Chicago, IL

Can feral cats stop the rats plaguing the city of Chicago?

Jennifer Geer

Chicago residents hope so as they partner with the Tree House Humane Society to release feral cats into the streets to help control the staggering rat population.

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It's not a list you want to be at the top of, and yet, Chicago is number one. For six years in a row, Chicago has been dubbed, the "rattiest city in America" by Orkin.

Unexpectedly, Chicago has beaten both Los Angeles and New York, which are two cities I would have expected to be...well...rattier than Chicago. Don't ask me why I think that. It's just a feeling. A feeling that turned out to be wrong, according to Orkin.

So Chicago has the honors, and with those honors, plenty of rats.

How do cats help?

Since 2012, the Tree House Humane Society has placed over 1,000 feral cats on the streets of Chicago. Sarah Liss of Tree House told Chicago's WGN that the cats keep the rats away simply by the smell of their pheromones. They may kill some rats when they first arrive at an area. But once the rats know that cats are there, they leave.

The program appears to be working. “We’ve had a lot of our clients tell us that before they had cats, they would step outside their house, and rats would actually run across their feet,” Liss told WGN.

The cats provide an environmentally safer approach to ridding a city of rats than dangerous poisons. And it turns out to be a good thing for the cats as well.

Stray versus feral cats

The problem with feral cats is they are very hard to place in homes. They're skittish, they don't trust humans, and they're only bonded with other cats. They live in colonies of cats. They're excellent hunters and well adapted to living on their own. According to Paws Chicago, feral cats "cannot cohabitate with people."

If feral kittens are found very young, they can be domesticated. But if you wait too long, a feral cat will probably never be comfortable in a home around people.

Stray cats are different. They were raised as someone's pet, and they are often found disheveled and stressed when left on the streets. Unlike a feral cat, a stray cat can be adopted and kept as a family pet.

How does the program work?

You can apply for Tree House's Cats at Work Program on their website. When a feral cat is taken off the streets by the humane society, they are neutered or spayed, microchipped, and vaccinated. If it's determined the cat will never acclimate to someone's home, they can be released back on the streets through the program.

The Tree House will work with residents to help show them how to create an environment the cat will consider its home territory. It won't wander far if it has a safe place to sleep and regular food and water. In return, the cat will keep the rats away.

It's been successful

There are no natural predators to rats in cities. Cities provide an unending food source to rats without any dangers. Unlike the suburbs and the countryside, where coyotes, hawks, and owls can help keep a rodent population under control, in the city, the rats run wild.

When you introduce a natural predator, like a feral cat to the environment, rats will leave for greener pastures.

According to the Tree House fact sheet, "Our clients report an immediate impact on the rodent population and a near end to their rodent problem within a few weeks of welcoming their cats. In addition to the rodent control benefits, what we love to hear most are the stories of the wonderful relationship that people form with these amazing, resilient cats."

It's a win-win situation for both residents and cats. The cats get a safe space to live where they can feel comfortable, and the people get a break from the rats.

Learn more about the program and how to register on the Tree House website.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL
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