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A co-worker has been trying to get rid of kittens that she cannot keep. She has not been able to find people to adopt them, which is understandable since there are so many kittens being given away in the area all the time.

I assume this is a common situation for pet owners and animal lovers that find themselves with a litter of kittens.

I read that animal shelters are overrun with cats so millions of kittens brought into shelters each year are put down.

So when this co-worker said that she planned on releasing these kittens into the wild, it didn't sound like a bad idea in her situation, hence my curiosity:

Can kittens, under any circumstances, at the proper age, be released into a temperate forest and have a better chance of survival than being dropped off at a shelter?

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    We have several related questions at feral+cats – James Jenkins Jun 16 '15 at 16:54
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    Some comments removed. many people believe that releasing a cat/kitten is humane. We have Can I release my pet rabbit in the wild? similar answers and this question about cats seems to be appropriate on the site with a non-judgmental tone – James Jenkins Jun 16 '15 at 18:23
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    This is purely anecdotal, but I have been volunteering at an open access shelter for the past year. Kittens get adopted much more quickly than adults. The only ones euthanized at this shelter have been too sick to recover. It is kitten season now and we are being inundated, but they generally are adopted at about the same rate they are surrendered. – jalynn2 Jun 19 '15 at 17:04
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    One more comment: releasing kittens that have not been neutered is just compounding the problem: All of the survivors will have litters next year. – jalynn2 Jun 19 '15 at 17:06
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    Unless a stray cat wanders into the yard and gives birth, there is just no way a responsible pet owner "finds themselves with kittens." Cats and dogs should be spayed or neutered. – Mario Nov 3 '15 at 21:09
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Kittens in the Shelter

The ASPCA states

Of the cats entering shelters, approximately 37% are adopted, 41% are euthanized, and less than 5% of cats who came in as strays are returned to their owners.

However, I couldn't find statistics about the fate of kittens (versus adult cats). Generally, kittens are considered more adoptable. Adult cats who are found in shelters sometimes have behavioral or health problems that makes them more difficult to adopt.

I expect that kittens would be euthanized at a lower rate than the general cat population.

Feral Kittens

For kittens who were raised by a feral mother, a study available on the AMVA website reports:

Survival data were available for 169 kittens. Overall, 127 of the 169 (75%) kittens died (n = 87) or disappeared (40) before 6 months of age. ...Eighty-one of the 169 (48%) kittens died or disappeared before they were 100 days old.

Causes of death were determined for 41 of the 87 (47%) kittens reported to have died. Thirty-seven of the 41 (90%) died as a result of trauma, with attacks by stray and owned dogs (n = 18) and motor vehicle accident (10) being the most common types of trauma. Other types of trauma that resulted in > 1 death included falls from haylofts (n = 2), being stepped on by horses or people (3), and a suspected episode of infanticide (3).

Cause of death was not determined for 46 of the 87 (53%) kittens reported to have died, but many reportedly had signs of disease, including upper respiratory tract disease and diarrhea, prior to death.

The kittens who disappeared could have moved on to different territory, but it's also likely that they were eaten by predatory animals (so their corpses could not be recovered) and/or they were ill and found a quiet place to hide while they died (which made their corpses difficult to find).

Tame Kittens Released

I couldn't find any data on the fate of tame kittens who are released (often called "dumping"). These kittens may fare better than feral kittens (because they have several weeks of good food/care before having to forage for themselves) but may also lack important skills (such as where to look for food and how to hunt).

They are likely subject to the same sources of trauma as the feral kittens in the study, but may have different rates of disease.

Summary

We know that kittens placed at a shelter will be protected from other animals and from car strikes. We know that kittens who become ill at a shelter will be given veterinary treatment. We know that kittens who are placed at a shelter will be given enough food. We don't know any of these things about kittens who are released, and have good evidence to believe that many of these things do happen to released kittens.

It's hard to draw conclusions about which situation is more deadly, but it's clear which situation is more humane. Even when a shelter cat is put to sleep, it's done without pain or suffering.

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    Now this makes sense. It's supported and reasonable. Thanks! – Curiosity8578 Jun 16 '15 at 22:04
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It's not a responsible choice from either a pet-owner or ecological point of view.

Whether any particular cat survives going feral, and for how long, is a crapshoot. You'd certainly be dumping them into a life of illness, hunger, competition with other cats and the injuries resulting from that, predation by coyotes and hawks and such, and abuse by humans who have no sympathy for feral cats. Life expectancy is nowhere near that of a pet. It's a life, but not a very good one. That is not an improvement over a shelter.

Ecologically: Feral cats are already a serious threat to some native species. There are ongoing efforts to humanely reduce their population in many areas; you'd still be dumping your responsibilities on someone else. If you insist on doing this, at least neuter the animals first so you aren't dumping multiple generations into the street and actively making the problem worse.

