The cat debate

Stakeholders with disparate views forge ahead
Published on January 01, 2004
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Courtesy of Marge Moro

Four generations of cats have colonized Mike and Marge's back yard since they opened their camper two years ago for the growing population of homeless cats they found themselves feeding. Four litters of kittens were born this past summer alone. Until recently, their appeals for help in humanely trapping the cats to give them a chance at a home have gone unheard. In their suburban area, no traps have even been available from municipal agencies or humane groups, nor resources to help with the cost of spaying and neutering.

Aside from the cats' unchecked reproduction, their welfare and that of the native wildlife are in jeopardy. Kittens and cats have been found dead or dying, the victims of neighborhood dogs and cars. And occasionally, a cat is spotted parading with a bird in its mouth, despite the availability of cat food.

Such scenarios are commonplace not only throughout the country, but around the world. Cat colonies range from unmanaged to well managed, but collectively, they add up to a staggering animal welfare issue—and there are signs it has finally reached the American consciousness.

Debate over how to solve the problem of unwanted cats has often matched veterinarian against veterinarian, conservationist against animal activist, and trap-neuter-and-release/return advocate against animal control officer. This past Nov. 7, however, more than 200 individuals from such backgrounds came together for the AVMA Animal Welfare Forum. Held outside Chicago, the forum was devoted to the management of abandoned and feral cats.

The array of groups that sent representatives included the American Association of Feline Practitioners, American Animal Hospital Association, Alley Cat Allies, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Cat Fancier's Association, Department of Agriculture, Doris Day Animal League, Humane Society of the United States, and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many other attendees came from small cat rescue groups, local humane societies, municipal animal control agencies, public health departments, and wildlife agencies.

AVMA President-Elect Bonnie V. Beaver welcomed them. "Feral cats evoke hot debates about ecological issues, individual cat welfare, human responsibilities, intercat disease transmission, humaneness, zoonosis control, and management and dissolution of unowned cats," she noted.

Dr. Beaver called on the diverse group to challenge old beliefs and switch paradigms. "We will not always agree, but we will come away with increased knowledge and a renewed commitment to work for the welfare of all the animals with which we share the earth."

Out of the sometimes charged debate, some common ground emerged. Attendees agreed, for example, that educating the public about responsible pet ownership is essential to reducing the number of abandoned and feral cats, and that more veterinary research on oral contraceptives for cats is needed.

Many participants noted that campaigns by veterinarians and animal welfare organizations to get more owned cats spayed and neutered have been successful. According to Joan Miller, the legislative coordinator for the Cat Fancier's Association, 80 percent to 90 percent of owned cats are spayed or neutered. Part of the reason these campaigns have been successful is they emphasize that the procedures can improve the health of the animal and reduce behavior problems.

"We need to provide incentives for people to take action," Miller said.

With estimates that two-thirds of all owned cats are allowed outdoors at least part of the time, Sara Amundson of the Doris Day Animal League said veterinarians and welfare organizations must get the message out about the importance of keeping cats indoors.

The number of free-roaming cats in the United States is suspected to approach that of pet cats—which was 73 million in 2000, according to speaker Dr. Julie K. Levy, associate professor with the small animal medicine service at the University of Florida.

Another speaker at the forum, Dr. David A. Jessup, suggested a five- to 10-year advertising campaign emphasizing that it is unacceptable to abandon cats and highlighting efforts to manage free-roaming cats. Dr. Jessup is a senior wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game.

"A point that both sides have made is that there needs to be a societal change," said Dr. Kathryn L. Bayne, the chair of the AVMA Animal Welfare committee and the forum moderator.

Dr. Levy is currently researching oral contraceptives for cats, a step that she and Dr. Jessup feel is important in controlling free-roaming populations. According to Dr. Levy, a reliable and inexpensive oral contraceptive could supplant spaying and neutering, as a means of curtailing reproduction of these cats.

No consensus was reached on certain other issues, such as whether free-roaming cats present a public health threat, and whether euthanasia is a humane option for cat population control.

Trap-neuter-return/release as a method of free-roaming cat management was a pivotal topic throughout the forum. Opponents of TNR said that free-roaming cats pose zoonotic threats to humans and wildlife. Of particular concern is rabies, since these cats may come in contact with carriers such as raccoons and skunks, and then with humans.

Proponents of TNR contended that free-roaming cats, in colonies, have disease rates similar to those of owned cats.

"At very high levels of management, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between feral and pet cats," said speaker, Dr. Michael K. Stoskopf, a professor at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the university's Environmental Medicine Consortium.

There is also a philosophic gap between the two camps on euthanasia. Many TNR advocates asserted that euthanatizing unwanted cats as a means of control is inhumane. Other attendees and some animal advocates contend it is more compassionate to euthanatize an unwanted cat than allow it to live outdoors, facing parasites, trauma, disease, malnutrition, and climatic extremes.

