top of page

Fast facts about the "feral cat problem"

  • What’s the difference between feral, stray, and community cats?"
    Although the terms feral and stray are often used interchangeably, feral generally refers to unowned, free-roaming cats, especially those who are not socialized to humans either because they have never had human contact or because they have, over time, reverted to a “wilder” state in the absence of human contact. Stray, on the other hand, generally refers to owned cats (i.e., pets) who have become lost or displaced from their homes or property. The term community cat is less precise, but is typically used to refer to unowned, free-roaming cats regardless of their sociability. Free-roaming refers to outdoor cats, whether owned or not. These categories are rather fluid — an indoor-only pet cat can, for example, slip outside, thereby becoming a stray and perhaps even a feral cat. This same cat could eventually become part of a TNR (trap-neuter-return) colony, warm up to a colony caregiver, and become a pet cat again. It's important to note, too, that these definitions are not adopted globally and usage is often context-dependent. The law might define cats one way (e.g., domestic, feral, etc.), for example, while veterinarians, animal control officers, conservationists, etc., each categorize free-roaming cats differently.
  • How many feral cats are there in the U.S.?
    Unfortunately, there are no rigorous estimates for the number of feral cats living in the United States. For years, various numbers have been quoted, but there’s been little to no empirical evidence to back them up. The best available estimate suggests that the population is probably about 32 million, roughly 76% of whom live in urban areas [1]. For more information, see
  • Is the U.S. feral cat population increasing or decreasing?
    Numerous media accounts suggest that feral cat numbers are increasing — though these stories never provide the kind of “before” and “after” data necessary to support such claims. Unfortunately, no studies to date have documented feral cat populations at a city or county level. However, an examination of data documenting the admission of cats to animal shelters across the county suggests that the number of feral cats, at least in urban and suburban parts of the country, is likely declining [1].
  • Where do feral cats come from?
    The term “feral cats” is used to describe unowned, free-roaming cats who are not socialized to humans either because they have never had human contact or because they have, over time, reverted to a “wilder” state in the absence of human contact. A common misconception is that a significant number of feral cats come from accidental litters by unsterilized pets, however, results of the American Pet Products Association’s 2019–2020 National Pet Owners Survey suggest that 93% of pet cats are sterilized [2], leaving only a small percentage of pet cats able to reproduce. Unfortunately, no comparable sterilization figure is available for unowned, free-roaming cats leading researchers to conclude that “feral cats likely represent the single most important source of cat overpopulation” [3]. In short, most feral cats come from other feral cats due to most feral cats not being sterilized.
  • How quickly can cats reproduce?
    One of the most frequently cited statistics associated with domestic cats suggests that two unsterilized cats and their offspring can produce 420,000 cats in seven years. This grossly exaggerates reality. It’s true that cats can begin to breed at six months of age [4,5] and produce an average of 1.5 litters (average of four kittens each) annually [3]. Lacking human intervention, though, many kittens born outdoors will not survive to reproduce. Taking this and other important factors into account, more realistic estimates put the figure at roughly 100–5,000 cats in seven years [6,7]. For more information, see
  • How many feral cats are sterilized?
    Results of the American Pet Products Association’s 2019–2020 National Pet Owners Survey suggest that 93% of pet cats are sterilized [2]. No comparable data is available for feral cat populations; however, studies reveal considerable variation in sterilization rates at the local level, from essentially 0% in areas where resources are scarce [8] to nearly 100% where intensive trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs are implemented. For more information, see
  • How long do feral cats live?
    There’s little doubt that feral cats, on average, don’t live as long as pet cats, especially those living exclusively indoors. Although the often-heard claim that these cats live only about two years is supported to some degree by studies of unsterilized cats living without any apparent reliance on food from humans [9–11]. By contrast, studies have documented median lifespans for sterilized cats who were fed regularly (i.e., as part of “managed” trap-neuter-return programs) of 7–10 years and even older [12–14]. For more information, see
  • How many stray and feral cats end up in animal shelters?
    Studies show that no more than seven of every 100 cats entering local animal shelters are reclaimed by their owners [15–17] (compared to 15–50% for impounded dogs [18]). One key reason for this is that, in many shelters, the majority of cats are brought in as “strays” with no owner to reclaim them [see, for example, 19,20]. For more information, see
  • How many people feed stray and feral cats?
    Results of the American Pet Products Association’s 2019–2020 National Pet Owners Survey suggest that 14% of U.S. households (and 26% of cat-owning households) provide care (mostly food and water) for “free-roaming cats” [21]. For more information, see
  • How many pet cats go outside?
