Feral Cats


Feral Cats

One readers solution to socialization - It's your turn

Are Feral Cats at risk from mangy looking cat next door

Question: Hello, I maintain a colony of 18 feral cats. I do all of their vaccinations, medical treatments, etc. Here is the problem: My neighbors cat appears to have come down with mange. I am terrified that the ferals will contract it, and I will not be able to afford to have them treated. The neighbor is unresponsive to my request to confine their pet. Is there any type of preparation I can do to help the cats avoid contracting this mange? They are very healthy right now, have beautiful coats, and are up to date on all of their vaccines. Thanks so much, Stacy

Answer: Stacy-

The odds are really high that your neighbor's cat doesn't have mange. All forms of mange are relatively uncommon in cats, although several species of mites, the cause of mange, are able to infect cats.

Cheyletiella mites, sometimes called "walking dandruff" are large enough that it is possible to see the movement of the mites in scale and loose hair from affected areas, in some dogs and cats. In others, it is necessary to look for the mite through microscopic examination of the same material. These mites are supposed to be pretty easy to kill with regular flea control medications. The primary sign of this mite is itchiness but hair loss is not usually extensive, although it can be. Cheyletiella mites can infect humans, so if your neighbor gets itchy, you might want to point out that controlling the skin disease on his cat might make him feel better, too.

Cats get a form of demodectic mange but this is not a common problem. Patchy hair loss can occur with this condition and affected cats are often itchy. It seems to be more common in Siamese cats. This mite is hard to find on skin scrapings (at least we have had trouble finding it) and may require skin biopsies to diagnose. Unlike demodecosis of dogs, this condition does appear to be contagious, so if it was present it would be a risk for your cats.

Notoedric mange is a mite in the same family as the sarcoptic mange mite of dogs. It is considered to be contagious. Direct contact is probably required for transmission of the mites, so if there is contact between your neighbor's cat and the cats that you are taking care of, there would be a chance that it could be transmitted. This mite also affects humans. This mite does cause itchiness and hair loss. The majority of the hair loss occurs on the head, neck and ears.

Usually, when people think that their cat might have mange, it has flea allergy or flea bite hypersensitivity. Eosinophilic granuloma complex and ringworm (dermatophytosis) are also often confused with mange.

Doing whatever you can do to control fleas will help to prevent skin disease in general and will kill Cheyletiella mites, too.

Mike Richards, DVM 4/9/2001

Feline Leukemia, feral cats and euthanasia

Question: Dear Dr. Richards,

I currently volunteer with an organization called Kittico Cat Rescue in Dallas, Texas. About 75% of our work is with the Trap/Neuter/Return program for ferals. Occasionally we will have the need to relocate ferals and we have been fortunate enough to find a feral sanctuary nearby that we can take them to. My problem is this. Recently I have been trapping cats at Lone Star Park which is a horse track in Grand Prairie, Texas. There were 3 adult females, 1male and a litter of kittens. I trapped the first female approximately 1 month ago. She was one of the cats from the momma cat's first litter and she is about 1 year old. We had her spayed and vaccinated and took her to the sanctuary. She's doing great. She has a good appetite and she seems quite healthy. Yesterday, I trapped this cat's sister and took her to be spayed. Only this time, the sanctuary asked that the cat be tested for FeLV/FIV. She came back FeLV+. I have read alot of info on feline leukemia and I guess that I just need some reassurance as to what to do. I know that when I worked for a veterinary practice our protocol was euthanasia for domestics but I have never dealt with the feral situation before. What are the chances that this cat might shed the virus or is that even possible? And when I trap the rest of the cats should we test on a case by case basis? I know how contagious this disease is and I have seen cats suffer with it. I just feel differently in this situation. They were living at a horse racing facility and they were an isolated colony with no new outside cats coming into the group in about a year. They were well fed and had shelter at the facility but management decided that they were a nuisance and must go. If they could stay at the track they would not have to be euthanized after we altered them. All of this is coming from my heart and I guess that I need your medical input to help make this decision easier. Should these cats be euthanized in your opinion?

Any input would be greatly appreciated, Apryl

Answer: Apryl-

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is contagious between cats. At the present time, the feeling is that cats are susceptible to this virus when they are less than a year of age and become very resistant to it after this age. If there is something that compromises the immune system, such as feline immunodeficiency virus, older cats may become susceptible to the virus. Enough stress can probably also make a cat's immune system weak enough to allow infection, which is a conceivable problem in a cat that is fending for itself.

My current thinking on FeLV is that there is no reason to euthanize a housecat that lives alone, or lives with other adult cats that it has been with or some time, as long as it is understood that the cat will probably need more medical care than the average cat.

The situation is a lot different for an outdoor cat, though. In this circumstance there is a much better chance of the cat passing on the virus to a susceptible kitten or young cat. I think that it is unfair to the general cat population to release cats known to be infected with FeLV virus. Unless a home can be found for these cats in which there is no contact between the colony, I believe that euthanasia is appropriate in this situation. It is hard to be put in the position of having to make this decision but releasing the cat could lead to more than one death among other feral cats.

