Community cats live in colonies all over Delaware. These colonies of free-roaming cats may include strays and feral cats. People who want to “get rid of” these community cat colonies don’t understand the realities of the situation or the laws of Delaware. Here’s a quick summary of the facts:
Fact 1, Delaware law: It is legal to feed and provide shelter for feral and stray cats.
Fact 2, Territory: Remove cats, and new cats will move into that same territory. (see explanation in box below). There are always more cats ready to move in.
Fact 3, Stable or Expanding Cat Population: If you already have feral/stray cats in your community, you can pick Option A or Option B. There is no Option C.
Option A. Stable population of neutered cats because of Trap Neuter Return. Cats vaccinated for rabies. No mating behaviors such as fighting or spraying. No unwanted kittens.
Option B: Expanding population of un-neutered cats, with many kittens. Cats not vaccinated for rabies. Nuisance behaviors such as fighting and spraying.
Fact 4, Health: Studies have proved that feral/stray cats do not pose any health risk to humans, especially when a colony that has been neutered and vaccinated for rabies (more info). Providing good food also helps keep them healthy.
Fact 5, Cruelty: Anyone who is cruel or kills a cat, whether feral, stray or pet, is committing a criminal offense.
Fact 6, Coexistence: We can peacefully co-exist with community cats, just as we do with other wildlife, such as squirrels, birds, raccoons, foxes, etc.
- Legal definition of feral cat
- Trap Neuter Return
- Right to feed and provide shelter
- Property rights
- Rabies vaccinations
- Animal control, cat licensing, leash laws and pet limits
- Cruelty Laws
- Peaceful coexistence
Legal Definition of a Feral Cat
The Delaware Code defines a feral cat:
“(g) ‘Feral cat’–An offspring of abandoned domestic cats who reverts to a semi-wild state and lives outside in family groups called colonies. Feral cats have a temperament of extreme fear and resistance to contact with humans.” [Title 3, § 8217.(g) ]
The law makes a clear distinction between feral cats and stray domesticated cats. This distinction becomes important for rabies vaccinations, as will be discussed.
Trap Neuter Return
When communities try to “get rid of” feral cats by trapping and removing them, the effort is doomed to failure. New cats will quickly move into the neighborhood. The way that feral cats move into vacated territory is behavior documented in many scientific studies of cats and other species, according to Alley Cat Allies, the national experts on feral cats.
Trap Neuter Return is now generally accepted as the best approach to peaceful coexistence between humans and feral cats. Feral and stray cats go into humane traps to get food. They are neutered, vaccinated and eartipped (the universal symbol). After surgery, they are returned to the place where they were trapped. Neutering ends the behaviors associated with mating that can cause issues, such as fighting. Communities all over the U.S. are committed to TNR as described in the Alley Cat Allies report, Trap Neuter Return Ordinances and Policies in U.S.
Delaware has a state-funded spay/neuter program that provides low-cost certificates for income-eligible people and also to non-profit groups. The certificates can be used for pets and for feral/stray cats. Anyone needing help with TNR for a community cat colony can contact the state spay/neuter coordinator for more information about income eligibility and also for the list of cat groups who might be able to help with TNR: Delaware Department of Agriculture (302) 698-4567 (office) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Right to Feed and Shelter Feral Cats
The Delaware Code makes it clear that people are allowed to feed and provide shelter for feral cats. The feral cat caretaker is specifically recognized and legitimized in the spay/neuter section of the Delaware Code.
“(h) ‘Feral cat caretaker’–A person or group of people who provide food and shelter to feral cats, and work or works to reduce colony numbers by working to spay and neuter the animals within their specific colony or colonies.”
Clearly a person or group is allowed by Delaware law to provide food and shelter to feral cats. There is no county, city or town in Delaware that has a ban on feeding feral cats.
The feeding of feral cats only gets complicated when property rights are a consideration, as discussed below.
Property Rights and Feral Cats
A property owner may decide he/she does not want feral cats around, but of course, the cats may not abide by that decision. If a caretaker wants to feed feral cats on someone else’s land, it is important to talk with property owner and get permission. That discussion will go better with an explanation of the facts and an offer of TNR.
