Can Domestic Cats Survive On Their Own?

Posted on 05 Nov 2016 20:00 by EricT


A widespread belief about cats is that they are not really domesticated, but are rather still wild animals that only tolerate or exploit human beings for resources. This belief is usually only harbored by those who have never lived with a cat, but even some cat lovers may have read that cats are only partly domesticated. Whether or not cats are "fully domesticated" is a complex question which depends greatly on how we define domestication. The real question is can an indoor cat survive outside?

The belief that the common house cat's wild instincts and abilities are hidden just below the surface ready to come out should the cat need them leads to an unfortunate and often tragic outcome. Domesticated cats, unwanted by their owners are often dumped in a city or rural environment and left to fend for themselves. The owners often think that the cat will be able to take care of itself, find its own food, etc. since it is really a wild animal, at heart.

While the average domestic cat certainly retains its instinctual behaviors and needs, a house-cat left alone outdoors is usually woefully unprepared to survive. Many will lack any real hunting skills at all, having failed to learn from their mothers, and even those who are fairly good mousers (or insect stalkers), in the home, will likely not be able to find food in a harsh city environment, or hunt for prey effectively in a wild rural environment.

For a cat dumped in the city, food, if he can find it at all, is likely to come from human scraps, such as from dumpsters, and the occasional rodent or insect, if he is lucky. He will have to be able to defend these resources from other cats while protecting himself from potential predators like dogs. Disease is a constant threat. And traffic, an unknown danger to a house cat, is likely to be his end.

During the winter, he must find shelter from the cold, when, weak from improper nutrition, he is likely to freeze to death. The basic fact is that most abandoned house cats do not survive very long at all. They starve, are hit by a car, are killed by a predator, or die from disease. Perhaps the best outcome the cat could have is to join a feral colony, a group of partially wild cats who gather in areas with easy (relatively speaking) access to food. This is a miserable existence for a cat used to human contact, comfort, and an abundance of resources.

A cat who has lived in a house with humans for his entire life does not suddenly morph into a fully functioning wild creature, ready to be a fierce and wily predator, naturally able to survive. The outdoors is a huge, frightening, and confusing place. A cat abandoned is likely to hide out of sight for weeks before venturing out, urged by the need for food.

Many cat information sources state that most, or many cats have the ability to become feral, and thus survive in the wild. This helps further the notion that a house cat is likely to eventually learn to live on its own outdoors. In other words, homeless cats "become feral." A well-socialized domestic cat may, after a time, become fearful of humans and may shrink from contact. This does not make it feral. These cats are still likely to stay near enough to humans to obtain food.

Whether regarded as stray cats, alley cats, or feral cats, all these cats tend to be seen as similar. However, the differences are important, when it comes to survival.

What is a Feral Cat?

A feral cat is usually defined as a cat who is born of a stray cat or another feral cat. These cats have a fear of humans because they have never had direct human contact, but they are not wild cats. A truly wild cat would not live near human dwellings.

Some feral cats live on their own, but many are found in large groups called feral colonies. These colonies spring up where there is access to food and perhaps shelter or hiding places such as near dumpsters, abandoned buildings or cars, or even small wooded areas. Other colonies are found in places where humans feed them, and some of these colonies are managed by humans, with volunteers feeding and protecting them.

Although there are reports of the remarkable lifespans of some feral cats, it is the median age that is important, not the age of a lucky few individuals. It is difficult to know the average lifespan of a feral cat, but studies have reported median ages of between 4.5 and 5 years. A feral cat on its own is expected to have a shorter lifespan of perhaps 2 years, while those living in colonies have the greatest chance of survival. While not all feral cats are the same, they are better able to survive than any cat raised in a house with humans and many live long lives, even outside colonies, managed or otherwise. Regardless, even feral cats have a short existence compared to a house cat.

What is a Stray Cat

A stray cat is a cat that once lived with humans but was abandoned or became lost. A house cat is unlikely to become as fearful of humans as a truly feral cat. Those who help care for cats in feral colonies, and who have rescued such cats, will tell you that there is a big difference between the way the feral cats and the 'stray' cats behave. Even in a feral colony, some of the cats may be attracted to humans and even want to go with them! These cats have been known to try to get into cars, etc.

Likewise, a cat that shows up in your yard, hangs out, mooches food, and allows you to come near and even pet him after a bit of getting to know you, is not a feral cat, but either an indoor/outdoor cat or a stray cat. A feral cat may likely show up in your yard, but you will not be able to come near without him bolting, perhaps after a well-aimed hiss in your direction.

So, stray cats are cats that have had human contact at an early age. These cats are highly likely to be able to be adopted, taken into a home, and becoming a warm and loving pet.

Feral Versus Wild

The confusion about feral cats versus wild cats stems from how near to humans feral cats live. Throughout the history of our association with cats, some wild cats have wandered in out of the wild and lived near human habitations. Whether in loose-knit colonies or as loners, these cats aid humans by keeping down the pest population, while the cats get the benefit of human scraps, the occasional handout, and sources of shelter. Feral cats are much like these cats, except they were born near human dwellings and have learned to survive in this environment. This type of symbiotic relationship is called a "commensal" relationship. Both parties benefit.

However, a wild cat who is willing to live near enough to humans to receive these benefits is not your everyday one! Only certain cats could have been willing to do this. Feral cats, on the other hand, are born to it. A house cat is born to live in a house! Yes, they are still much the same as their feline ancestors in may ways, but they have been socialized to humans from an early age. The earlier a kitten is handled by humans, the more imprinted on humans she will become. It is possible, therefore, for even a feral kitten to become a house pet if adopted and handled early enough, by its third to fifth week.

This early socialization is extremely powerful and important, and it cannot be undone that easily. To put it simply, cats born to humans need humans.

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