An interesting article was published recently in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS), where I serve as a Section Editor. Titled “What’s in a name? Perceptions of stray and feral cat welfare and control in Aotearoa, New Zealand” (Farnsworth et al), the research highlights the importance of nomenclature of cat populations.
The researchers provided 354 New Zealanders with definitions of companion, stray and feral cats based on the New Zealand National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee’s (NAWAC) definitions:
Companion Cat: A common domestic cat that lives with humans as a companion and is dependent on humans for its welfare.
Stray Cat: … a companion cat which is lost or abandoned and which is living as an individual or in a group (colony). Stray cats have many of their needs indirectly supplied by humans, and live around centres of human habitation. Stray cats are likely to interbreed with the unneutered companion cat population.
Feral cat: …a cat which is not a stray cat and which has none of its needs provided by humans. Feral cats generally do not live around centres of human habitation. Feral cat population size fluctuates largely independently of humans, is self-sustaining and is not dependent on input from the companion cat population.
Survey participants were asked questions that were targeted to measure their attitudes on methods of control of stray and feral cats. For example: “Thinking only of stray cats [or feral cats the second time this question was asked], how acceptable do you consider the following methods of control?” Options included poisoning, lethal trapping and rehoming, with a range of methods in between.
The differences between the acceptable methods for each population may not surprise you – lethal methods were considered more acceptable for feral cats and less acceptable for stray cats. For non-lethal methods, the converse held – with non-lethal methods being more acceptable for strays than ferals.
Cats without homes are at risk all over the world. The Farnsworth et al research hits on a very important point – our perceptions of acceptable care can change simply through our word choice. Decreasing populations of cats without homes in a humane and sustainable way will take an understanding of the public’s perceptions – and likely, our ability to help shape those perceptions.
I point again to the term community cat. The range of behavior and socialization of cats who tend to thrive without owners is wide, and most of us would agree that if there are humane options to ultimately decrease the future population, those should be available to the full range of cats – not just to the ones who would thrive in our homes.