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Have you spotted stray cats or kittens?

Found cats FAQ

Learn about the outdoor cats—both community (feral/stray) and owned—that you see in your community

Cats roam outside in most neighborhoods. Some are pets whose owners let (or put) them outside, but many are community cats, who may be feral/wild or one-time pets who are now stray, lost or abandoned. The more we understand outdoor cats and the complicated issues related to them, the more effectively we can help them, reduce cat overpopulation and protect wildlife.

The cats you see outside may be cats whose owners let them outdoors, or they may be feral or stray community cats who live outdoors. Although these community cats aren't owned, they may be fed by one or more caring person.

How is a stray cat different from a feral cat?

A stray cat is a pet who has been lost or abandoned, is used to contact with people and is tame enough to be adopted. A feral cat is the offspring of stray or other feral cats and is not accustomed to human contact. Feral cats are usually too fearful to be handled or adopted.

Stray cats may be reunited with their families or adopted into new homes, but feral cats will find it difficult or impossible to adapt to living as pets in close contact with people. But that doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to improve feral cats' health and quality of life.

Why are there feral cats?

If they don't have early contact with people, the kittens of stray or feral cats will become feral themselves, too fearful to be handled or adopted. Since a female cat can become pregnant as early as five months of age, the number of feral cats in a neighborhood can rapidly increase if cats aren't spayed or neutered.

Where do community cats live?

Community cats typically live in a colony (a group of related cats). The colony occupies and defends a specific territory where food (a restaurant dumpster or a person who feeds them) and shelter (beneath a porch, in an abandoned building, etc.) are available. Although feral cats may be seen by people who feed them, strangers may not realize that feral cats are living nearby because they rarely see them. Stray cats tend to be much more visible, may vocalize and may approach people in search of food or shelter. Stray cats may join a colony or defend a territory of their own.

Why are outdoor cats considered a problem?

Nuisance behaviors, such as urinating and defecating in someone's yard or garden, digging in someone's yard or garden, jumping on someone's car and upsetting an owned cat are the greatest concerns that the general public has about outdoor cats.

Overpopulation is a serious concern as well. These cats produce around 80 percent of the kittens born. Those kittens, especially if they are allowed outdoors, add to the number of outdoor cats and the problems associated with them.

Rescues in a community with a large population of outdoor cats who aren't spayed or neutered may experience these problems:

  • More cats entering rescues as a result of trapping adults and kittens young enough to be socialized (tamed) so less space to rescue friendly rehomeable kittens.

  • Costs associated with trapping and/or caring for wild cats as it can months, years or never to tame them.

In addition, rescues receive many nuisance complaints about outdoor cats, including:

  • Frequent, loud noises that are part of the fighting and mating behavior of unneutered/unspayed cats.

  • Strong, foul odors left by unneutered male cats spraying urine to mark their territory.

  • Flea infestations.

  • Visible suffering from injured and dying cats.

  • The death of wild animals who are cats' prey.

How can cat overpopulation be solved?

Spaying or neutering community cats using Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) will reduce their numbers. Spaying or neutering pet cats before they reproduce will reduce their numbers and help stop pet overpopulation.

What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?

TNR is a nonlethal strategy for reducing the number of community cats and improving the quality of life for cats, wildlife and people. At its most basic, TNR involves:

  • Humanely trapping community cats,

  • Spaying or neutering them,

  • Surgically removing the tip of one ear (a "tipped" ear is the universally-recognized sign of a cat who has been spayed or neutered),

  • Returning the cats to their home where they were being fed.

How does TNR solve common complaints associated with feral cats?

  • When feral cats are trapped, neutered and returned to their territory, they no longer reproduce.

  • The cessation of sexual activity eliminates the noise associated with mating behavior and dramatically reduces fighting and the noise it causes.

  • Neutered feral cats also roam much less and become less visible and less prone to injury from cars.

  • Foul odors are greatly reduced as well because neutered male cats no longer produce testosterone which, when they are unaltered, mixes with their urine and causes the strong, pungent smell of their spraying.

  • When the colony is then monitored by a caretaker who removes and/or TNRs any newly arrived cats, the population stabilizes and gradually declines over time.

Do people take care of community cats? How?

Many people see a cat who seems homeless and start feeding the cat. Ideally, the person quickly does more to help the cat:

  • If the cat is tame, the first step is to try to find the cat's owner. If the owner can't be found, step two is to try to find a permanent home for the cat through a rescue or advertising.

  • If the cat is feral, unapproachable and wary after several days of feeding, it's best to find out if there are any groups doing TNR in the community so at least the cat can be spayed or neutered. 

Once a cat or colony of cats has been TNR-ed, it's ideal if a dedicated caretaker provides food, water and shelter, monitors the cats for sickness or injury and TNRs new feral cats who arrive. Ideally, kittens young enough to be socialized and new tame cats who arrive are removed from the colony for possible adoption.

Many dedicated caretakers pay for TNR themselves to help improve the lives of cats and reduce their numbers. Without TNR and a dedicated caretaker trapping new cats who show up, the population of the colony could increase.

Why can't animal shelters rescue feral cats?

Rescues already care for and try to find homes for untold thousands of lost, injured and abandoned cats, in addition to pet cats whose owners are unable or unwilling to keep them.

Many rescues don't have the staff or money to do TNR unless they receive donations or grants. However,rescues that receive calls of complaint or concern from the public may attempt to humanely trap to assist TNR. Or they may provide information and loan traps to citizens interested in humanely trapping feral cats. If there is a local group helping feral cats, the rescue may refer callers to that group.

Because feral cats are so scared of people and usually cannot be adopted, those who are brought to a shelter, may likely to be euthanized either right away or after a holding period. It's a complicated situation: While it's difficult to accurately identify a feral cat without observing them during a holding period, safely caring for a feral cat in a typical rescue cage is terribly stressful for the cat as well as potentially dangerous for the rescue staff.  We dont recommend taking in feral/wild cats ourselves due to these factors but can assist in TNR

A better approach is TNR and a dedicated caretaker. Spayed or neutered feral cats are healthier because they no longer have kittens or fight over mates and their nuisance behaviors are greatly reduced or eliminated. If the colony has a dedicated caretaker, they provide food, water and shelter and watch over the cats' health and remove any newcomers for TNR (if feral) or adoption (if tame).

TNR improves the quality of life for existing colonies, prevents the birth of more cats and reduces the number of cats over time.

Won't removing community cats from an area eliminate the problem?

There are many reasons cat problems are rarely solved by trapping and removing a colony. Community cats live at a certain location because it offers food and shelter. If a colony is removed, cats from surrounding colonies may move in to take advantage of the newly available resources. The cycle of reproduction and nuisance behavior begins all over again.

If all the cats in a colony are not trapped, then the ones left behind will tend to have larger litters of kittens. The kittens are more likely to survive because there are fewer cats competing for food. The colony's population will continue to increase until it reaches the number that can be supported by the available food and shelter.

Here are some of the other factors that usually make trap and removal ineffective:

  • No input from the cats' caretakers, who are the only people who really know the cats' numbers and patterns and can control whether or not the cats are hungry enough to enter a baited trap.

  • No volunteers to trap cats, who face an uncertain fate or death upon capture.

  • Little to no animal control staff and money available to accomplish the task.

  • No strategy for the difficult task of catching all the cats in a colony.

  • No one watching out for pet cats who are lost or abandoned, aren't spayed or neutered and quickly repopulate a vacated territory.

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