The basic facts on street cats
Local animal advocate gives opinions on how to help
by Gene Wisniewski
Reporter Correspondent
Jun 08, 2014 | 7582 views | 14 14 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hoboken resident Katherine Zavartkay was brought up to think pets are family. Becoming involved with a campaign to end animal testing around 15 years ago reaffirmed those core values, and she now devotes much of her time to being an “animal advocate.”

But, she says, displaying her characteristic humor, she’ll also answer to “crazy cat lady.”

Because she works with several rescue organizations in both New York and New Jersey, she finds herself constantly answering questions about animals – spaying and neutering, adopting, what to do with a beloved family pet someone can no longer keep.

The most common questions are about the large number of street cats, especially around Weehawken and Union City. Is it okay to feed them? Are they dangerous? Can they be kept as pets? Does something need to be done about them?

Although not everyone agrees on the exact definition, there is a difference between “stray” and “feral.” Strays either escaped from or were abandoned by their owners. Feral cats were most likely born and raised in the wild, or have spent most of their lives there. There are ways to distinguish the two, although it takes experience to know for sure. If a cat approaches you or lets you pet it, it’s most likely a stray. Feral cats avoid humans.

Misconceptions about feral cats

Zavartkay says there are many misconceptions about these animals. One is that feral cats have a short, harsh life on the streets. Actually, she says, their life span is comparable to domestic cats, and since they’ve never lived indoors, they manage pretty well outside. They can sometimes fare better than cats in the country, because there’s less competition with, and danger from, wild animals like foxes or raccoons. They live in colonies, and know where to find shelter in bad weather.

Another myth is that these cats kill wild birds; in reality, they’re useful in keeping the rodent population down. Nor are they harmful to humans. Independent studies quoted in veterinary medical journals state that feral cats pose no greater risk to humans, or other cats, than pet cats do. It can be difficult but not impossible to domesticate feral cats, although kittens can be socialized if caught in time.

Feral cats have lived among people since civilization began. Bearing in mind that they really are part of the urban ecosystem, and knowing that there are far too many to ever find homes for, Zavartkay agrees with most animal rescue workers, and endorses TNR –Trap, Neuter, Release. During this process, cats are also cleaned up, checked for diseases and put up for adoption if possible. TNR keeps the colony healthy and its population under control, but the program does need to be carefully monitored. (Not all animal advocates support TNR.)

Strays tend not to fare as well; they simply do not have the survival skills of their feral cousins. Thinking a domestic pet is going to adapt quickly to outdoor life is a false assumption. So Zavartkay stresses that it’s important to realize even before getting a cat that it can be an eighteen-year commitment.

How to give up a cat

Should a situation arise where there’s no possible way for you to keep your cat, there are options, though not many. The first and most obvious is to see if a friend or relative can take them. Possibly your vet or local pet store can refer you to a local no-kill shelter, rescue group, or other organization, or even an individual who’s interested in adopting –though the ASPCA and the Humane Society, Zavartkay is quick to point out, destroy animals that have been at the shelter too long.

And, she says emphatically, “They should definitely NOT go through Craig’s List!”

Cats, especially those that have been declawed, can serve as therapy pets in hospitals. You can also try putting up signs up in the neighborhood saying you have a pet for adoption.

Should you find a cat you think might belong to someone, and can take them in for a couple of days (making sure to keep it separated from your other pets), posting notices around the neighborhood is still probably the best way to locate the owner. You can also notify your local vets, animal hospitals and shelters. Jersey City has the Liberty Humane shelter, and each local town either has its own or contracts with one (often Liberty or the Associated Humane Societies shelter in Newark).

And lastly, you can post “Found Pet” reports at the PETS 911 and PetFinder websites.

Stray kittens are trickier, but the web site of advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies has in-depth, detailed advice on what courses of action there are. The site overall contains an enormous amount of information having to do with all matters feline.

Feral cats may not want to move in with you, but you can still help make their lives a little easier. That includes feeding them, but Zavartkay suggests putting the food in a place that’s accessible but somewhat away from people. You can also put a shelter in your yard; this can be something as simple as a plastic-covered cardboard carton. Neighborhood Cats has instructions on constructing shelters for feral cats as well as one to buy for those who have no technical expertise.