Overall influences
Speaking as a TNR advocate, Dr. Margaret R. Slater of the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine gave an overview of the issues influencing the debate over how to solve the problem of abandoned and feral cats.

Dr. Slater noted, "Free-roaming cats are an international problem. There are many countries that have been wrestling with this."

"Free-roaming cat" is the umbrella term for a cat that lives outdoors at least part of the time, she explained. "Unowned, free-roaming cats include stray, socialized cats that are lost or abandoned, as well as unsocialized, feral cats."

Those groups of cats come from different places and require distinct solutions or a combination of solutions, she said. Dr. Slater suggested arranging partnerships and coalitions, and being willing to try new ideas on a temporary basis. Each community should have a place that the public knows about, where they can take unwanted cats.

Illustrating the complexity of the problem, Dr. Slater said that various surveys in three states show that 10 to 15 percent of households surveyed are feeding cats they say are not theirs—and some of those people don't especially like cats.

Dr. Slater described the sources of free-roaming cats. Interestingly, about 20 percent of owned cats leave households and become strays, and about 22 percent of households acquire their cats as strays.

"A certain percentage of homeless cats or unwanted cats come from currently owned cats who had a litter that was not expected," Dr. Slater noted. With cats, the two top reasons for not spaying or neutering are cost and lack of knowledge of reproduction.

Many people don't realize that cats can become sexually mature at four or five months of age, and can have multiple litters in a season. Fifteen to 20 percent of owned cats have already had at least one litter before being sterilized.

Another contributor to free-roaming cats is many people's misimpression that a cat they no longer want has a better chance of finding a new home if it is abandoned than if it is taken to a shelter—if a local one even exists.

Dr. Slater went into detail about five major areas of concern—public perceptions, public health, wildlife and birds, cat welfare, and colony management.

She outlined the options for controlling unwanted cat populations—TNR, adoption, euthanasia, trap-and-remove for euthanasia, relocation, sanctuaries, and eradication. Of those, she views TNR as the most viable option.

Solution must be scalable
Dr. Levy spoke on humane strategies for controlling unwanted cat populations. Less than half of kittens born in the wild survive to six months of age, she said, bringing the animal welfare aspect of the problem into sharp focus. "Of primary concern is the welfare of the cats themselves." She laid out the options available for control of free-roaming cats, concluding that TNR represents the most cost-effective strategy, and the one most scalable to the problem.

She described models that were used to determine whether it is best to test cats in colonies for feline leukemia virus, sterilize them, or both. "This is herd health," Dr. Levy said, "and the money is better spent on spaying and neutering versus testing every cat."

According to Dr. Stoskopf, births of kittens in the wild correlate with the times of year that offer optimal environmental conditions. Maximizing the number of free-roaming animals sterilized will help reduce their numbers, and Dr. Levy said that nearly all stakeholders agree that something should be done to reduce their numbers. Dr. Stoskopf said he has seen a 36 percent mean decrease in population in the first two years after cats in a colony he studied were surgically sterilized.

Too little research, too much extrapolation
Individuals on both sides of the TNR debate are guilty of relying on inadequate data and inappropriate extrapolation of data, Dr. Stoskopf said.

"I work with paleontologists," he joked. "I know people who can take a bone fragment and create a whole ecosystem, and I found some of the literature on feral cats to be amazing."

He said that the data are flawed, in part, because cat colonies vary greatly. Free-roaming cats may form complex social structures similar to lion prides, or they may live as loners. They also can adapt to a variety of diets.

"If you look at the behavior of cats, they are extremely plastic," Dr. Stoskopf said.

"What that means is, extrapolation is very dangerous."

He discussed the results of a study on a select group of managed, free-roaming cat colonies in rural North Carolina. A graduate student working with Dr. Stoskopf conducted the study, using wildlife research techniques.

In the colonies she studied, free-roaming cat populations living in well-managed TNR colonies—those where the cats receive quality veterinary care, and have caretakers provide food and water daily—do decrease over a few years. But Dr. Stoskopf pointed out that some of the decreases were the result of catastrophic events, such as dogs killing several cats or severe weather.

More research is needed to determine the best techniques and most cost-effective ways of running a TNR program, Dr. Stoskopf said. He echoed other speakers in saying that TNR is not a one-size-fits-all solution. "There are going to be different solutions to different feral cat problems." In some cases, he added—such as colonies located near endangered wildlife—TNR is not an option.

Speaker Linda Winter, director of the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors! campaign, agreed strongly that TNR cat colonies should not be kept adjacent to endangered wildlife. She said that while many other factors—habitat loss, forest fragmentation, human interference—are contributing to the decline in bird populations, predation by non-native species, including cats, has become a serious problem.

"Now that birds must survive on ever-decreasing, more isolated, and degraded habitats, domestic cat predation on birds has become a significant factor in bird mortality, and it's one we simply can't ignore," Winter said.

