Feral cats are a common problem across the United States and in many other areas of the world. All over the country, well-intentioned folk put out shelters, food, and water for these free-roaming kitties. Some people even try to catch them and take them for medical care. While this seems like the right thing to do, many people do not think about the legality of these actions. Feral cat laws are not something most think to look for.
Caring for feral cats can be confusing when it comes to laws and legal measures. A lot depends on where a person lives, as laws vary by state and locality. In some cases, caring for free-roaming cats can put a compassionate person at risk for civil liability for the animal.
Feral cat laws vary by state. Some counties and cities also have guidelines and laws about what counts as a feral animal, what is a pet, and when someone becomes responsible for unhoused felines in their area or care. We looked into the details and laws about outdoor cats in different areas.
What Is A Feral Cat?
Feral cats live outdoors and are not socialized to human contact. They can be defined as unowned and free-roaming. In many cases, they have never had human interaction. In others, they have had minimal human contact. Untamed animals are different from strays. Stray kitties tend to be those that were lost pets or runaways. Strays want human connection and are not afraid of people. Strays will be more vocal than untamed kitties and tend to stay near homes and buildings. Feral cats are considered one of the largest groups of invasive species.
Ferals are less social. They are untrusting around humans and reluctant to make contact. Untamed animals often shy away or run away if humans try to pet them. They are untamed and have not had the socialization of felines kept as pets. In some cases, these kitties may have been kittens that ran away or were released outdoors and will have acclimated to the ways of a feral cat. Their interaction and contact with people have faded so much that they no longer trust people. Untamed felines are more active at night and often live in groups.
These kitties are also called community cats. They are unowned, love outside, and roam freely. Strays can sometimes fall into this category if they are not picked up by animal control, taken in, or to a shelter. Community kitties can be of all ages, from kittens to adults, and will vary in health.
The State of Maine defines a feral cat as: “a cat with no owner identification that consistently exhibits extreme fear in the presence of people.”
Untamed felines are not wild animals, contrary to widespread misinformation. House pets and feral felines all belong to the same species. Both are domestic felines. Untamed felines simply do not live with humans or depend on them for survival. In some cases, an untamed cat might be considered a wild animal by a court of law if it poses a risk or has caused serious injury to a person.
While stray or runaway pets can quickly acclimate to domestic life and living indoors, the same cannot be said for feral cats. These kitties generally live their entire lives outdoors and without any human input. They are far harder to acclimate to the life of a household pet.
What Problems Do Feral Cats Cause?
Feral felines significantly impact the native flora and fauna around them. They are natural predators and will hunt other animals. Additionally, they compete with native wildlife for resources. Untamed cat communities often spread disease to pets and livestock and can be very aggressive towards people. Untamed felines pose a threat to other pets and often are the cause of noise nuisances. They have an ecological impact by causing damage to plants, gardens, and property. The spread of urine and feces also spreads disease, including areas people use as flower and vegetable gardens.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers free-ranging and feral domestic cats an invasive species that humans spread. They consider free-ranging cats any feline that spends time unrestrained outdoors, regardless of ownership status. Free-ranging felines cause many sociological and ecological impacts and problems. The spread of disease, physical damage, injury, noise nuisance, and effects on other species survival, like birds, can negatively impact communities and wildlife survival. According to the USDA, removing free-ranging felines is the most effective strategy to address the damage they cause.
The removal methods for untamed felines can include relocation, placement in a shelter or cat sanctuary, and, in some cases, euthanasia. The USDA does recommend that owned felines stay inside and safely supervised under their owner’s control.
According to the USDA, over 164 million cats live in the United States. Of those animals, an estimated 30 to 80 million or more are unowned.
Are Feral Cats Covered By Law?
Outdoor, community, and feral cat laws are more detailed and widespread than many realize. Not all states have laws regarding untamed felines. Local governments on the state and municipal levels may have laws and rules regarding feral kitties, so check with your specific area.
TNRM – Trap, Neuter, Return, Monitor
Trap, Neuter, Return, Monitor (TNR or TNRM) is a non-lethal approach to controlling the community cat population. TNRM’s principal intention is to prevent untamed communities from breeding, thereby controlling and eventually reducing their population. It is a non-lethal and humane method that respects the life of the animal while mitigating the problems associated with their overpopulation. With the successful implementation of TNR, untamed animals can continue to live their lives without contributing to the growth of their population.