    Results of the American Pet Products Association’s 2019–2020 National Pet Owners Survey suggest that approximately 68% of cat-owning households keep their cats indoors [2], nearly double the rate reported in 1997 [22]. Given recent estimates of cat ownership in the U.S. [1,2,23], this translates to approximately 22–24 million pet cats with at least some outdoor access.
  • What is trap-neuter-return (TNR)?
    TNR is a non-lethal technique for managing unowned, free-roaming cats. The cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered by a licensed veterinarian, ear-tipped (the universal sign that they have been sterilized), and returned to where they were trapped. Many TNR programs also vaccinate cats against the rabies virus and three common viruses in cats (feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia virus) through what’s known as the FVRCP vaccine. Programs that routinely vaccinate cats against rabies are sometimes referred to as trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) programs, to emphasize this important public health component. In addition, some TNR programs will find homes for adoptable cats and kittens (when doing so is feasible) and coordinate with designated caregivers who provide ongoing care for the cats (e.g., food, water, shelter, veterinary care). For more information, see
  • How long does it take for TNR programs to work?
    Like any population management method, it takes time for trap-neuter-return (TNR) to result in population reductions. Numerous long-term (i.e., 10–28 years) studies have documented reductions of 30­–80% at the local level [24,12,25–28,14], as well as the elimination of cat colonies [14,27–29]. One- [30,31] or two-year [32] studies, however, tend to reflect the initial increases that can precede longer-term population declines [33], probably the result of a “reduction in agonistic behavior of the [sterilized] cats, resulting in a so-called behavioral vacuum” [30] that allows new cats to join existing colonies. For more information, see
  • How big are feral cat colonies?
    Free-roaming cats that gather in a particular area are often referred to as a “colony.” Research suggests that the size of a typical cat colony is fewer than 10 or 12 cats [34,27,35,28,36], and tend to be even smaller when most cats are sterilized [33,14]. For more information, see
  • Do feral and stray cats spread rabies to humans?
    Rabies in domestic animals was once relatively common; however, data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that nearly 93% of rabies cases in the U.S. now occur in wildlife [37]. Between 1975 and 2018 (the most recent data available), the CDC has documented 115 cases of human rabies in the U.S., most of which were attributed to contact with wildlife. Of the 26 cases attributed to domestic animals, 25 (96%) were attributed to dogs (nearly all exposures occurred outside the U.S.). Just one human case since 1975 was attributed to contact with a cat [38]. For more information, see
  • What are the most common causes of possible rabies exposure?
    A national study of patients seeking treatment for possible rabies exposure found that 81% of exposures were attributed to dogs while 13% were attributed to cats [39]. One-third of dog exposures occurred in the public street or park, compared to 12% cat exposures; on the other hand, 24% of dog exposures occurred in the home, compared to 53% cat exposures [40]. These researchers also reported that most exposures, for both dogs (85%) and cats (92%), were provoked [40]. For more information, see
  • Are feral and stray cats responsible for toxoplasmosis in humans?
    Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite found worldwide and capable of infecting virtually all warm-blooded mammals [41]. Cats — both domestic and wild felids (e.g., bobcats and mountain lions) — are the only known “definitive host,” as the parasite is able to reproduce sexually in these animals, forming egg-like spores (called oocysts) that are then shed in feces (typically for a one-week period) [41]. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, humans can become infected by consuming the undercooked meat of an infected animal or by the accidental ingestion of oocysts found in the environment (e.g., garden vegetables from contaminated soil) [42]. Infection rates in the United States have declined significantly over the last 30 years [43,44]. Although some small-scale studies have suggested a connection between cats, toxoplasmosis, and various cognitive and behavioral impairments, larger studies using more sophisticated analysis methods have found few if any such connections [45,46]. For more information, see
  • Are feral and stray cats responsible for toxoplasmosis in wildlife?
    Free-roaming cats have been implicated in the spread of toxoplasmosis to wildlife, in particular to marine mammals (e.g., California sea otters and Hawaiian monk seals) as a result of contaminated rainwater runoff [47,48]. However, research from the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that “spillover from wildlife, not pets” is likely responsible for infection in California sea otters [49], whose population is, in any case, near a 100-year high [50,51]. The population of Hawaiian monk seals, too, is on the rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — even in the Main Hawaiian Islands, where they were rarely seen before 1990 [52]. On one hand, this is surprising since these are the most densely populated of the Hawaiian Islands (by both humans and cats) and therefore nearby waters are presumed to be more contaminated. On the other hand, these findings correspond with research showing that cats living in close proximity to humans are much less likely to be exposed to the T. gondii parasite than “solitary, feral domestic cats living in undeveloped landscapes” [53]. For more information, see Wildlife impacts of free-roaming cats: Estimates vs. evidence.



