Stupid Question ™
Sept. 3, 1998
By John Ruch
Q: Why are alley cats usually dirty and mangy while wild cats such as lions and tigers aren’t?
A: A healthy cat of any type—from tabby to tiger—will groom itself thoroughly and frequently from the age of three weeks on. It will lick itself with its barbed tongue, comb and scrub with its paws, and nibble out dirt.
This grooming is important in many ways. In cold weather, smoothing the fur improves insulation. In warm weather, saliva on the fur helps cool the cat, which has only a few sweat glands. Grooming also stimulates glands to waterproof the fur, helps renew the animal’s identifying scent, and may affect Vitamin D production in the skin.
Domestic cats that run wild—known as feral cats—in the country are often as well-groomed as their naturally wild cousins.
“If you see a feral farm cat or orchard cat, they look very healthy,” said Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Capital Area Human Society in Columbus, Ohio. In fact, feral cats often breed bigger and stronger than their domestic ancestors, sometimes weighing twice as much.
However, while large feral cat colonies also populate urban centers, these “alley cats” have a much tougher life than their country counterparts. They get most of their food by scavenging human garbage or hunting rodents drawn to it.
This means they get a lot dirtier than wild cats or country ferals, sometimes with heavy greases or chemicals that are hard to wash out. In contrast, the “blood and mud and dirt” wild cats encounter “will come out with a good lickin’,” according to Don Winstel, a director of conservation and education at the Columbus Zoo.
Not only do alley cats get dirtier, they have less opportunity to clean themselves, according to Cunningham.
Due to cat overpopulation, food is harder to find and malnutrition is more common, communicable diseases (including mange, a parasitic skin disorder) spread faster, and territorial fights are more frequent.
“Typically, alley cats aren’t very healthy,” said Cunningham. He said they might not have the strength or the time to keep clean.
“They’re like street persons,” he said. “They’ll take a shower when they can get one, but they’re more concerned about their food and where they’re going to sleep.”
Also remember that since alley cats live in close proximity to humans, and wild cats don’t, your odds of seeing a dirty alley cat are much greater. Generally, the wild cats people see—on TV or in the zoo—are the healthiest and thus cleanest sort.
Alley cats, on average, may be cleaner these days than they were 60 years ago, when much household trash was burned outside. In those days, cats dug through ashes for food scraps and got filthy.
And Winstel points out that not all urban ferals are filthy. “On behalf of alley cats, that’s a generalization,” Winstel said. “They’d be insulted.”