Critics and advocates of "managed" feral cat colonies will converge at the AVMA Annual Convention in Nashville for a series of seminars on the issue.
On July 14, seminars titled "Feral and Free-Roaming Cats: The Flip Side of the Coin" will feature wildlife veterinarians, biologists, and wildlife advocates explaining the drawbacks of trap, neuter, and release (TNR) programs—ranging from the legal implications for veterinarians, to the impact of feral cats on wildlife, and the dangers faced by feral cats.
On July 15, veterinarians who advocate TNR programs will present "Free-Roaming and Feral Cats and the Public," which will include seminars on established TNR programs, prepubertal gonadectomy, infectious diseases, and tips for veterinarians working with feral cats.
Individuals on both sides of the debate say the renewed discussion about feral cat management is being fueled by a grassroots TNR movement that is sweeping the country pulling many veterinarians into the center of the controversy.
"There has been a change in the public's perception about cats—that they are important animals and that you can't just kill them if they're inconvenient," said Dr. Margaret Slater, a veterinarian from Texas A&M University's Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Public Health.
Despite the growing popularity of TNR programs, some experts are concerned about the programs and their implications for veterinarians, the environment, and the cats themselves.
"There are a variety of reasons we ought to be careful about feral cat management," said Dr. David Jessup, a senior wildlife veterinarian at the California Department of Fish and Game and a diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine.
He said many TNR programs do not follow the AVMA guidelines on feral cat management, which includes provisions that programs be run in accordance with local and state laws, that the sterilized cats be closely monitored in managed colonies, and that the colonies not be located on lands set aside for wildlife or natural resource preservation, to name a few. To view the AVMA's position on abandoned and feral cats, visit the Member Center at the AVMA Web site, www.avma.org, and view policies and guidelines in the Resource Center.
Dr. Jessup said there may be legal implications for veterinarians who participate in programs that neuter and release cats because the practice may violate animal abandonment laws in some areas. He also said veterinarians need to consider the dangers that feral cats face—predation, cars, malnutrition, infection, and diseases.
"We have to think, 'Is that what we want for our patients?'" Dr. Jessup said.
Other conservationists say veterinarians who are invited to participate in TNR programs aren't informed about these drawbacks.
"We're very concerned and we're glad to have the opportunity to speak with veterinarians, because we feel veterinarians often only have one side of the issue," said Linda Winter, president of the Cats Indoors initiative sponsored by American Bird Conservancy. She said feral cats have a negative impact on ecosystems by killing large numbers of birds and other small animals.
But advocates of the TNR programs say some of the concerns are exaggerated and that there are few other viable options for managing cat overpopulation.
"We feel it's the only practical way to reduce the cat population because it's the only thing the public will help us with," said Julie Levy, an assistant professor of small animal surgery at the University of Florida and a participant in Operation Cat Nip, a program that neuters, vaccinates, and releases cats in the southeastern United States.
Levy, who will talk about infectious disease among feral cats, said that because of the increased popularity of TNR programs, more research is being done on how successful the programs are at reducing cat populations, disease and morbidity in the colonies, feral cat predation, and other issues related to the management of feral cats.
"I think we are going to start to get away from the emotional debate and start having some good, valid science to use," she said.
For now, advocates of TNR say the programs are successful because they slow the exponential population growth caused by unchecked breeding, they are relatively inexpensive, and the have a lot of public support.
Critics offer feral cat sanctuaries, where cats are enclosed in large structures and cared for, as an alternative to trap, neuter, and release programs. They acknowledge, however, that these programs are expensive.
Although the two sides disagree on how to manage cat overpopulation, they agree on two things.
"We all agree there must be fewer cats," Levy said. They also agree that well-informed veterinarians are vital to solving the problem.