  1. Rowan, A.N.; Kartal, T.; Hadidian, J. Cat Demographics & Impact on Wildlife in the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand: Facts and ValuesJournal of Applied Animal Ethics Research 2019. 

  2. APPA. 2017–2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey; American Pet Products Association: Stamford, CT, 2018.

  3. Levy, J.K.; Crawford, P.C. Humane strategies for controlling feral cat populationsJournal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2004, 225, 1354–1360. 

  4. Nutter, F.B. Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC, 2005. 

  5. Boone, J.D.; Miller, P.S.; Briggs, J.R.; Benka, V.A.W.; Lawler, D.F.; Slater, M.; Levy, J.K.; Zawistowski, S. A Long-Term Lens: Cumulative Impacts of Free-Roaming Cat Management Strategy and Intensity on Preventable Cat MortalitiesFrontiers in Veterinary Science 2019, 6. 

  6. Bialik, C. Trying to Herd a Cat StatThe Wall Street Journal October 12, 2006.

  7. Keith, C. Damn lies and cat statisticsSFGate August 18, 2010. 

  8. Normand, C.M. Feral cat virus infection prevalence, survival, population density, and multi-scale habitat use in an exurban landscape. M.S., Arkansas Tech University: Ann Arbor, 2014. 

  9. Spehar, D.D.; Wolf, P.J. A Case Study in Citizen Science: The Effectiveness of a Trap-Neuter-Return Program in a Chicago NeighborhoodAnimals 2018, 7. 

  10. Spehar, D.D.; Wolf, P.J. Back to School: An Updated Evaluation of the Effectiveness of a Long-Term Trap-Neuter-Return Program on a University’s Free-Roaming Cat PopulationAnimals 2019, 9. 

  11. Kreisler, R.E.; Cornell, H.N.; Levy, J.K. Decrease in Population and Increase in Welfare of Community Cats in a Twenty-Three Year Trap-Neuter-Return Program in Key Largo, FL: The ORCAT ProgramFrontiers in Veterinary Science 2019, 6. 

  12. Spehar, D.D.; Wolf, P.J. An Examination of an Iconic Trap-Neuter-Return Program: The Newburyport, Massachusetts Case StudyAnimals 2017, 7. 

  13. Schmidt, P.M.; Lopez, R.R.; Collier, B.A. Survival, Fecundity, and Movements of Free-Roaming CatsJournal of Wildlife Management 2007, 71, 915–919. 