TNR has been shown to be an efficient tool in managing the number of untamed felines in diverse communities worldwide. Animal welfare advocates, veterinarians, and policymakers have embraced it. There are several benefits to TNRM. Along with controlling the population, it is helping community cats live better lives. Spaying and neutering them helps control aggressive behavior towards humans and other animals. It can also help to reduce territorial behavior among the untamed cat population. Less fighting means less spread of disease and injury.
Reducing the population through non-lethal methods also helps lessen the burden on animal shelters, rescues, and animal control departments that often bear the brunt of caring for community kitty populations. Many states support using TNRM as a control method for community and free-roaming felines. While many support these programs, there are some objectors. The concern is that once the kitties are neutered or spayed, they are released, without support, food, or care, back to a sometimes tough life outdoors.
Have you ever seen a cat that has one ear clipped instead of a pointy tip? The practice is called ear tipping, a surgical procedure done while a kitty undergoes the spay and neuter procedure. Ear tipping is a universally accepted signal that a kitty has been spayed or neutered. It does not apply to domestic pets. Ear tipping is done to stray and free-roaming felines, those that do not have owners. It is generally part of trap, neuter, vaccinate, and return programs and protocols.
Though ear tipping may seem harsh, it is done when the animals are under anesthesia and does not hurt them or impede the function of their ears. It is an obvious way for community members to see that a kitty is spayed or neutered. Community cats are sometimes employed to help control rodent populations and are called working cats. These kitties go through the spay-neuter procedure and most often have their ears clipped.
Feral Cat Laws By State
Currently, 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws related explicitly to feral cats. Most states do not consider them wild animals but also do not have any laws or regulations pertaining to them. In some areas, hunting laws prohibit the killing of untamed cats, as they are not considered wild game. All 50 states have laws prohibiting the killing of cats.
There is a widespread misconception that shooting, euthanizing, or killing free-roaming cats is legal. This is not true. Community members should contact animal control or local rescue organizations to help them trap and relocate these animals. Killing a feline of any kind is a crime.
Feral cats living in commercial and residential areas must be registered with the local animal control officer. People who own or care for these felines must have them spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies.
All felines are protected from abuse or harm, including those considered unowned or feral. Delaware requires caretakers and animal shelters to engage in trap, neuter, vaccinate, and return protocols to reduce the number of strays and colonies.
District of Columbia
Promotes the reduction of euthanasia of animals for which medical treatment or adoption is possible and TNRM practices to control the untamed populations. All efforts are expected to adopt trapped, tamable kittens.
Caretakers must register with a contracted rescue group to establish a trap, sterilize, and return process. Rescue groups are responsible for maintaining records, caretaking of untamed animals, and reporting annually to the Department of Health.
In Idaho, untamed kitties are allowed to roam free by law. Property owners are responsible for controlling free-ranging felines on their residences and land. Property owners can trap these animals on their property and take them to a shelter.
Feral cat colonies are permitted to live. Caretakers of these colonies are entitled to maintain and care for untamed kitties by providing food, water, shelter, medical care, and other sustenance. Colonies must have a registered and approved sponsor. That sponsor must register and be approved by the appropriate county department of animal control.
Caretakers can provide food, shelter, water, medical care, and support for community cats. They must follow community cat program guidelines, including trapping animals for spaying and neutering, ear tipping, rabies vaccinations by a licensed vet, and return to the location where they were captured. Caretakers must provide adequate food, water, and shelter every day and provide enough to cover every animal in the colony. They must seek medical care for injured or ill animals. Caretakers must find another caretaker or contact animal care services if they can no longer support the colony. Indiana also employs a good neighbor status and asks that neglected animals and those victims of cruelty, abuse, or abandonment be reported.
Property owners must reasonably try to capture and vaccinate free-roaming felines on their land.
Every feline, regardless of ownership status, is protected. Caretakers are permitted to feed, shelter, and care for free-roaming felines. Untamed felines are not considered a public nuisance unless they disturb the peace, health, and comfort of a person residing in that area.
