ensuring moral decisions are made and feral cats are looked after, not just ‘dealt with’.

Our survey suggests people are concerned about the welfare of feral cats and are keen that the responsibility for looking after them is placed into the right hands. But as to who that is, opinion is divided.

Although 19% of respondents look after feral cats themselves, we wondered if people would think, rather like dogs, that local authorities should have a legal responsibility to handle feral cats as well. The majority of respondents (70%) believe that local authorities should be the ones with the legal responsibility to handle them.

The most common way of managing feral cat communities is through the TNR (Trap Neuter Release) programmes. This is when the cats are trapped, taken to a vet to be neutered and then returned to their habitat. TNR schemes stop the overpopulation of feral kittens and stops further generations from being born. When asked about who should run these schemes, opinion is split with 46% of respondents believe that local authorities should manage feral populations by running TNR programmes, followed by animal charities (30%) and the RSPCA (18%).

Clearly this shows our respondents strong sense of wanting to help the animals, but not knowing who would be quite right for the job.

Managing colonies – the case for returning vs rehoming

Our survey showed great awareness and support for TNR schemes, however a third said that rather than releasing the animal after neutering, they should be placed with a rescue centre for rehoming – changing the emphasis to trap, neuter and rehome. Anecdotally, some respondents explained that was because sometimes they felt it was not safe for feral cats to return to the environment they came from, especially urban areas with high levels of traffic and other members of the community not wanting to have the cats around. Another suitable option, which was expressed in the survey, would be relocating feral cats to a safer place – such as farm land, where they can act as pest control but be kept safe and well looked after.

We asked whether feral cat colonies are acceptable in the UK? Over two thirds (67%) of respondents said yes, it is acceptable, whilst 33% said no. This makes sense when we consider that only 18% of respondents saw feral cats as a problem.

Should we call ferals ‘community cats’?

Community cats is an alternative term to feral cats, meaning “an unowned cat that lives outdoors.” In our survey, 59% of respondents agreed that the term ‘community cats’ would be better suited than feral cats. This may be due to the negative connotations often associated with the term ‘feral’, and trying to show these cats in a more positive light.

Feral cats need more help

A resounding message in our results is the degree of concern for the welfare of feral cats. Clearly there is more that charities can do to help but as ever it comes down to resources. It was therefore good to hear that a clear majority (68%) would be happy to help fund feral cat schemes in the UK by donating to charities such as the NAWT.

"This is the first time NAWT has conducted research into feral cats in the UK, and it is clear that people care about their welfare and want to ensure they live healthy lives. The big question though is who should be responsible for their welfare with a lot of people thinking it should be something local authorities should be responsible for. We don't see that being a possibility either now or in the foreseeable future, which is why it's vital that charities like ourselves remain involved in supporting feral schemes. By raising awareness of attitudes towards feral cats, we hope it will help bring more support for these community cats across the country." - Clare Williams, CEO

NAWT works with several neighbourhood cat volunteers and has ferals at some of its own centres. We would love to do more to help feral cats, so if you would like to donate to help our work with feral cats please see how here

If you think you have feral or stray cats in your neighbourhood, then use our advice guide here.