Winter cited numerous studies that have documented the negative effects cat colonies have on native wildlife populations. Ground nesting birds, birds living on islands, and those with specialized habitats are most at risk.

Dr. Jessup and Winter said that feral cats can outcompete wild predators because they receive supplemental food from humans.

"When cats are subsidized, they can occur in large numbers—more than all the other predators in the area," Dr. Jessup said.

Winter said that leaving food out for cat colonies in parks and wildlife preserves can attract wildlife such as skunks and raccoons, contribute to the spread of disease, and lead to the euthanasia of wildlife that congregate around feeding areas.

Role in spreading disease
The extent of veterinary care in managed cat colonies varies, according to Dr. Levy. Some programs are comprehensive and include extensive veterinary care, colony registration, monitoring, and adoption of tame cats, whereas others focus solely on sterilization. Her minimum recommendations for TNR programs are spaying and neutering, ear tipping, rabies vaccination, and euthanasia of ill cats.

Some programs do not vaccinate trapped cats for rabies, an omission opposed by the forum attendees. Dr. Levy recommends that if nothing else, those managing TNR should ensure that cats are vaccinated for rabies. Underscoring the importance of this, a Massachusetts veterinarian described a recent situation in which a shelter in that state unknowingly adopted out a rabies-infected kitten, and, subsequently, people had to receive postexposure prophylaxis.

Though bites from free-roaming cats frequently result in postexposure prophylaxis because the cats cannot be caught to determine their vaccination status, there has not been a human rabies case associated with cats since 1975, Dr. Levy said. Most human cases of rabies over the past dozen years have been associated with exposure to bats, she said.

Dr. Jessup said there is evidence that free-roaming cats pass diseases to wildlife. He has studied feline leukemia in cougars and believes that domesticated cats, which cougars sometimes eat, may have spread the disease to them.

"It seems like a reasonable hypothesis that if cougars eat cats, that is a route of infection," Dr. Jessup said.

He cited recent studies by University of California-Davis researchers that found high rates of Toxoplasma gondii infections in Southern sea otters along the California coast. Though sewage containing flushed cat litter has not been ruled out as the source of the infections, freshwater runoff containing cat waste is a likely route of infection, given that the researchers found a higher proportion of T gondii infections in sea otters living near freshwater outflows.

Professional ethics debated
The speakers all agreed that veterinarians have an ethical obligation to help solve the problem of unwanted cats, but disagreed on how veterinarians should fulfill it.

Some opponents of TNR objected to a seeming double standard of care for owned and free-roaming cats. Dr. Jessup said that cats in TNR programs may not get thorough examinations, vaccinations, or parasite treatments, or receive follow-up care.

"How can the veterinary profession provide high-quality medical care for some cats, and yet provide and support a much, much lesser-quality care for others?" he asked.

Dr. Levy contended that, because of the magnitude of the problem and the scarcity of resources, TNR is the most realistic solution, and that on a large scale, finding homes for feral cats through adoption or sanctuaries is not feasible.

"Any realistic plan to control feral cats must recognize the magnitude of the feral cat population, the need to engage in continuous control efforts, and the significance of the public's affection for feral cats," she said.

Forum speaker, Dr. Paul L. Barrows, whose presentation focused on the professional and ethical dilemmas associated with TNR, suggested that this method might violate local and federal laws against abandoning animals and killing endangered species. Dr. Barrows is immediate past president of the Wildlife Disease Association.

Dr. Barrows said opposing cat colonies, as he does, does not necessarily mean that a person does not value cats. The public doesn't condone feral dog colonies, he noted.

He also maintained that cats are the invasive species, not birds and wildlife. Domesticated cats are the descendents of small African cats, and were introduced to North America by settlers from Europe. While North American birds, reptiles, and small mammals have coexisted with native predators long enough to evolve defensive strategies, they have not been exposed to domestic cats long enough to evolve defenses, according to Winter.

The veterinarians who spoke against TNR programs said that veterinarians have an obligation to protect the welfare of wildlife and cats, and the best way to do that is remove them from the environment for adoption, placement in sanctuaries, or euthanasia.

"Removal seems to be the most responsible course of action," Dr. Barrows said. There are cases when euthanasia is the best option, even in private practice, he added. "Euthanasia is legitimate tool of our profession."

The growth of the no-kill movement, Dr. Levy said, has caused some individuals to question whether killing large numbers of healthy animals to prevent potential suffering or to control their populations can be compatible with the values of a humane society. Similarly, Dr. Slater maintained that euthanasia of unwanted companion animals is no longer the preferred solution to an overabundance of dogs and cats.

Dr. Levy asserted that the life of each cat is valuable, and that the needs of wildlife should not be put before the needs of free-roaming cats.

She said, "Every life is precious, whether it's rare or not."