  14. Gehrt, S.D.; Wilson, E.C.; Brown, J.L.; Anchor, C. Population Ecology of Free-Roaming Cats and Interference Competition by Coyotes in Urban ParksPLoS ONE 2013, 8, e75718. 

  15. Horn, J.A.; Mateus-Pinilla, N.; Warner, R.E.; Heske, E.J. Home range, habitat use, and activity patterns of free-roaming domestic catsThe Journal of Wildlife Management 2011, 75, 1177–1185. 

  16. Levy, J.K.; Gale, D.W.; Gale, L.A. Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat populationJournal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2003, 222, 42–46. 

  17. Swarbrick, H.; Rand, J. Application of a Protocol Based on Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) to Manage Unowned Urban Cats on an Australian University CampusAnimals 2018, 8. 

  18. Zawistowski, S.; Morris, J.; Salman, M.D.; Ruch-Gallie, R. Population dynamics, overpopulation, and the welfare of companion animals: New insights on old and new dataJournal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 1998, 1, 193–206. 

  19. Bartlett, P.C.; Bartlett, A.; Walshaw, S.; Halstead, S. Rates of euthanasia and adoption for dogs and cats in Michigan animal shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2005, 8, 97–104.

  20. Lord, L.K.; Wittum, T.E.; Ferketich, A.K.; Funk, J.A.; Rajala-Schultz, P.J. Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost catJournal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2007, 230, 217–220. 

  21. Scarlett, J. Population Statistics. In Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff; Miller, L., Zawistowski, S., Eds.; Wiley-Blackwell: Hoboken, New Jersey, 2013; pp. 13–20 ISBN 978-0-8138-1993-8.

  22. Edinboro, C.H.; Watson, H.N.; Fairbrother, A. Association between a shelter-neuter-return program and cat health at a large municipal animal shelter. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2016, 248, 298–308. 

  23. Hamilton, F. Implementing Nonlethal Solutions for Free-Roaming Cat Management in a County in the Southeastern United StatesFrontiers in Veterinary Science 2019, 6, 259. 

  24. APPA. 2019-2020 APPA National Pet Owners Survey; American Pet Products Association: Stamford, CT, 2019. 

  25. APPMA. 1996–1997 APPMA National Pet Owners Survey; American Pet Products Manufacturers Association: Greenwich, CT, 1997.

  26. AVMA. U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, 2nd Edition; American Veterinary Medical Association: Schaumburg, IL, 2007.

  27. Stoskopf, M.K.; Nutter, F.B. Analyzing approaches to feral cat management—one size does not fit allJournal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2004, 225, 1361–1364. 

  28. Tennent, J.; Downs, C.T. Abundance and home ranges of feral cats in an urban conservancy where there is supplemental feeding: A case study from South AfricaAfrican Zoology 2008, 43, 218–229. 

  29. Jones, A.L.; Downs, C.T. Managing Feral Cats on a University’s Campuses: How Many Are There and Is Sterilization Having an Effect? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2011, 14, 304–320. 

  30. Gunther, I.; Finkler, H.; Terkel, J. Demographic differences between urban feeding groups of neutered and sexually intact free-roaming cats following a trap-neuter-return procedureJournal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2011, 238, 1134–1140. 

  31. Bissonnette, V.; Lussier, B.; Doizé, B.; Arsenault, J. Impact of a trap-neuter-return event on the size of free-roaming cat colonies around barns and stables in Quebec: A randomized controlled trialCanadian Journal of Veterinary Research 2018, 82, 192–197. 

  32. Castillo, D.; Clarke, A.L. Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands. Natural Areas Journal 2003, 23, 247–253. 

  33. Natoli, E.; Maragliano, L.; Cariola, G.; Faini, A.; Bonanni, R.; Cafazzo, S.; Fantini, C. Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy). Preventive Veterinary Medicine 2006, 77, 180–185. 