Mike Richards, DVM 6/28/2000

Odd feral male cat behavior

Question: Dear Dr Mike,

First I would like to let you know that Buck My German Shorthair Pointer that I have written to you in the past about is still doing very well. He is still not losing any weight, still very active and is enjoying life. I still have him on the antibiotics and his vegetable juice every day. I know every day is a blessing that I am very thankful for and I think I made the right decision about not doing the surgery.

I have a small farm with many assorted animals. I have been feeding a stray cat for about three years every day, twice a day. I don't know where he sleeps at night , but he his here every morning and evening for his meals. Most of the time he just hangs around the yard watching me. I have never been able to catch him, although we have tried every trick in the book. When I get too close he runs away. He knows his name. He actually comes when I call him, but not too close. Last summer he brought me a kitten that was about six weeks old. He brought it right in front of me and left. My sister now has the cat and she's beautiful.

My problem is that this past summer he brought six kittens. They are a little older ,I would say a few months, and I haven't been able to catch them yet. Is it unusual behavior for a male cat to do this? Any ideas on how to catch them? I really need to do something or next year I'm afraid that he'll bring more. I have tried Havaheart traps , nets everything. I am really worried about disease.

The other odd thing is that all six kittens are different colors and every on has a different length tail. There are bob tails, long tails, half a tail, three quarter tail. What cause this? Any Ideas? Sincerely, J. S.

Answer: J.S.

There is more than one cause of kittens having shorter than normal tails. There are breeds of cats, such as the Manx, in which the tail is usually short or missing. Incompatibilities in the blood type of the mother and kitten can lead to a condition known as neonatal isoerythrolysis which can lead to circulatory problems and loss of the portion of the tail. Some queens bite the tails off of their kittens in rough maternal behavior or while attempting to help them be delivered. Frostbite can do this in areas in which that is a problem.

Many male cats won't even tolerate kittens in their territory and I don't hear many stories of one collecting them, but there are all kinds of personalities in cats, just like in people.

I don't have any really good advice for catching these kittens except to point out some things that I have learned about using live traps over the years. For me, they work best when I only open one end and when I spread cat food from the open end all the way back to the closed end and do not put anything on the trigger itself. This makes the kitten or cat walk across the trigger to get to the food on the other side rather than stopping with part of its body where it will block the falling trap door. Trapping cats is not easy, especially if you catch a skunk or other wild creature that has to be removed from the trap. Fortunately, skunks usually won't spray if the trap is moved gently and will leave when the door is opened.

If you catch the kittens the best idea might be to neuter or spay them and then let them out again. This might keep the population stable since they will occupy the territory without reproducing. This approach doesn't always work but it can be helpful in some cases.

Hope that you do find a solution to this since I can't be much help.

Mike Richards, DVM 11/7/99

Feral kitten - born without eyes

Q: Dr. Mike: Several months ago, I started a community project to spay and release feral cats in my area. As a result, I receive lots of calls that are cat-related, but not specific to my program. Recently an area resident found and adopted a feral kitten born without eyes at her place of employment. She does not want to euthanize the kitten. We are trying to locate information about long-term care for cats which are blind. Do you have suggestions or a list of sources which might help us with this kitten?

A: Janet- I do not have any reference sources to offer. However, I do not think that this kitten will have many problems if it is a housecat. We have several blind patients in our practice at any time and I suspect that most veterinary hospitals do. Pets that are congenitally blind or who experience blindness after a chronic degenerative process tend not to be particularly bothered by their condition. As long as your friend keeps the furniture in approximately the same places and the litterpans, food and water bowls and other of life's necessities in the same places the kitten will probably do fine.

Mike Richards, DVM

Socializing Feral Cats:

Q: Dear Dr. Mike, I have had two feral cats for three years. They were supposedly 8 weeks old when I got them, but because of the virtual impossibility of socializing them to humans, I suspect they were actually at least 12 weeks old. Anyway, I have three other "normal" cats and the ferals interact well with them. I, on the other hand, can only pet them (a very little!!) when I feed them. No amount of coaxing, treats, playing etc. seems to entice them. The female is relatively social and is out and about when I am home and the other cats are present. The male spends his entire life in the corner of my soffit(sp?) in my kitchen. Would any type of anxiolytic or psychotropic drug be appropriate for these ferals? Thanks for your thoughts.

A: I have two feral cats that have lived with our family for two years, too -- one is just starting to let us pick him up and I doubt the other one ever will. Their behavior doesn't seem to affect my other two cats, either. If you want to try anti-anxiety medications, the ones most commonly used are amitriptylline (Elavil Rx), diazepam (Valium Rx), buspirone (Buspar Rx) and megestrol acetate (Ovaban or Megace Rx). Some people are using Prozac in cats but I haven't heard much about whether it is successful or not. Amitriptylline is bitter and hard to administer in food. It does seem to have pretty good anxiolytic effects, though. A lot of people put the dose in a gelatin capsule and adminster it that way but that won't work in your situation. Diazepam can be administered in food in some cats because the pill size is small enough that it can be successfully hidden. I don't think it will work as well, though. The amount of sedation seems to make nervous cats more suspicious and more likely to hide. I haven't tried megestrol acetate recently because the side effects are diabetes and more rarely mammary cancer. As long as the cats didn't seem unhappy, I think I'd just let them be rather than use a drug with significant side effects. I realize that wasn't much help. I'm counting on patience working eventually with our feral ones.

Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 12/05/02


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...