Information sources

To find out more about adoption, donating time or money to TNR efforts, or the topic of street cats in general, these web sites offer a wealth of information: A good all-around information source Features information on low-cost spaying and neutering. has a list of adoptable cats, and may also be able to offer information on where to take a pet you can no longer keep. explains the viability of no-kill animal shelters.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
October 12, 2014
yes, i have heard this before -- about how ferals/strays kill wild birds (and of course, without mentioning the damages caused by human encroachment on wild environments!)

this is my own editorial goof and i do apologize for any misunderstandings -- outdoor cats (in urban or rural environments) DO kill SOME wild birds (along with other small mammals) -- however, instead of stating that it is a "myth" that feral cats kill wild birds, it would have been more accurate for me to state that they do not decimate the wild bird population to the extent that HSUS and others would have people believe

also related, via No Kill New York, Nathan Winograd, and No Kill Advocacy Center: "Finally, a downloadable resource to educate the public (starting with the animal advocacy community) about the Myth of Overpopulation. After reading this, if you have questions or comments, please feel free to post them. Yes, that means that if you won't take the time to read the document, we are not willing to listen to your objections. Try to keep in mind that the No Kill movement is trying to save the lives of shelter animals. We are not the enemy. The enemy is those individuals and organizations who justify the killing of homeless animals, while at the same time, begging for money to save animals from cruelty and abuse."


"Pet overpopulation is a myth. For those of you new to this page: before you respond with scorn, apoplexy, anger, accuse me of nefarious intent, or shoot the messenger, please hear me out. Last year, roughly 3 million animals were killed in U.S. shelters but for a home. How many people actually acquired a dog or cat during this period? The number could be as high as 37 million, better than 10 times the amount killed.

Does that mean we shouldn’t promote spay/neuter? Of course not. Does that mean we shouldn’t close down puppy mills? Of course not. Does that mean that rescuing/adoption aren’t ethical imperatives? Of course not. We should, we should, they are. What it means is that animals do NOT have to die. And that is good news, news we should all celebrate.

As the No Kill Advocacy Center says: with the hope that people will read it and share it so that the pernicious and persistent myth at the heart of the killing—the lie that is responsible for violent atrocities against millions of animals every year—will finally die, we offer the newest FREE publication: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation:

Please read it, debate it, and in the end, hopefully agree with and share it. We can end the killing and we can do it today."
August 26, 2014
"Another myth is that these cats kill wild birds; in reality, they’re useful in keeping the rodent population down."

ARE YOU SERIOUS? Who is the demented clown who had the bloody gall to write the above? CATS KILL BIDS. I've seen it with my own EYES, you lying fool. How dare you call that a myth. You're so far up in delusion town, nothing can salvage your pathetic brain. How the heck does 'keeping the rodent population down' refute that cats kill birds? Cats are probably bigger more harmful vermin than any rodent. Get help for your sickness.
July 09, 2014
asic facts on street cats?! It read like more opinion than fact. Either that or the writer needs far more experience with free-roaming cats. I would like to share some facts with you. First, cats are a domesticated species and as such they do not do well out in the 'wild' without human assistance. Second, cats do not fare better in the city than they do in the country simply because other species aren't present competing for the same food. It is more dangerous for free-roaming cats in an urban setting than a rural one because there is less vehicular traffic and less people who can and do harm to cats to mention but a few reasons. Thirdly, outside cats cannot and do not have the same life spans as an indoor cat. It's preposterous to think so. The average life span of an outdoor cat without a caregiver is 5 years, with a caregiver, it's 8. The average life span of an indoor cat is 18 years. My advice is to do more research before you post such ridiculous 'facts'.
June 12, 2014
Well, it seems I not only have to defend my journalistic integrity, but Katherine Zavartkay's sanity as well. The idea that cats don't help keep the rodent population down is patently ridiculous. The smell of a cat in your home alone is generally enough to keep rodents at bay. When I lived with someone who was allergic to cats, and had to move mine into my studio, my space was the only one to remain mouse-free during an infestation that everyone else in the building was experiencing. And even if cats were "no more effective" at doing so than pesticides, all things being equal, what's the point in poisoning the environment unnecessarily? The city of New York is now employing terriers to do what they used to use rat poison for. Additionally, cats are constantly performing this task, unlike pesticides, which must be constantly monitored and replaced. Monitoring the cat population, it seems, would be a far better choice, since it, no pun intended, kills two birds with one stone. In one chapter of Mary Roach's book GULP, she interviews a a pet food researcher who says that cats do not like variety as people do. The researcher further claims that cats who eat mice will only hunt for mice and cats who eat birds will only hunt for birds. They never mix it up. For millions and billions of birds to be falling victim to stray/feral cats would indicate that EVERY one of these cats consumes at least several wild birds each day. Also patently ridiculous. The rabies study cited in the second letter gives this statistic: "In 2010, 303 rabid cats were reported through national surveillance, compared with only 69 dogs (Blanton et al., 2011)." Really? Six rabid cats per state on average would hardly seem to pose a threat, in my book. Finally, if cats aren't a natural part of any ecosystem, whose fault is that? Possibly the people who introduced them to the ecosystem? Feral cats raised without human contact are wild animals. Even a domestic cat who's abandoned will undergo physiological changes after a short time in the wild, even if their instincts don't permit them to survive as well.
June 13, 2014
But you didn't defend your journalistic integrity. How could you? Journalism should at the least present both sides of an issue. There are two sides to every story. In this piece, even the title is misleading. Facts? Or opinions? And there are claims that are not substantiated by anything of merit. You neglected to research this topic and did not consult anyone from any group who feels differently. TNR and free-ranging cats are controversial. Just the fact that someone feels the need to dispel myths ought to tell you that. No, this is a sales pitch for TNR.

