Feeding Feral Cats May Increase Predation Risk
An estimated 10-50 million feral cats live outdoors in the United States. Feral cats prey on birds and other small wild animals, and can also spread diseases to wild animals. Furthermore, when humans feed feral cats, the food attracts larger predators, such as coyotes, that kill cats.
Researchers sought to understand how different ways of feeding free-roaming cats will affect the cat colony. The study took place at a trap-neuter-return (TNR) feral colony in Johnston, Rhode Island between 2012 and 2013. TNR is a common method for decreasing feral cat populations, which is often deemed necessary for the wellbeing of both cats and wild animals. They collected data from twelve thousand camera trap images, tracking the number and timing of visits by cats and other wild animals, along with changes to the cat population and age of cats. Colony tenders fed the cats three different ways at different times:
- A large quantity on the ground
- A large quantity elevated off the ground
- A small quantity on the ground
The researchers observed a variety of wild animals at the feeding stations during the study. Skunks, racoons, and coyotes were the most frequent non-cat visitors. 64% of visits were from cats; 22% of visits were from raccoons; 9% of visits were from coyotes; and 5% of visits were from skunks.
Coyotes, raccoons, and skunks were most likely to visit when colony tenders provided a large amount of food on the ground. Although they are nocturnal, cats visited the feeding station during the day in order to avoid other animals. When colony tenders provided a large amount of food on an elevated platform, cats were more likely to visit than they were to visit any other feeding setup. Cats and raccoons could access the elevated platform, but coyotes and skunks couldn’t. When colony tenders provided a limited amount of food on the ground, skunks didn’t visit at all and raccoons and coyotes were less likely to visit. Cats were most likely to visit in the morning.
The total cat population in the Johnston colony decreased during the two-year study, even though 50-70% of the cats were not neutered. Researchers observed that eight out of the 20 individual cats at the site (40%) had disappeared by the end of the two years. Of those, three died while the colony tenders provided large amounts of food on the ground, and five died while the colony tenders provided large amounts of food on elevated platforms. Cats in this colony mostly did not live past age three, suggesting that coyotes were preying on them. This finding aligns with other studies of TNR cat colonies.
The authors argue that we should give feral cats the best chance of living out their lives, and that it simply doesn’t make sense to manage cat colonies in a way that attracts coyotes to locations where humans feed outdoor cats.
Finally, the authors of the paper summarize their recommendations for feeding and monitoring at TNR cat colonies. They suggest setting up a motion-tracking camera to photograph the feeding site, which can provide an accurate estimate of cat populations in as little as two weeks. Finally, elevating food on a platform, reducing the amount of food provided, or simply not feeding feral cats at all may reduce the risk of predation.