Commercial Properties: Often feral and stray cats will congregate around dumpsters on commercial properties such as shopping centers, restaurants, or gas stations. The property owner may realize that feeding the cats would reduce the dumpster diving. And again, an offer of TNR will always help in getting permission to feed the cats.
Public Land In the case of public parks, libraries, or other public facilities, the garbage containers may also attract feral and stray cats. The municipality has to decide whether or not to allow feeding of feral cats on public property. Clearly a municipality with humane leaders will do TNR and allow feeding of community cats.
Residential neighborhoods Ownership of the land is the critical factor in residential neighborhoods. In a mobile home park, the land is typically owned and managed by one entity, not by the people who reside there. The owner of the land where the mobile homes are located may ban feeding of feral cats on that land. The people who live in mobile home park are more likely to get permission for feeding stations if they can offer TNR of the colony to stabilize the population.
The owners of condominiums do not own the land either, so in that way, they are like mobile home parks. The condo association decides how the land will be used, and the condo association needs to approve feral cat feeding stations on condo land. People in condo associations who care about community cats should provide information to the Board of Directors about Delaware law and the benefits of TNR.
Housing developments governed by Home Owner Associations (HOA) are different than condos and mobile home parks. While the HOA could ban a feral cat feeding station and cat shelter on “common land,” it would be very difficult to do that on the land owned “fee simple” by the homeowner. It is very unlikely that the original covenants for a development includes a ban on feeding of feral cats. The covenants may address pets, but of course, feral cats are not pets.
An HOA can amend covenants, but existing uses are typically allowed by being “grandfathered,” because of countless court cases where HOAs lose in court on this issue. In an article entitled “Can You Make Retroactive HOA Rule Changes?” an expert states:
”The equation changes when the retroactive changes takes away a right or privilege previously enjoyed,” he explains. “To retroactively remove a right or privilege without allowing for grandfathering could be an invitation to a lawsuit.”
Because Delaware law clearly provides the feral cat caretaker with the right to feed feral cats, it is unlikely that the courts would side on any effort by an HOA to retroactively remove that right.
Delaware rabies law requires that owners must get rabies shots for cats, as well as dog, over 6 months:
§ 8204. Rabies vaccination required for dogs and cats; antirabies clinics.
“(b) Vaccination of cats. — Any person owning a cat 6 months of age or older in this State shall have the cat vaccinated against rabies by a veterinarian. The owner of the cat will be responsible for keeping a valid rabies vaccination certificate in his possession for inspection…”
However, the law does not make caretakers of feral cats responsible for getting rabies shots: only owners and “keepers,” as defined below.
“(i) ‘Keeper’–A person in possession or control of a cat, dog or other animal becomes the keeper of a stray domesticated animal, other than livestock, if the person feeds that animal for at least 3 consecutive days.
(j) ‘Owner’–Any person, firm, partnership, association or corporation owning, keeping or harboring a cat, dog or other animal.”
Delaware Code specifies that a “keeper” of an outdoor domesticated stray cat as well as an owner, is responsible for getting a rabies vaccination for that cat. However, the Delaware Code does not require that a feral cat caretaker get feral cats vaccinated for rabies.
The fact is that most feral cat caretakers who get feral cats neutered also have them vaccinated for rabies while they are under anesthesia. Of course, it would not otherwise be possible to vaccinate them. Getting a feral cat neutered and vaccinated is a service that many feral cat caretakers do for the community, even though it is not required by Delaware law.
Animal Control, Cat Licensing, Leashes, and Pet Limit Laws
When people say “animal control,” in Delaware, they mean dog control. There is no cat control in the three counties of Delaware and the city of Wilmington. Delaware law allows pet and feral cats to be free-roaming, but towns are allowed to pass leash laws. A couple of Delaware towns, including Milford and Camden, do have leash laws but there are exemptions for feral cats. Milford is now considering the elimination of the cat leash law.