Patently ridiculous? Well, you don't seem too keen on relying on peer-reviewed science, but I'll try again.

Yes, cats kill mice and rats, but they are not terribly effective. The reasons?

-Predation by cats can skew rat population size toward larger rats.

-Predation by cats on juvenile rats is compensated by reproduction of adults, which are not typically hunted by cats.

-They scavenge the same food.

-Food at colonies can increase local rat populations.

The science to support this includes---

Anonymous. 1914. Ship rats and plague. Public Health Reports 29:927–928.

Childs, J. E. 1986. Size-dependent predation on rats (Rattus norvegicus) by house cats (Felis catus) in an urban setting. Journal of Mammalogy 67:196–199.

Forbush, E. H. 1916. The domestic cat: bird killer, mouser, and destroyer of wild life, means of utilizing and controlling it. Economic Biology – Bulletin No. 2. State Board of Agriculture, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston.

Glass, G. E., L. C. Gardner-Santana, R. D. Holt, J. Chen, T. M. Shields, M. Roy, S. Schachterle, and S. L. Klein. 2009. Trophic garnishes: cat–rat interactions in an urban environment. PLoS ONE 4:e5794.

Jackson, W. B. 1951. Food habits of Baltimore, Maryland, cats in relation to rat populations. Journal of Mammalogy 32:458–461.

As for smell, not quite. Recent research indicates the reverse. Mice can be drawn to cats.

I am not in favor of pesticides. I am making the point that utilizing cats is not a 'green' or environmentally friendly alternative, as the TNR folks would have us believe.

I am not surprised that NY has such a problem. TNR is legal throughout NYC and that means many, many cat feeding stations (to draw in even more cats and rats) throughout the city, in addition to whatever problems (like improperly stored garbage) already exist.

Bingo! You hit the nail on the head. The cats are ALWAYS there - no break for neighboring property owners. No break for migratory songbirds (or other wildlife) that may be stopping over on their journey. Even the presence of cats can affect reproductive success for birds.

You really want me to give credence to a pet food researcher? What did he publish? For Pete's sake, cats are INDISCRIMINATE killers. They kill young, old, healthy, ill, common, rare, endangered, and threatened species. It is as if y'all never owned a cat! They go after anything small enough that moves! But then again, why should you accept what has been scientifically shown to be true?

A single cat can extirpate native fauna from a given area.

About rabies, you are missing the point. Every year in the US about 40,000 people are administered PEP at the cost of 5 to 8,000 which is mostly borne by public health agencies. 1/3 of the PEP administered are due to exposure involving free-roaming cats.

Raccoons and skunks and other rabies vector mammals are often dining at cat food stations. This not only presents an even greater risk for transmission of rabies from these now habituated wild mammals, but the food artificially increases their population, too.

And rabies is not the only issue.

A domestic animal is not a natural part of the ecosystem. Fault is irrelevant. Y'all just want to have the cake and eat it, too. If the feral cat is a 'wild animal', then don't feed her, and treat her the same as we do other wild animals. Oh, wait. Not a fan of hunting cats? Neither am I. But you get the point, right? The only thing that TNR does is 'save' the cat at the expense of everything else. They are still domestic animals that do not belong 'in the wild' no more than dogs or ferrets or any other animals do that we would not tolerate roaming freely. They are not wildlife.
June 13, 2014
TruthAboutTNR has covered the factual aspect of this quite well, so there's not a lot for me to add.