Yes, no-kill shelters are overloaded and underfunded. But if you're willing to make a donation to support them, they might be able to make a place for your kids. And frankly, I'm not convinced even a shelter which does euthanize is crueler than abandoning them; shelters generally treat the animals well and if they must be put down it's done painlessly.

So the answer to the question is "Maybe the cat will survive, for a while, if it happens to survive the transition and continues to be lucky. It's still significantly worse odds than a shelter, never mind finding them a real home. It's a bad thing to do to an animal you claim to care about. There are better alternatives.

  • "A long-term study of a trap-neuter-return (TNR) program in Central Florida found that despite widespread concern about the welfare of free-roaming cats, 83% of the cats studied had been present for over six years, with almost half first observed as adults of unknown age. These time spans compared favourably to the average lifespan of 7.1 years for pet cats reported in a 1984 study,[8]:45 and to the finding that only 42% of the pet cat population in the U.S. is more than 5 years old.[9]:1358" - Wikipedia – Curiosity8578 Jun 16 '15 at 19:16
  • @Curiosity8578 you are talking about cats, and asking about releasing kittens. There is a difference. – James Jenkins Jun 16 '15 at 19:16
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    I think this is a good answer that could benefit by the addition of supporting references. – James Jenkins Jun 16 '15 at 19:18
  • @James I did specify "at a proper age" - old enough to begin hunting. But not too old to be too tamed for learning to survive – Curiosity8578 Jun 16 '15 at 19:18
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    @Curiosity8578 check the general Wikipedia page for cats, pet lifespans have increased a BUNCH since 1984 (mostly due to education on keeping pet cats indoors only, not indoor/outdoor) – Zaralynda Jun 16 '15 at 20:09
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The AMVA study cited above (https://www.avma.org/News/Journals/Collections/Documents/javma_225_9_1399.pdf) was conducted on colonies of free-roaming cats that had human caretakers. These humans presumably fed them. Among real feral cats* (having no food supplied by a human) there is additionally death through starvation.

Obviously, people with a cat they can't keep should make great efforts to place the cat with new people. It is common for people to think that cats (however much they have been pets) can survive in the wild, but the information we have come across shows that the odds of survival of an individual house-raised cat put in the wild are small.

I live in the country, where unwanted cats are sometimes abandoned. I resent the off-loading of now fearful cats, that have no food (people rarely help them, and prey is insufficient) to live on, can become pests probing garbage containers, and are subject to predation by larger animals. Almost all of them suffer a lot. Yes, this is the way of the wild, but we have expected better for pet species.

(For free-ranging cats, "estimates of the reproductive capacity of female cats and the consequences of unabated reproduction are often extrapolated beyond scientific reliability, as they typically fail to use realis- tic litter sizes or ignore kitten mortality rates," states the AMVA paper. We have developed a great fear of sexual intactness of cats, but that level of fear is not called for in situations of very high mortality of kittens.)

  • Communicating about feral cats is made more difficult when different people mean different things by "feral".
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NO! They are domesticated animals who we have made dependent upon us for our pleasure - they are not things you can throw away when you don't want them.

She would be guilty of criminal abuse to animals.

The way to limit kittens is to get the males neutered and the females spayed.

If you let your female cat get pregnant, you are TOTALLY responsible for the lives of the kittens she delivers.

Once a cat is old enough, YOU MUST have them neutered or spayed (though it is technically correct to speak of neutering both males and females even though the surgery is totally different).

It is irresponsible to allow a cat to breed unless you can absolutely, positively be certain that there will be good homes for the kittens.

Female cats do not have to have a litter to feel fulfilled. And a male does not need to impregnate a female to be a true cat. It is nonsense.

In a pinch, a pregnant female can be spayed and the embryos aborted. Sounds bad but it is far better than the kittens being dumped and meeting one of far too many forms of danger and horrible death.

If I caught someone dumping a cat or kitten - well, it is not appropriate to describe what I would do to them here.

I would, of course, make sure the cat or kittens are safe before expressing my displeasure in a clear and simple way.

I won't even try to address some comments in other answers!!!

Cats are not disposable. They are loving and lovable creatures which we humans have domesticated, making us responsible for their care and safety.

As to the crack about tame kittens doing better than feral because they would have had good meals - you don't want to hear my real reaction. It is pure nonsense.

Actually a feral kitten (a true feral kitten, not a stray) will do immeasurably better than a "tamed" dumped kitten. Feral kittens were born and raised with no contact with humans but they will have their mother to provide them with appropriate care, love, milk and then solid food.

THERE IS NOTHING THAT JUSTIFIES DUMPING A CAT, REGARDLESS OF AGE! NOTHING!

If they were near you I'd take them in them in a heartbeat.

Dumping an unwanted cat or kitten - or any domesticated animal - should be a severely punished crime. I don't think that a sentence of years in prison would be too much punishment

It is ludicrous to dump an animal and expect them to survive and live a good life!

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