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Feral cats: Problems extend to wildlife species, ecologists say


Nashville-About 70 million cats are estimated as feral or free-roaming in the United States, and it is putting pressure on wildlife species and resources to solve the problem.

Nashville-About 70 million cats are estimated as feral or free-roaming in the United States, and it is putting pressure on wildlife species and resources to solve the problem.

Feral cat numbers now rival the entire human populations in both Texas and California. Ecologists and wildlife advocates say this burgeoning population is challenging wildlife. They want cats back indoors.

The result: the fight is on, and it is squarely focused on how to solve this population boom which now rivals the numbers of "owned" cats.

Ecologists and wildlife advocates want domestic cats out of native environments, because of their destruction to other native wildlife including birds, rodents, small mammals, lizards and other creatures. With the popularity of trap-neuter-release programs increasing, like one administered by the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), these groups are opposed to the program largely because cats are released back into the environment. In short, they want them out of parks and other habitats simply because of their impact on the area's ecosystem.

The argument goes: This is a man-made problem because these animals are not indigenous to the area; therefore, man has a responsibility to solve it.

Dr. Julie Levy, DVM, dipl. ACVIM of the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, says, "Veterinarians are increasingly asked to participate in solving the cat and dog overpopulation problem, often by providing discounted health care for homeless animals for rescue groups or animals shelters," she says.

Dr. Julie Levy

Veterinarians typically fall on the other side of the argument by endorsing trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs as a start to controlling this population glut. CVMA's feral cat program, sponsored by Maddie's Fund, was created to help reduce the population of these cats in the state.

While CVMA officials are touting its successes; critics are blasting the ethics of "re-abandoning" these animals.

Beginning in 1999, the program spayed and neutered about 20,000 feral cats each year. To date, a total of about 140,000 surgeries have been performed in the state. The program helped subsidize the costs to the surgeries for 1,100 practicing veterinarians.

The entire debate aired at the American Veterinary Medical Association's annual meeting here.

The issues surrounding feline abandonment are global in its impact. In public health circles there is a major concern about zoonotic disease spread, like rabies, toxoplasmosis, ringworm or bartonellosis while veterinary medicine is more closely focused on FeLV and FIV risks.

"The control of feral cats is rapidly becoming one of the most popular and controversial topics in animal control and welfare," Levy says.

She adds that small animal practitioners working with these unowned cats are developing a sort of "herd health" program in contrast to individual patient care. Levy also founded Operation Catnip in 1996, which is credited with sterilizing more than 14,000 cats at monthly clinics.

Ultimately, officials agree the problem could be better controlled if people stopped dumping litters of kittens in parks, or leaving unwanted cats to fend for themselves. But even if that societal ailment were cured today, which is obviously unlikely, what do you do with the millions of free-roaming cats all over the United States?

TNR programs were born and are increasingly popular.

Alley Cat Allies, which is a national resource organization for these programs, estimates that 2,000 groups and 6,000 people are doing TNR, Levy reports.

There's not much arguing about the extent of the feral cat problem in this country; the bickering is about how to solve the issue, and the devil's always in the details.

Not a solution

What has been the impact of TNR programs like CVMA's feral cat altering program?

If you ask Dr. David Jessup, a senior wildlife veterinarian for the state of California and critic of the effort, TNR is not a viable long-term solution.

In fact, he believes these programs are just inviting litigation, especially considering endangered species laws, laws governing conservation lands and animal protection laws.

"As the public has grown more attached to companion animals and there has been recognition of the fact that animals feel pain and distress, the welfare of free-roaming cats becomes an issue," says Dr. Margaret R. Slater of Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

He says that the animals are being "re-abandoned" and under California penal code if an owner allows an animal to go without "proper care and attention is guilty of a misdemeanor". What if a feral cat is responsible for killing an endangered species and was recently neutered and released as part of a TNR program? "Cats are an aggressive, invasive, nonnative, subsidized predatory species whose presence results in loss of wildlife," he contends.

Jessup believes that officials need to shift emphasis toward prevention of abandonment, provision of homes and sanctuaries for abandoned cats and elimination of feral cat colonies on all wildlife lands.

He also says there is a real need for an inexpensive oral contraceptive for cats, as well as recognizing that re-abandonment of cats is generally not a humane, professional or legal way of handling this enormous problem.

He calls on veterinarians to support programs like "Cats Indoors," which help make feral cats adoptable; and support "closed" sanctuaries as an environmentally friendly alternative to feral cat colonies. Cats at these sanctuaries would be treated humanely, yet confined indoors.