Kent County SPCA (KCSPCA), which has dog control contracts for Sussex and New Castle has overstepped their authority in the past by citing feral cat caretakers for feeding cats. They have absolutely no authority to do that.
In 2012, a Rehoboth Beach woman was cited by Kent County SPCA for feeding feral cats, according to a Cape Gazette article (“Rehoboth resident wants help to solve cat problem” is no longer available online) After the article came out, KCSPCA Director Kevin Usilton is said to have told Sussex County officials that the reporter was wrong and KCSPCA was not citing the elderly woman for feeding the cats. Usilton stated that the citation was because the caretaker of the colony did not have rabies certificates for the cats. (KCSPCA has authority for rabies control in Delaware.) However, that is not allowed by Delaware law, which mandates that only a “keeper” of stray cats is responsible for getting cats vaccinated, not a feral cat caretaker. In the Rehoboth case, KCSPCA would have to prove that the cats were strays, not ferals, in order to cite the woman for a rabies violation. It is difficult to imagine how that would be determined by KCSPCA. Feral cat caretakers need to know the law in order to protect themselves from this kind of harassment.
Delaware law does not require that cats be licensed. That is a good thing. The reasons why cat licensing is a bad policy are described in The Special Feral Cat Issue pages 15 to 20. In 2012, Kent County SPCA lobbied state legislators openly for cat licensing but without any success.
State law does not mandate a limit on the number of pets that can be in a household. While Kent County and a couple of municipalities, including Camden and Dover, do have such limits, others do not. Of course, feral cats are not pets, so pet limit laws do not apply.
The model Companion Animal Protection Act developed by the No Kill Advocacy Center contains the following language that should be carefully considered before any laws regarding feral cats are changed in Delaware:
SEC. 21(a) Any law, ordinance, or policy which requires the licensing of cats, the confinement of cats, limits the number of animals a household can own or care for, prohibits or requires permits for the feeding of stray domestic animals, or prohibits the adoption of specific breeds of dogs is hereby repealed as contrary to the public interest except as follows:
(1) Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the enforcement of a statute having as its effect the prevention or punishment of animal neglect or cruelty, so long as such enforcement is based on the conditions of animals or the environment, and not based on the mere fact that a household has a certain number of animals, a person is feeding stray domestic animals, and/or a dog is of a particular breed. (p. 18)
“(b) A person is guilty of cruelty to animals when the person intentionally or recklessly:
(1) Subjects any animal to cruel mistreatment…..
(4) Cruelly or unnecessarily kills or injures any animal whether belonging to the actor or another.
(5) Captures, detains, transports, removes or delivers any animal …. under false pretenses to any public or private animal shelter, veterinary clinic or other facility, or otherwise causes the same through acts of deception or misrepresentation of the circumstances and disposition of any such animal. ” (Title 11,Chapter 5. Subchapter VII, Subpart A, § 1325).
Cruelty to animals rises to a felony under certain conditions, including those listed above in (5). Thus, a person taking a cat that does not belong to him/her, pretending to be the owner, and having the cat killed at a shelter or vet’s office is committing a felony in Delaware.
Here is what Alley Cat Allies says about this:
“Let’s set the record straight: Intentionally killing a cat is a criminal offense in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, regardless of ownership. Anti-cruelty laws apply to all cats—companion, abandoned, lost, and feral” (Anti-Cruelty Laws Protect All Cats, Alley Cat Allies.
Most of us find ways to live with our neighbors, whether we like them or not. If you have community cats in your neighborhood, you may as well accept that fact. Alley Cat Allies offers many solutions to issues that may arise with any cats in the neighborhood, whether pets or not: ”How to Live With Cats in Your Neighborhood.” For example, if cats dig in your mulch, Alley Cat Allies offers many ways to discourage them, such as scattering fresh orange and lemon peels, coffee grounds, vinegar, or citronella.
The key to peaceful coexistence between humans and community cats is more spay/neuter so that more than 2.3% are neutered. Neighborhoods that had TNR accomplished can easily achieve peace between humans and stray/feral cats.