Cats kept in confined spaces such as homes or apartments or a barn can be fairly effective at keeping rodents out of those areas, but only if they are confined to that area. Cats out in the open are not effective, as shown in the studies T-A-TNR listed below. Cats are the definitive host of the brain parasite toxoplaxma gondii. This means the parasite cannot reproduce except in the gut of a cat. Almost all cats carry this parasite. The parasite is transmitted to rodents where it travels to their brains and actually causes them to lose their fear of cats and be attracted to the scent of cat urine. So, no, the smell of cats does not scare off rodents. It's really quite fascinating. Google toxoplasma gondii and read up about it.

As to your example of New York City - You are correct that the mayor has just announced a new campaign to reduce the huge number of rats in the city. What you fail to take note of is the fact that NYC practices TNR and has one of the largest feral cat populations in the country, estimated at between 500,000 and one million! If what you say about free-roaming cats being such great ratters, the city should be virtually rat-free with that many cats around. But it's not.

As for the numbers of birds killed, lets do a little math. There are an estimated 110 million feral/stray cats in the U.S. That does NOT include pet cats. 3.4 billion birds killed annually divided by 110 million cats comes to 30.91 birds killed per year per cat. That's not even one bird per week, not "several a day". Cumulatively, it's a tremendous toll on birds.
June 13, 2014
Rabies is a growing problem nationwide and feral/stray cats are at the center of it this growth. 303 rabid cats may not seem like many, but the problem is that often when someone is scratched or bitten by a feral/stray cat, the cat cannot be located, and so the person must go through the painful and expensive rabies shot treatment. Some 13,000 people a year have to go through this due to cat bites/scratches.

I did a quick google news search. These are the rabies stories that came up for just the past 30 days. 5 are direct cat attacks. In every other article local officials warn the public against contact with feral cats. The health department of every state across the country is concerned about rabies in feral cats and warns residents to avoid them.

06/08/14 - Rabid bat in Washtenaw County, MI. Official warn against contact with feral cats. -

06/07/14 - Rabid fox bites someone in Sussex County, DE. Officials warn against contact with feral cats. -

06/06/14 - Rabid cat found in Erie County, NY. Officials warn against contact with feral cats. -

06/03/14 - Rabid indoor/outdoor pet cat bites owner in Yuma County, CO. Officials warn against contact with feral cats. -

06/01/14 - Rabid cat bites it's woman caretaker in Adams County, PA. The victim has all of her 20-some outdoor stray cats put down. None were vaccinated.

05/29/14 - Rabid raccoon found in Lockport, NY. It was the second rabid raccoon this year there. Officials warn against contact with feral cats.

05/28/14 - Rabid cat attacks a resident in Fort Hood, TX. A rabid skunk was also found.

05/26/14 - Rabid skunk found in Carlsbad, NM. It was captured on a property where 15 feral cats were being fed. Officials are trapping the cats as a precaution.

05/17/14 - Rabid skunk found near Southwest Virginia Community College, VA. Officials warn against contact with feral cats.

05/16/14 - Rabid fox bites 2 residents of McDonough, GA. Officials warn against contact with feral cats.

05/10/14 - Rabid cat attacks woman, children in Spring Hill, PA -
June 10, 2014
Mike, can you say "ailurophobic"?
June 10, 2014
Just about the only true FACT in the story Zavartkay's statement that she is a crazy cat lady. The title should be "Lies Cat Advocates Want You to Believe About Cats".

Cats kill billions of birds every year. Many scientific peer-reviewed studies show this. To say otherwise is pure nonsense.

Cats are not particularly good at killing the non-native rodents (norway and black rats, and house mice) that we want them to kill. Again, there are peer-reviewed scientific studies showing this.

