Pros, cons of feral and free-ranging cat management debated

Proponents advocate preparation and education By Bridget M. Kuehn
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As the popularity of trap-neuter-and-release programs grows, more veterinarians are being asked to contribute their services and expertise to these controversial endeavors. But before getting involved, veterinarians should educate and prepare themselves, their staff, and their clients, according to Dr. Margaret Slater, a professor at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Slater, who participates in a TNR program on the Texas A&M campus, gave two presentations on TNR programs July 15 in Nashville. She said the programs can be successfully used to reduce free-ranging and feral cat populations, as long as they are a part of a multifaceted approach. Her presentations were part of a day-long series of sessions on the issue titled, "Free-roaming and feral cats and the public."

Dr. Slater said veterinarians can help reduce the free-ranging and feral cat population—which is estimated to be in the millions—by advocating keeping cats indoors, educating owners about their pets to prevent relinquishment, facilitating adoptions, and controlling reproduction.

She advocated that veterinarians be more proactive in helping their clients build strong relationships with their pets by offering clients advice on selecting appropriate cats as pets, educating pet owners about normal cat behavior, and offering mini-courses on cat training and socialization.

But the key is controlling cat fertility by neutering, she said. Veterinarians can help by working with shelters and TNR programs and by promoting sterilization of clients' cats.

"Veterinarians hold the key in terms of controlling fertility," Dr. Slater said.

Before getting involved with TNR programs, however, veterinarians must prepare themselves by developing their personal and practice guidelines, discussing the program with staff and the TNR organization, and determining what services to provide and when, Dr. Slater said.

"If you've thought about it ahead of time, it'll be a lot easier," she said.

She warned that feral and free-ranging cat caretakers are very passionate about the animals they care for, but they may not be very educated about cats' needs.

"That doesn't always make them easy to deal with," Dr. Slater said, adding that it helps to discuss issues such as when an animal must euthanatized and what is expected of the caretaker before beginning.

Dr. Slater said that once an animal has been sterilized, it should be marked by ear tipping or notching to identify it as such. Microchipping can also help in identifying animals after surgery.

She explained that although not all programs are run the same, an ideal program would include the following measures:

  • Finding homes for tame adult cats and kittens in the colony
  • Testing for feline immunodeficiency virus infection, feline leukemia, and other diseases
  • Vaccinating for rabies and other diseases
  • Providing food, shelter, and protection for the cats
  • Monitoring the colony for new members or unhealthy animals

Finally, Dr. Slater talked about cat population management programs that have had success. She noted the creative approaches of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The San Francisco SPCA sterilizes cats for free and pays people who bring in cats to be neutered $5 per animal, in addition to providing adoption and education programs.

She also talked about the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society in Newburyport, Mass., which, over the course of 10 years, has reduced its local feral cat population from about 200 to roughly 20 animals by opening a cats-only shelter, promoting adoption of socialized cats, and trapping, neutering, and releasing unsocialized cats.

Biologists warn about environmental, legal, and ethical implications

Conservationists and some veterinarians are becoming increasingly concerned that trap-neuter-and-release programs used to manage feral and free-ranging cat colonies are unethical and damage the environment.

A group of concerned veterinarians and biologists presented their objections to TNR programs during a series of sessions titled "Feral and free-roaming cats: the flip side of the coin," July 14 at the AVMA Annual Convention.

Left to roam, free-ranging cats can be formidable predators—bagging an estimated 7.8 million birds a year in rural Wisconsin, according to Stanley Temple, PhD, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin who has studied the predatory behavior of free-ranging and feral cats in rural Wisconsin.

Unlike wild predators whose populations are kept in check by the availability of prey, cats are considered "subsidized" predators because they receive food and other help from humans.

Free-ranging and feral cat populations grow unchecked by the ability of the ecosystem to support their appetites and can place tremendous pressures on the bird, small mammal, and other animal populations they prey on, according to conservationists.

"They can exist at high densities because of their social organization and adaptations," Dr. Temple said, adding his studies found as many as 114 cats per square mile in rural Wisconsin.

The negative impact of cats and other exotic species is particularly pronounced on islands, said Dr. Temple, explaining that Hawaii has had problems protecting endangered and threatened species from free-ranging and feral cats.

Dr. David Jessup, a senior wildlife veterinarian for the state of California, said in addition to the potential environmental damage caused by feral and free-roaming cats, there may legal and ethical problems for veterinarians who participate.

Dr. Jessup said many of the programs do not follow the AVMA guidelines on TNR programs. Some TNR groups keep colonies in public areas or areas designated as wildlife sanctuaries, which may be illegal. Also, by treating a cat and re-releasing it, a veterinarian may be violating anti-abandonment laws.

"Eventually, it's going to end in lawsuits against veterinarians and veterinary associations," he said.

Potential public health risks created by cat colonies were mentioned, particularly, the risk of the colonies becoming reservoirs of zoonotic diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis.

Finally, Dr. Jessup questioned the quality of life of feral and free-ranging cats that have an 80 percent morbidity rate and often die from trauma.

"Who would tolerate a client with many cats and an 80 percent morbidity rate year after year?" he asked.