The Stresses Of Feral Cat Care
Many cats share our homes as beloved companion animals. Still many others live on the streets. There, their average lifespan may be as low as two to four years – a number that may rise to seven or eight years through the actions of feral cat caregivers. Caring for feral cats is a polarizing topic and can be a stigmatized practice. This study looks in more detail at the experiences of feral cat caregivers, exploring some of the main stressors that lead to burnout and compassion fatigue.
The analysis draws on the ethnographic experience of researchers, who spent 14 years engaging with various animal rescue communities. The information in the study was gathered primarily between 2013 and 2017. During this time, they conducted field interviews, online exchanges, and in-person observation and interactions with feral cat caregivers. Most of the caregivers and rescuers were involved in TNR projects, whereby feral cats are trapped, neutered, and then returned to their lives on the streets.
Although the authors underline the positive aspects of caring for feral cats, this article focuses primarily on the stressors. They group these into three categories: continuous-care stress, peripheral stress, and stigmatized-care fatigue. Continuous-care stress stems from the imbalance of resources versus barriers to caregiving. Peripheral stress arises from the reactions of other humans toward feral cat caregiving, ranging from the unsupportive to the actively hostile. Finally, stigmatized-care fatigue refers to the negative perceptions of feral cat caregiving. These sources of stress are distinct but interconnected – for example, stigma can cause the negative reactions that create peripheral stress.
Before examining the stressors in depth, the researchers briefly explore the concept of empathy to shed light on the relationship between caregivers and feral cats. They note that empathy involves not only the ability to place oneself in another’s perspective (i.e. role-taking), but also a genuine and selfless regard for another’s well-being. With respect to feral cats, caregivers must not only want to help, but also understand the cats’ wariness. Gaining a cat’s trust requires patience and persistence, since feral cats are justifiably cautious.
Feral cats are vulnerable. As well as confronting disease and injury, they can be subjected to horrific attacks by humans. The article touches on a few instances of human cruelty toward feral cats, and observes that sometimes this is a backlash against caregivers. After a conflict with a neighbor over feeding local feral cats, for example, one caregiver found the severed heads of two cats placed on his trashcan. This incident reflects two of the chronic stressors for feral cat caregivers: the concern for the cats suffering harms; and the consequences of stigma surrounding their caregiving.
Caring for feral cats is often stigmatized, with negative stereotypes (e.g. the “crazy cat lady”) attached to caregivers. The stigmatization of feral cat caregiving can damage a caregiver’s relationships with other humans, from neighbors and coworkers to close friends and family, who may not always understand why a caregiver is so committed to their feral cats. The stigma is also reflected in a lack of institutional support. Often, individuals in caregiving roles can access resources, such as counseling, to prevent compassion fatigue. In contrast, feral cat caregivers are more likely to face hostility and shaming. Without institutional support, caregivers must rely more on other support networks (e.g. friends, family, and fellow volunteers), which can in turn lead to conflict and feelings of guilt.
Understandably, caregivers worry about the well-being of their feral cats, and feel that they cannot take a day off from their responsibilities to them. Caregivers are also likely to encounter many injured and suffering animals, and animals who must be euthanized. This combination of a sense of responsibility and the emotional toll of witnessing suffering puts caregivers under continuous-care stress. Such stress is compounded by the obstacles they face and the scarce resources available. For example, the study quotes an email from a feral cat caregiver about losing the cat adoption room at Petsmart, while having thirty cats on her waiting list.
Despite the rewarding nature of caregiving, the various stressors discussed in the study mean that feral cat caregivers are susceptible to burnout and compassion fatigue. As the study observes, care of nonhuman animals more broadly is stigmatized – many animal advocates have encountered the charge that we care more about nonhumans than humans, for example. But beyond the animal protection movement, advocates working on diverse causes cope with burnout and compassion fatigue. Through mapping out the causes of stress for caregivers in various roles, we can better understand how to support those who help others, both human and nonhuman.