Cats are vectors for a number of serious diseases, including rabies. According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control website "The number of reported rabid domestic animals decreased among all domestic species except cats. In 2010, cases of rabies in cats increased 1.0% compared with the number reported in 2009. The number of rabies cases reported in cats is routinely 3-4 times that of rabies reported in cattle or dogs." TNR advocates will counter that their cats are vaccinated for rabies when they are caught to be neutered. While this is sometimes true, the cats are almost never re-captured for annual rabies booster shots as recommended by most veterinarians. TNR advocates will also tell you that virtually no one in the United States gets rabies from cats. What they neglect to mention is that the reason no one gets rabies from cats is that the 10,000 to 13,000 people who are scratched or bitten by rabid cats annually go through the painful rabies prophylaxis shot treatment at a cost of between $2,000 and $7,000 per person. Other serious health issues with feral cats include toxoplasmosis, hookworm, and ringworm - all documented on the CDC website and in numerous other scientific literature such as "Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats" ( TNR advocates are fond of dismissing these studies as "junk science", produced by "cat haters" however they offer no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to counter it.

Publishing an article like this is irresponsible "journalism".
June 12, 2014
The last thing I would say about this article is that its irresponsible journalism. I would say you're just a know it all loud mouth. I am a farm owner. I've done the trap, neuter and release system. Feral cats have kept my farm and barn mice and rat free. In fact, I see the cats every day . I cant pet them or get near them, but that's fine. They serve a great purpose. I cannot recall one time that Ive even seen one with a bird. Anyway, I just want to say that your response was nasty and Gene, I think you did a great job on the article.
June 12, 2014
Heaven help anyone eating anything from your farm. Maybe you should research toxoplasmosis. The domestic cat is the definitive host.

Plenty of research now implicates 'toxo' in human pathologies --- not only the many eye problems and congenital toxoplasmosis, but very likely much more, including neuro-inflammatory illnesses like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia.

Regardless, using cats for 'rodent control' is no better than using pesticides. Non target species are also killed.

Just because you have never seen a bird killed by one of your cats, that does not mean they aren't killing a myriad of wild native critters.
June 10, 2014
So much deception in this article.

1. Comparing the life spans of feral cats and domestic cats is not clear. INDOOR cats live longer. Further, the cats in 'managed' colonies tend not to receive regular veterinary care.

2. Don't kill wild birds?! Wow. An outright lie. Really? Try this - they kill billions of birds annually. Yes, billions. One would have had to just crawl out from under a rock not to know this. When the Loss et al study came out in 2013, coverage of this was world-wide and by several major networks. The domestic cat is the leading human cause of wildlife mortality for birds and small mammals. See link below. They are not part of any ecosystem.

3. Cats are a serious public health threat. There are a myriad of zoonotic diseases transmitted by cats, and none are adequately addressed through TNR. See links below.

4. TNR is ineffective as a population reduction tool. The method only serves to avoid euthanasia of cats. A better option is TENVAC. See link below.

5. Using cats for rodent control is no better than using pesticides. Non target species are also killed.

You are darn right not all animal advocates support TNR. And the reporter could have done a heck of a better job telling both sides of the story. et al. 2013 - Impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife in U.S..pdf and Jessup 2012 - Zoonotic diseases and free-roaming cats.pdf
Lynn Bohuk
June 11, 2014
Katherine my family and I have been involved with bird rescue for over 30 years. Gene knows this. I can remember him sitting with me on my porch feeding baby birds when I was a child. He loved it! Sure ferrel cats will kill birds but out of a hundred or more birds we saved NONE were killed by cats during the couple of months they would return for food each day. However, I have lost 2 birds to Seagulls! I am much more concerned about the pesticides which greatly shortens a birds lifespan. I had a Starling that lived nearly 12 years with us. Her vet told me many times she would be dead by 3 or 4 if living outdoors feeding herself. Why? Pesticides!!! I just read an article in National Geographic which also places blame on cats for killing our birds. Unbelievable!!! Now have I seen cats show interest in my birds? Sure. It's much easier for a cat to catch a mouse than a bird. So while I am a bird lover and terribly allergic to cats I still welcome them into my yard:) Owning farm animals attracts mice. Our ferrel cats have done an excellent job at controlling them! They have never attacked my free range ducks, though Hawks have.
June 12, 2014
Lynn, FERAL, not ferrel.

Nice anecdote that supposedly none of those 100 birds were killed by cats, but you would do well to look at the research that shows that cats do indeed kill billions of birds annually.

Further, exactly what kinds of birds did you 'rescue'? Most are federally protected and both state and federal permits are required to care for them or rehabilitate them or possess them.

Pesticides are a serious threat. But, let me ask you this. Heart disease is the number one killer of women. If you get breast cancer, will you ignore that? Obviously, no. The point is - we need to address all threats for optimum health. And cats are a leading cause of death for wild birds. That is a fact, not a myth.