Counting cats to create better management programs

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An ambitious plan is underway in the nation's capital to quantify the number of cats living there over the next three years.

Launched in July, the D.C. Cat Count aims to calculate how many cats live outdoors, indoors, and in the animal shelter system in Washington, D.C., and to understand how cats move between these segments. Ultimately, the data will be used to develop humane cat population management programs for communities across the country.

"The management of cats in communities can be a controversial topic. The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally," said Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, which is administering this project.

Black cat The D.C. Cat Count is an interdisciplinary collaboration of organizations and individuals with a shared interest in finding practical, humane solutions to conflicts among cats, wildlife, and people in their communities. Principal collaborators are the Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

A cat population is an interconnected and dynamic network of unowned cats living outdoors, owned cats who may live indoors or outdoors, and shelter cats who often move into or out of the other population segments.

The D.C. Cat Count project is composed of distinct but complementary modules designed to characterize these population segments and how they interact with one another, according to a July 17 press release from the group.

To help estimate the outdoor cat populations, state-of-the art camera trap methods will be used in the Washington, D.C., study area. Household surveys will be sent to estimate the size of the owned cat population and to determine how much time owned cats spend outdoors versus indoors. And quantifying the shelter cat population will include measuring all intake and outflow rates.

Other modules involve counting outdoor cats through transect surveys and colony inventories, then comparing these results with the outdoor cat estimates obtained with the more intensive camera trap survey; incorporating all data into a statistical model describing the interactions between population segments and identifying the most effective intervention points and management strategies; and developing, testing, and validating a set of practical and informative tools, protocols, and guidelines that could help other organizations count cats and improve their mission effectiveness.

The D.C. Cat Count is expected to benefit animal shelters by providing better metrics to assess whether shelters are meeting program goals and allocating resources effectively. For wildlife scientists, developing standardized cat-specific and scientifically valid methods to monitor cat populations and assess management impacts may help break the impasse that has impeded efforts to reduce free-roaming cat populations, according to the release.

"Up until now, cat advocates and wildlife scientists haven't had a common language as a basis for discussion," John Boone, PhD, research director at Great Basin Bird Observatory and consultant to the HSUS, was quoted as saying in the release. "Developing informative, objective, and mutually acceptable ways to measure progress will be a key to better collaboration among stakeholders in the future."

Related JAVMA content:

AVMA revises policy on feral cats to encourage collaboration (March 1, 2016)