We were on cat feeding duty last week while some friends were away. It wasn’t actually their cat: they don’t know where it came from. She turned up one day desperately hungry and demanding food. She remained ravenous, however much she got to eat. The reason became clear when our friends went into their barn and heard the tell-tale squeaking of a litter of kittens behind the woodpile.
They had already re-homed the cat, but had to get her back to feed the kittens, which otherwise would have died. Then they had the difficult task of finding a home not only for one female cat but also for the four kittens. Luckily, the story has a happy ending, since a local cat refuge has agreed to take them all and find homes for them.
I couldn’t get a decent shot of them, since it was too dark in the barn, but they were adorable and seemed to grow by the day. No wonder their mother was always hungry.
Feral cat problem
That cat was clearly domesticated and used to being handled by humans. This isn’t always the case. In fact, feral cats are a considerable problem in rural France and probably in many towns as well.
Feral cats are born and live in the wild all their lives. They have had little contact with humans and don’t usually tolerate being handled. While they help to keep down the rodent population, they breed uncontrollably.
One estimate says that a single female cat can give rise to a population of 2,000 cats in the space of two years. I have been unable to find any figures for the feral cat population in France but another estimate says there are probably as many feral as domestic cats. We have had several feral cats taking up residence in the barn that we have had to chase off.
Feral cats have another big drawback. They spread disease, notably Feline aids (FIV) and Feline Leukaemia (FeLV). The latter is endemic down here in southwest France. In fact our previous, much-loved cat caught it and we had to have him put down. It was painful and distressing for him and desperately upsetting for us watching him decline. We got him when he was a year old and, because of bad advice from a vet who shall be nameless, he was not vaccinated. We will never make that mistake again.
Saved by the bell – or not
Then there are the semi-wild cats. Most of the farmers around here have cats that live in the barns and outhouses. They tolerate them specifically for keeping down the rodents. They are never neutered and rarely vaccinated and the males go in search of females just like the feral cats, thus catching and spreading diseases. They generally have a short life, either getting run over, killing each other in fights or dying from disease.
A neighbour hung an enormous bell around the neck of one of her male cats, which we nicknamed Big Ben. We presumed that this was to warn the birds of his arrival. It must have been effective since you could hear him clanking all the way up the lane. We didn’t see him for very long, though. The poor thing probably got snagged in a bush and couldn’t get away.
Many domestic cats, especially kittens, are dumped. This might be what happened to our friend’s temporary pet when its owners discovered it was pregnant.
We suspect that our own cat (above) was turfed out on his ear. One evening in March 2010 as we were having dinner with friends, he swung on the kitchen door handle yowling for attention. He got it. We tried to find out who owned him but nobody round here, even the vet, recognised him, so we kept him.
He was about 6 months old, house trained and used to being handled. We named him – imaginatively – Felix. He has a very strong character and we suspect his owners were not used to cats and couldn’t cope with him. Maybe a Christmas present that went wrong? Here are a couple of photos of him in Eastern potentate mode.
One local town, Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, has a cat neutering programme. They pay a subsidy to local people towards the cost of the operation and also trap, neuter and release feral cats. This is partly because they were becoming a health hazard in the town, rootling in rubbish bins and terrorising domestic cats.
If there is one cardinal lesson we have learned from our experience, it is to vaccinate your cat. So if you are moving down here from the UK make sure it has its injections and boosters. Similarly, if you acquire a cat here, have it checked for FIV and FeLV and vaccinated if it is clear. If it’s infected, the vet will advise on what to do.
Cat refuges are on the increase in France. Here’s the website of one in this region: http://chatsduquercy.fr
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