Feral colonies are permitted. They are limited to 20 adults in residential-zoned areas. Property owners caring for colonies on their own premises must register them. To renew permits, the colony permit holders must reduce the number to 10 adult felines. Commercial properties are permitted 30 adult felines, with that number being reduced to 15 adults before permit renewal. Caretakers of colonies must actively work towards decreasing the number in the colony through TNR protocol. They are required to provide daily care for the colony.
The state of New York considers free-roaming felines as companion animals. They cannot be treated as wildlife, wild, or nuisance animals. They may not be trapped or euthanized as a control method. Caretakers of untamed colonies are responsible for food, water, shelter, and medical care.
Caretakers must register within their city’s jurisdiction system in North Carolina. Colonies are not permitted within 100 feet of a residential-zoned district. Trap neuter release protocol is expected from all caregivers, and all animals must be registered and photographed at the local SPCA shelter. Adults and kittens that are adoptable will not be returned to the colony. Kitties with health issues, including rabies, feline distemper, leukemia, or feline AIDS, will not be returned to the colony.
Any individual who provides care and sustenance to free-roaming cats for an uninterrupted period of 60 days or longer is considered the owner of those animals. Owners are responsible for spaying and neutering as well as vaccinations. Additionally, TNR protocols should be employed to stop euthanizing homeless animals, except those deemed medically necessary or a threat to other animals or people.
In South Carolina, untamed feline caretakers are not considered the owners. This contrasts with stray animal laws, which consider a person the owner after caring for or holding a street cat for 6 days. Caretakers are exempt from any provision of law regarding the feeding of stray animals, permits for the feeding of animals, requiring the confinement of cats, or limiting the number of animals a person can own, harbor, or have in their custody. The exemption only applies if public health is preserved. A feral caregiver has the same right of redemption as the owner of a pet without conferring ownership of that animal to the caregiver.
Vermont law recognizes the community’s best interest in using a TNR program for community cats. Caretakers of community felines are not considered legal owners.
In Virginia, untamed cats are considered companion animals. This means that caregivers can potentially be charged with and liable for abandonment if they stop caring for those animals. Pet owners are required by law to provide companion animals with food, water, clean shelter and space, exercise, care, medical treatment, transportation, and other necessary support to prevent suffering and disease transmission.
Trap, neuter, and return protocol is expected for untamed cats.
Unsocialized colonies must be under the sponsorship of an approved TNR program. Caretakers are responsible for registering the colony with the administrator of a TNR program providing vaccinations for rabies, as well as water, food, and shelter. Kittens must be removed and sent to foster homes. Carers must provide annual reporting on colonies and abide by any other regulations and rules imposed by local governments.
Outdoor Cat Laws
Outdoor cat laws are not the same as feral or stray laws. Most municipalities have rules and regulations regarding pet ownership and where pets must be kept. It is essential to check with your local municipal, county, and state code if you plan to let your purr baby outside. Letting kitties outdoors unsupervised is very risky. It puts your pets at risk for injury, disease, and attack by other animals and wildlife, as well as a risk of being picked up by animal control services and taken to a shelter.
Federal laws and most state laws do not ban felines from living outside. However, many local ordinances prohibit felines being let outdoors unsupervised or require pets to be on a leash.
Outdoor cat regulations regarding pets are often implemented to help reduce the negative impacts of community cats on the local wildlife population. These regulations also help prevent conflicts, fights, and attacks on other pets and humans. In some areas, animal trespass laws and regulations are in place. These laws mean owners can be fined if their pet leaves their property and is found on someone else’s.
In many municipalities, all felines are required to be vaccinated for rabies. Owner identification is also important. If a pet or stray is picked up and no owner identification is possible, the animal is at risk of being put in a shelter and potentially euthanized. In some places, for example, Rhode Island, kitties must be spayed and neutered and wear a collared ID to be allowed to roam outside.
If you plan to try and relocate a street cat, it is important to check with local ordinances. Some areas enforce TNR programs, while others may prohibit the relocation of stray or community cat colonies.
Personal Experience With Feral Cats
“We had what we believed was a feral cat show up on our front sidewalk sporadically for a few days. It looked malnourished and was extremely hesitant to come anywhere near me or my two teenage daughters.