  34. Zasloff, L.R.; Hart, L.A. Attitudes and Care Practices of Cat Caretakers in Hawaii. Anthrozoös 1998, 11, 242–248. 

  35. Tan, K.; Rand, J.; Morton, J. Trap-Neuter-Return Activities in Urban Stray Cat Colonies in AustraliaAnimals 2017, 7, 46. 

  36. Spehar, D.D.; Wolf, P.J. Integrated Return-to-Field and Targeted Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return Programs Result in Reductions of Feline Intake and Euthanasia at Six Municipal Animal SheltersFrontiers in Veterinary Science 2019, 6. 

  37. Ma, X.; Monroe, B.; Cleaton, J.; Orciari, L.; Gigante, C.; Kirby, J.; Chipman, R.; Fehlner-Gardiner, C.; Cedillo, V.; Petersen, B.; et al. Public Veterinary Medicine: Public Health: Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2018Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2020, 256, 195–208.

  38. Sung, J.H.; Hayano, M.; Okagaki, T.; Mastri, A. A Case of Human Rabies and Ultrastructure of the Negri BodyJournal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology 1976, 35, 541–559. 

  39. Moran, G.J.; Talan, D.A.; Mower, W.; Newdow, M.; Ong, S.; Nakase, J.Y.; Pinner, R.W.; Childs, J.E. Appropriateness of rabies postexposure prophylaxis treatment for animal exposuresJournal of the American Medical Association 2000, 284, 1001–1007. 

  40. Steele, M.T.; Ma, O.J.; Nakase, J.; Moran, G.J.; Mower, W.R.; Ong, S.; Krishnadasan, A.; Talan, D.A. Epidemiology of animal exposures presenting to emergency departmentsAcademic Emergency Medicine 2007, 14, 398–403. 

  41. Dubey, J.P.; Jones, J.L. Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States. International Journal for Parasitology 2008, 38, 1257–1278.

  42. CDC. Toxoplasmosis: Prevention & Control 2018.

  43. Krueger, W.; Hilborn, E.; Converse, R.; Wade, T. Drinking water source and human Toxoplasma gondii infection in the United States: a cross-sectional analysis of NHANES data. BMC Public Health 2014, 14, 711.

  44. Jones, J.L.; Kruszon-Moran, D.; Elder, S.; Rivera, H.N.; Press, C.; Montoya, J.G.; McQuillan, G.M. Toxoplasma gondii Infection in the United States, 2011–2014. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2018, 98, 551–557.

  45. Solmi, F.; Hayes, J.F.; Lewis, G.; Kirkbride, J.B. Curiosity killed the cat: no evidence of an association between cat ownership and psychotic symptoms at ages 13 and 18 years in a UK general population cohort. Psychological Medicine 2017, 1–9.

  46. Sugden, K.; Moffitt, T.E.; Pinto, L.; Poulton, R.; Williams, B.S.; Caspi, A. Is Toxoplasma Gondii Infection Related to Brain and Behavior Impairments in Humans? Evidence from a Population-Representative Birth Cohort. PLoS ONE 2016, 11, e0148435.

  47. Jessup, D.A.; Miller, M.A. The Trickle-Down Effect. The Wildlife Professional 2011, 5, 62–64.

  48. Guarino, B. Another black mark against domestic cats: They’re killing Hawaii’s rare monk seals. The Washington Post October 18, 2016.

  49. Lafferty, K.D. Sea otter health: Challenging a pet hypothesis. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife 2015, 4, 291–294.

  50. Tinker, M.T.; Hatfield, B.B. California Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) Census Results, Spring 2016; U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 1018, 2016; p. 10.

  51. Rogers, P. California sea otter population reaches record high number. The Mercury News September 19, 2016.

  52. Sprague, R.S.; Walters, J.S.; Baron-Taltre, B.; Davis, N. Main Hawaiian Islands Monk Seal Management Plan; National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Region: Honolulu, HI, 2015.

1 FAQ references
2 FAQ references
3 FAQ references
4 FAQ referenes
bottom of page