Feral Cats and the Law
There are many compassionate people who find cats living outside in their neighborhood and immediately act to help the animal. These caregivers will often spay/neuter the cats and provide food and shelter. Most people wouldn’t think about the legality of their actions before stepping in to help cats in need, but unfortunately there are issues that can come up when caring for feral cats such as ownership, civil liability, feeding bans, and leash laws.
Feral cat laws can be confusing and convoluted, especially when considering that there are no federal laws regarding Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). Only 14 states and the District of Columbia have laws that even use the phrase “feral cat.” Many laws affecting outdoor cat group caregivers are at the county or town level and may not even address feral cats at all. This leads to confusion about important questions of whether caregivers “own” feral cats and whether they can be held liable for any damages the cats may cause. Furthermore, there is no consensus on these laws. One municipality may make a specific exception in their feeding ban for those who feed feral cats, while another just a short distance away may explicitly prohibit the feeding of feral cats.
While caregivers love their feral cats, they often do not view the cats as “theirs.” Many people refer to feral cats as “community cats” because the cats live outside among human neighbors and are not owned by anyone in the traditional sense. However, the law does not always differentiate between feral and pet cats, which can cause legal complications. If a person is deemed the owner of a cat there is a possibility they could be charged with abandoning the cat by leaving them outside. It has even been argued that the "return" step of TNR itself constitutes re-abandonment of a cat.
For example, in Virginia, feral cats fall under the definition of companion animals and therefore caregivers could potentially be charged with abandonment. In Virginia, pet owners are required to provide companion animals with “adequate feed, adequate water, adequate shelter that is properly cleaned, adequate space, adequate exercise, adequate care, treatment and transportation and veterinary care when needed to prevent suffering or disease transmission” (VA. CODE ANN. § 3.2-6503, 2017). While caregivers provide their cats with daily fresh water, food, shelter, and other high-quality care, they may not always meet all of these criteria; those who regularly work with feral cats know that it can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, to provide certain types of care to an unsocialized, outdoor cat.
In Illinois, feral cat caregivers are specifically exempt from the definition of ownership as long as their cats are TNR’d. On the other hand, in Delaware, if you feed a cat for at least three consecutive days you are considered the owner and must comply with certain laws.
Another legal issue that can arise is whether a person who cares for feral cats can be held legally liable for actions committed by the cat. When a person acts unreasonably and causes injuries to others this is called civil liability. In these cases, a defendant may be ordered to pay the plaintiff for the cost of the damage caused. There have been numerous lawsuits from plaintiffs suing caregivers for damages caused by feral cats. These cases have resulted in different conclusions on whether a caregiver is liable. In a California lawsuit, the judge found that the cat caregivers did not owe a duty to their neighbors to prevent damage caused by the cats.
Feral cats are included in many anti-cruelty laws but may be specifically excluded in certain provisions. For example, in South Dakota a person can only be charged with the poisoning or killing of an animal that is “owned” by another person. Since South Dakota state laws do not address feral cats, it is unclear whether they would be included. In Wyoming, stray cats are defined as a predatory animal and the hunting, capture, and destruction of them is exempted from anti-cruelty laws. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game doesn’t even know if it is legal to shoot feral cats but suggests it might be legal for people protecting their property, as long as they have a hunting license! (Idaho Fish and Game, 2013).
Municipalities will sometimes enact feeding bans in an attempt to curb animal populations from wandering into an area. These feeding bans sometimes include feral cats and can put caretakers at risk of violating the law (click here to see why feeding bans do not work). On the other hand, feeding bans can specifically exempt feral cats. In these cases, the intention of feeding bans is to prohibit people from feeding and attracting wild animals, such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums. To avoid confusion, bans must address feral cats and the unique work of outdoor cat group caretakers specifically.
Leash laws―laws prohibiting animals from roaming freely―can affect feral cats as well. These laws can be difficult for caretakers to follow because they may require companion animals to be leashed and/or fenced when outside. For feral cats, this could be very traumatic and caretakers know it is better for the animal’s welfare to be free-roaming rather than confined. Some municipalities, such as New Orleans, LA, make an exception for feral cats. Its ordinance states, “Community cats may be allowed outside so long as the cats do not prove to be a nuisance to neighbors. Any ear-tipped cat collected under the provisions of this section shall be released on-site unless suffering from an obvious injury or illness” (City of New Orleans Code of Ordinances Chapter 18, Article 1. Section 18-14, n.d.).
What You Can Do
If you are feeding feral cats in your neighborhood, make sure that you understand and are up-to-date on the laws in your area. This can help protect you and the cats by keeping you informed and making sure you have any needed documentation (medical records, etc.). If the laws in your area prohibit you from caring for feral cats, you should contact your government officials and urge them to modify their outdated laws. Ask them to make exemptions in existing laws for feral cats and feral cat caregivers. The American Bar Association supports this viewpoint and states, “Consistent interpretation and/or adoption of laws throughout the country that allow for TNVR programs would provide much-needed guidance to state, local, territorial, and tribal government entities, as well as for private entities and individuals, as they seek to manage community cat populations effectively and humanely” (American Bar Association, 2017).
“Cat Leash Law: Is the cure worse than the disease?” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cfa.org/Portals/0/documents/legislative/cat-leash-laws.pdf
Carlota Fiori v. Conway Org. 746 N.Y.S.2d 747 (2001).
Fry, D. (2010). “Detailed Discussion of Feral Cat Legal Issues.” Michigan State University College of Law.
Is it legal to kill feral cats? (October 31, 2013). Retrieved from https://idfg.idaho.gov/question/it-legal-kill-feral-cats
Kortis, B. Feral Cats, TNR & the Law. [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.accord3.com/docs/TNR%20Law%20Kortis.pdf
Nirenberg, L. Community Cats and The Law. [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/pets/feral-cats/nirenburg_hsus_cat_outdoors.pdf
“Resolution.” (August 14-15, 2017). American Bar Association.