Economic study estimates costs of feral cat control

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Catching and euthanizing feral cats costs billions of dollars more and is less effective at population control than are trap-neuter-and-return programs, according to an economic study commissioned by Best Friends Animal Society.

With an estimated 87 million free-roaming, homeless cats in the United States, local governments would pay almost $16 billion to trap and kill these cats as opposed to approximately $7 billion for supporting TNR programs run by rescue organizations and volunteers, according to the study published in March.

Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney for Best Friends, a Utah-based nonprofit, claims the cost analysis shows the trap-and-euthanize approach is costly and won't curb the homeless cat population.

"Everyone wants to see the number of homeless, free-roaming cats radically reduced, but if you can find a humane way to decrease the number and save money, wouldn't this be the best alternative?" VanKavage asked.

Conducted by John Dunham and Associates Inc. and funded by PetSmart Charities, the study evaluated the costs of trapping, sheltering, and other activities associated with feral cat eradication in the United States. The study authors estimate the total cost of eliminating all feral cats at $15.74 billion.

The authors also looked at the costs of TNR programs and came up with a total of nearly $14 billion, or about $1.7 billion less than the eradication approach. They then estimated how expensive TNR programs would be if veterinarians and "community volunteers" discounted their services, and they came up with a total of $6,999,620,000—a savings of more than $8 billion over the eradication total.

"TNR with the necessary community support is therefore the most cost effective means to feral cat population control," the study states. "Even with new cats introduced into the community from the litters of the remaining unsprayed females and migrant cats, the population should gradually decline due to the emphasis on spay/neuter."

The study is the basis for an online Feral Fiscal Impact Calculator that Best Friends says will help local governments determine the costs of eradicating feral cats.

Dr. David A. Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Game, called the Best Friends study incomplete, however. It fails to account for the millions of wildlife killed by feral cats or for the environmental damage caused by their feces, he said. Dr. Jessup noted the lack of any mention of rabies and other public health risks these cats pose or about the increased risk of disease transmission within the colonies.

Additionally, the study authors assume veterinarians are willing to donate or discount their services indefinitely.

"The study appears to be one whose design was determined by the conclusion desired," Dr. Jessup observed. "If you attach even a few dollars in value to the wildlife killed and considered the costs of trying to recover sensitive species, environmental cleanup, and human health impacts associated with outdoor feral cats, any hypothetical savings disappear and TNR becomes more expensive."

Trap-neuter-and-release alone is not the answer to feral cat problems, Dr. Jessup continued. "The sooner we realize that and start seriously considering comprehensive approaches, the sooner we will start to make some progress on this issue," he said.

The Feral Fiscal Impact Calculator is available at The AVMA policy "Free-roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats" is here.