Feral cats extremely under documented in INat

If an observation of a domestic cat shows no evidence that the cat was captive, please do not mark it captive!

See the following observation, read the discussion, and please mark this animal wild.


“These cats are out in the park all day killing birds and rodents. To call them “captive” and put them in the same category as someone’s house plant (and make it invisible on iNaturalist) seems to be missing the bigger impact they are having on park ecology. I’m more interested in studying impacts to the ecology in the state park (supposedly a protected wild area) than in determining if any of these cats has an owner somewhere. I know for a fact that the majority do not have owners.” @bruin_mike

It does no good to track the effects of cats if domestic cat observations get marked captive by default! If the cat is inside a house, has a collar on, etc. yes, mark it captive. But once again, if the observation gives no indication that the cat is a pet, then please do not mark it captive.

If you find a cat carcass or cat skull, chances are that was a feral cat! Many cities have thousands of feral cats—please don’t go marking cats in cities that you are not familiar with captive if they’re outdoors. Doing so blunts any efforts to track or build awareness around feral cats and their devastating impacts.


Curiously, the observer here also marked the observation as a :-1: in the Organism is wild DQA category.

Perhaps this is an issue with the use of the phrase “wild”. In English, one might be inclined toward a binary categorization based on the species, thinking "a domestic cat is not a wild species; a skunk is a wild species.

That kind of confusion might warrant adding a link to explain what is meant by “wild” in this context.


I’m confused, @bruin_mike is the only user who has marked this observation as captive. iNaturalist automatically marked it as captive since most other observations in the area have been marked captive, but that’s easily overruled.

In terms of the broader discussion about marking outdoor pets as wild or not, there’s more of that here: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/domesticated-species-not-clearly-captive/497


what happens with scaped cats or free range cat with irresponsable owners?

I think there’s a pretty good consensus on iNat that if a tree was planted by a person, it was cultivated. It’s not like the observation is deleted if it’s marked as such.

I’d put a pet cat that was let outside for the day in a grey zone, since it’s currently reliant on its owners and wouldn’t be there if they weren’t, so it’s definitely not wild, but it’s not restrained either and could easily go off and start its own population.


This observation may have been marked captive by mistake, but numerous other “domestic cat” observations get marked captive intentionally without evidence.


This observation may have been marked captive by mistake, but numerous other “domestic cat” observations get marked captive intentionally without evidence.

You can argue in a topic about cultivated plants, but nothing will be changed, it was discussd hundreds of times, cultivated for iNat means planted, it’s a confusing term.


I’m guilty of not documenting all remains I see, but it’s hard to judge really, it can be an outside cat killedd by a car and it just never was found by the owner. Once we wre asked by an old lady to find her cat, it was dead in some dence tre//bush patch, young and probably poisoned, we knew it was a domestic cat, but if you’d found it you couldn’t say thatfor sure. Also there’re lotsof irresponsible owners and just bad people, I found quite a few litters of kittens on the side of the road, dead, it could be a female cat with bad reasoning or their owner, I know in places with pet cemeteries people came and just left the bodies of their dogs and cats in plastic bags.

I doubt that iNaturalist will ever be a reliable enough source of feral cat observations to use in tracking their populations or impacts. iNaturalist was never intended to accurately document population size because of the huge observational biases. Building awareness must start with actual scientific studies of population sizes and impacts because you want that awareness to be based on trustworthy metrics–not the whims of thousands of individual observers.


Personally, I wouldn’t have even thought to add a cat on here, just because it’s mostly guesswork to figure out if they’re a feral cat, outdoor cat, or a cat who slipped out of the house accidentally.


I think another thing to consider is the intent of the original poster. If they post an endangered plant that was planted by a person, and don’t want it to count as a research-grade observation, then that’s how it should be considered. If the same person wanted the plant to be considered wild, and had some justification, i.e. it’s no longer being tended to, and it is independently interacting with the environment, then that’s how it should be considered. If they have no preference, then the community can decide.

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Neighbors of mine do cat rescues, and have 20-some cats, generally uncollared and not kept inside. I often obtain photos, day and night, of housecats on trail cams on my property and neighboring property, but it’d be impossible to tell if truly feral or just one of the horde out for the night.


Absolutely, document them, but they’re just as wild as the tulip in someone’s garden. Being pruned doesn’t prevent them from producing seeds either I assume. We can always search for causal obs if we need to. Their offspring are wild, and you’re even emphasizing that they matter because of their offspring. Distinguishing between the cultivated plant and its offspring seems like a decent way of distinguishing weedy planted species from normal planted to me, rather than deciding.arbitrarily between different species or different individuals (I understand in practice you often can’t tell if a tree was planted, but that’s a different situation).


because the ‘wild’ tag is meant to indicate that something is native or naturalized and spreading on its own. It isn’t meant to be a comment on the importance of the organism or the viability of the organism to spread. it has to do with data management and mapping. ‘captive’ observations such as that of a large old planted invasive tree are valuable, and perhaps could be tracked differently than a house plant, for instance. But it doesn’t work in the data framework to tag these as wild.


Can you please clarify what you think has been changed in the description. It is hard to follow this thread, and I can’t see any obvious recent edits to the help file regarding this.

Here are two observations I can guarantee are feral cats, including breeding evidence, that were intentionally marked captive by someone perusing the records. Thanks in advance to anyone who helps get them to “wild” status!


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Yes, I agree. However, if inaturalist is about documenting biodiversity, then it’s important to create awareness on the platform that feral cats are one of the biggest deterrents to biodiversity, second only to habitat loss. Feral cats are ecologically critical! A feral or outdoor cat kills hundreds if not thousands combined of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians in just one year. Feral cats have contributed to the extinction of numerous bird and mammal species namely in Australia, Hawaii, etc. as you probably know. @pfau_tarleton

@will What if the ‘wild’ cat is occasionally fed by non-owners? I’d argue that makes it only semi-feral/wild.

Pretty fraught topic, I think. Maybe cats should be in their own category, ‘free-range’ if seen outside with no humans in proximity?

If watering/weeding/pruning a wild plant makes it cultivated (as I think the definitions for iNat apply), then feeding/watering a cat would be similar, I think the idea being any subsidies are changing the organisms’ behavior/success ecologically.

To argue another side, I’d be further in favor of this idea of a ‘free-range’ category since I don’t even bother photographing cats that I suspect are at least semi-feral, since I assumed they’d be tagged as ‘casual’ and never enter into any research data. If this changed I could start adding some observations.

Cats kill billions of birds and mammals annually in the U.S. alone, so not documenting cats that have the opportunity to hunt is a large blind spot right now.

Obviously housecats wouldn’t count here, and maybe context shots would be necessary to provide evidence that at least the cat wasn’t in proximity of an unseen owner.

I’d stress that a feral cat occasionally fed is wild. Are bears that occasionally feed on human trash in a national park wild? How about fruit flies that feed on apple cores or banana peels that people throw out of their car windows? Both I consider wild, yes.
Feeding feral cats has no effect on their predation of wildlife, instead making the problem worse by allowing them to reproduce at a faster rate. Cats will kill for fun, not just to eat.
There will always be edge cases but the point is, as you and I can agree, feral cats and outdoor pet cats alike are one of the biggest threats to biodiversity, second only to habitat loss and (seems likely) pesticide use. They’ve already contributed to numerous bird and mammal extinctions to date, but also prey on reptiles, amphibians and insects.