We fed it a few times a day and then started sitting far away from it so it would get used to our presence. We hoped to catch it and take it to our local SPCA in Charlottesville, Va., which is a no-kill shelter. This continued for at least a week. But sadly, it never became comfortable enough to come close to us. And unfortunately, we didn’t have a trapping cage to help us rescue this poor kitty.
The kitty stopped showing up after about a week, so we never knew what happened to it. I encourage people to get a cage if they have frequent fertile cats in their area if they want to trap them.–Sally Jones, Love Your cat Writer and cat owner
Can I Adopt A Feral Cat?
Adopting a feral animal is a risky process. It is not the same as adopting a stray that has been socialized with and is friendly with humans and other animals. While untamed felines often tolerate the other felines in their colony, they are standoffish, distrustful, and aggressive towards humans and other animals. Adopting one always comes with risks, and owners cannot expect a free-roaming animal to become a cuddly, fluffy lap kitty. In most cases, they can be domesticated and tamed enough to exist indoors. Some very persistent owners may even be able to train them and acclimatize them enough to tolerate pets, cuddles, and even sleeping next to them on the couch or bed.
However, taking in an unsocialized cat requires much work and dedication. There will be some destructive behavior, and it may last for some time. It is also not advisable if you have other pets in the home, small children, or a lot of expensive items and furniture that you care about.
A significant risk with free-roaming kitties is disease. Most of these kitties do not die of old age. They die of serious diseases. They are at high risk of contagious illnesses, including feline AIDS called feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), herpes viral conjunctivitis, infectious peritonitis (FIP), rabies, feline panleukopenia, and feline leukemia (FeLV), along with rabies, bacterial infection, respiratory viruses, and parasites.
Some diseases that untamed felines carry can pass on to humans, including toxoplasmosis, rabies, and other flea and tick-borne illnesses.
Adopting an untamed kitty can mean taking in an animal with special medical needs that may not live as long as a pet adopted from a shelter or breeder. It can cause emotional distress as owners become attached to the animal, try to develop a bond, and make plans for long-term care. Finding out that this animal you are trying to save is doomed with an incurable disease is a heart-wrenching and challenging experience.
We urge caution, patience, and thorough research when considering bringing an untamed animal into your home. You must consider safety first and foremost. Additionally, consider the animal’s quality of life and how they feel confined to a smaller space than they have had their entire lives. For many unsocialized kitties, this change is too complex of an adjustment, and they were not farewell or last long when expected to behave like a domesticated pet.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you bond with a feral cat?
It is possible to bond with an untamed kitty, but it is essential to have different expectations from these kitties than from other socialized pets. The amount of bonding potential depends upon the untamed level of the individual animal. You must allow the animal to make the first move. Remember that these animals do not like or tolerate much human contact, especially physical. Trying to pet or hold them too quickly will likely result in injury to you and may cause the cat to run off and not return. Offer food and water without expecting anything in return. Remember that the animal is likely returning more for the continued support of food and water than for human affection. True feral cats often want nothing to do with human companionship. Survival is what drives them.
Can I be fined for taking care of an outdoor or feral cat?
In some cases, depending upon your local rules and regulations, you may be fined for caring for an outdoor cat. It often happens if local laws and jurisdictions consider taking care of untamed cats ownership.
Am I liable if a feral cat I am caretaking attacks a person or another animal?
In some cases, yes, you might be. Of course, this all depends on your area’s local laws and regulations. Injury to humans or other pets and property damage may be something caretakers of untamed colonies find themselves liable for.
Can a feral cat ever become socialized and friendly?
It all depends on the individual animal. Generally, ferals have a much harder time acclimating to domestic life. They have not been trained to trust or tolerate humans from a young age. Starting this process with an older kitty is a lot of work. It is not a complete lost cause, but one cannot expect the same outcome from an untamed animal as one they adopt from a shelter or that has been raised alongside humans and other animals from a young age.
Caring for and supporting feral and community cats is an admirable, worthwhile, and well-intentioned thing to do. In many communities, cats desperately need this support, and few people are willing to do it. If you hope to care for and support community cat colonies, investigate the laws in your state and local municipality. Also, contact local animal shelters to learn more about stray and feral cat care programs in your community. It is an enormous task to take on alone, and it often seems impossible to help every kitty that needs support. Joining a group of other like-minded individuals connects you with a greater community and provides better, long-lasting support for these animals.