Feral felines

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.  

Domesticated rejects

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.

One that landed on his feet

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.

Cat nap

Don't turn on the tap!

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

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to Feral felines

  1. We have a similar story to yours, well, sort of. Friends who have a second home here (Hautes-Pyrenees) asked if we would feed their semi-feral kittens for a couple of weeks until they returned from UK. Naturally we were happy to help – unfortunately they were unable to return for over 6 months by which time both kittens had matured enough to get pregnant. There was no question of our catching them, they kept well away from us. They produced seven kittens between them. Tragically, only one remains and we have him. The runt died very quickly, another fell in the well, two were killed by the dog from next door, we took two (one of whom had an auto-immune disease and died whilst undergoing treatment at the vets) and one disappeared – probably next door’s dog again.
    It is tragic that many local people won’t spend money their cats, the females get pregnant and the resulting kittens are either drowned or put in a sack and bashed against a wall. I have heard stories like these so many times – horrible and hard to believe but apparently true.
    In Tarn et Garonne and environs, Les Amis Des Chats does good work neutering ferals.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Very sorry to hear about your sad cat story. At least you still have one of the kittens and let’s hope you can keep him/her for many years. A lot of problems would be avoided if people would only have their cats neutered. I think Les Amis Des Chats is involved in the neutering programme at Saint-Antonin, which has done a lot to reduce the feral population and the attendant problems. I notice you have subscribed – thank you very much.

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  2. Joanna Lamb says:

    We’ve found homes for over fourteen kittens since we moved here four years ago. We have a ‘community’ of semi-feral cats and who seem to like my front door step as their maternity ward! The Italians don’t generally believe in spaying (alters the ‘anima’) but at one time there were more cats than humans in our little hamlet! The local commune is supposed to have a spaying programme free of charge but we’ve applied several times and not got anywhere. Dug deep this year and had the two who seemed to have adopted us spayed…

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  3. Feral and semi-feral cats are a problem round here too. Also cat dumping. We found four of our six cats as tiny kittens in the road, two separate times, and another one was left behind when someone moved back to England. It’s expensive getting cats neutered but it has to be done.
    Your cat is tremendous. Does he really sleep in the sink? Ours seem to like boxes and flower pots best!

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    • nessafrance says:

      He has tried the sink a couple of times but I think it’s too tight for him to turn around in. HIs favourite places are either the sofa (one of the shots) or a travelling bag in which he can curl up neatly. A box will do, faute de mieux.

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  4. prairiemuse says:

    Love the photos of Felix. I can relate to a cat having a strong character. Our last cat, Simon, was such a fellow. We acquired him from the Humane Society and when we could no longer keep him, we found him a home with a man who needed a pet for therapy. We have kept in touch and the man loves him. He says, “Getting Simon was the best decision I ever made.” Don’t you love happy endings?

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    • nessafrance says:

      It’s nice to hear that you could re-home Simon with someone who really appreciates him. We feel really lucky to have got Felix and all purely by chance. It’s a real battle of wills sometimes, though!

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