He also says that officials need to recognize that the elimination of large and "open" feral cat colonies from wildlife lands may not be possible without euthanasia, given current technology.

TNR works

Proponents of TNR programs counter they are a viable way to reduce feline populations.

Dr. Margaret Slater, DVM, Ph.D., at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, believes TNR reduces the numbers of animals.

"Only trap, neuter and return of feral cats has been shown to stabilize and decrease the numbers of cats; fewer cats means less predation."

Slater says that a partnership between an animal control agency and non-profit feral cat TNR program was started in Orange County, Fla. in 1995. She adds that in six years following introduction of the program, more than 7,000 feral cats were sterilized, the total number of cat surgeries exceeded the number of cats euthanized and the number of nuisance complaints decreased. "As a result, despite an increase in the human population of 25 percent, impounds remained stable and cat adoption rates slightly increased."

How acceptable is trapping and humanely euthanizing these animals simply because these animals are unadoptable? Is it hypocritical to the "no kill" movement of animal welfare? How would large scale euthanasias be covered by newspapers in the popular press? Slater is convinced it would result in very negative publicity. If enclosed cat colonies are created to house these animals, who is going to pay for the care?

The issues continue to pile up.

The human-animal bond is a powerful force. People feed and care for feral cat colonies in an attempt to help. It's a humane response that most people feel for the plight of these creatures; but ecologists say it accentuates the problem because it reduces attrition in the wild, and it doesn't make cats any less predacious.

Wild or not

It's a hotly emotional topic.

Levy explains, "Debate about the true impact of feral cats on the environment, on feline health, and as a reservoir of zoonotic disease is ongoing, often emotional and fueled largely by a lack of sound scientific data on which to form credible conclusions."

Levy adds, "Of primary concern is the welfare of the cats themselves, and many believe that feral life is too fraught with risk and discomfort to be acceptable. Others believe the lives of feral cats should be judged no differently than those of other species existing in a 'wild' state."

Ecologists just want them inside.

Feral cats have been credited with exterminating one bird species from the face of the planet, and it poses the biggest risk for certain protected species especially on islands, reports David Duffy, Ph.D., a botany professor at the University of Hawaii.

Officials say reducing unwanted populations of free-roaming feral cats is a huge problem worldwide, and a first of a kind survey in Wisconsin has documented the problems it is posing to wildlife.

In Wisconsin alone, says Stanley A. Temple, Ph.D., of the Department of Wildlife Ecology of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1.4 million free-roaming and feral cats are believed in the state even accounting for attrition from cold winters. Surveys estimate that this population of cats has bagged 7.8 million birds. Roughly 20 percent of the documented cat kills were birds.

Temple says, "Why are we picking on cats?" He says that even though there are many, many ecological and societal trends that are impacting native wildlife species the "cat threat can be reduced by responsible human actions. There are solutions."

Temple explains, "Feral and free-roaming cats are exotic predators (in the ecological sense) that are not naturally a part of any North American ecosystem. They are not ecologically equivalent to any North American mammalian predator, and their impacts on prey species are distinctly different from those of wild predators."

Temple characterizes these cats as 'subsidized predators' in that they receive food, shelter and other benefits from their relationship with human beings, yet also hunt. "Their predation on native wildlife can have serious consequences for species already stressed by other sources of human-caused environmental degradation," he adds.

How to help

Slater says that veterinarians can help the feral cat problem in many ways.

"Veterinarians are involved in the control of free-roaming cats as a part of practice and in many other ways. Even working to encourage responsible pet ownership is a huge help in the effort to decrease the numbers of homeless cats in the U.S.," she adds.

Client education and a talk on responsible pet ownership can go a long way to controlling feral cat problems.

"The two primary roles outside of regular private practice are as educators and as surgeon for neutering cats," Slater says.

"Education of the general public, government officials, shelter professionals and other animal welfare groups are all within the purview of veterinary practitioners."

She says that topics to discuss could include public health risks, vaccinations and infectious disease control, the importance of identification and neutering.

Other important concepts include:

  • The human animal bond keeps cats in homes. Foster it.

  • Don't underestimate the power of an initial kitten visit. Statistically, there is an increase in relinquishment of cats in the first two years of ownership and it became more pronounced for cats owned less than six months.

  • Educate owners about normal cat behaviors, since it is a leading cause of relinquishment.

  • Neuter more cats, sooner. "In one study, only 50 percent of relinquished cats were neutered while 77 percent of owned cats still in the home were neutered," she says.

  • Identify cats by collar and tag, microchip or tattoo.

  • Help to get homeless cats adopted.

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