Feral cats: Problems extend to wildlife species, ecologists say - DVM
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Feral cats: Problems extend to wildlife species, ecologists say


Slater says that a partnership between an animal control agency and non-profit feral cat TNR program was started in Orange County, Fla. in 1995. She adds that in six years following introduction of the program, more than 7,000 feral cats were sterilized, the total number of cat surgeries exceeded the number of cats euthanized and the number of nuisance complaints decreased. "As a result, despite an increase in the human population of 25 percent, impounds remained stable and cat adoption rates slightly increased."

How acceptable is trapping and humanely euthanizing these animals simply because these animals are unadoptable? Is it hypocritical to the "no kill" movement of animal welfare? How would large scale euthanasias be covered by newspapers in the popular press? Slater is convinced it would result in very negative publicity. If enclosed cat colonies are created to house these animals, who is going to pay for the care?

The issues continue to pile up.

The human-animal bond is a powerful force. People feed and care for feral cat colonies in an attempt to help. It's a humane response that most people feel for the plight of these creatures; but ecologists say it accentuates the problem because it reduces attrition in the wild, and it doesn't make cats any less predacious.

Wild or not It's a hotly emotional topic.

Levy explains, "Debate about the true impact of feral cats on the environment, on feline health, and as a reservoir of zoonotic disease is ongoing, often emotional and fueled largely by a lack of sound scientific data on which to form credible conclusions."

Levy adds, "Of primary concern is the welfare of the cats themselves, and many believe that feral life is too fraught with risk and discomfort to be acceptable. Others believe the lives of feral cats should be judged no differently than those of other species existing in a 'wild' state."

Ecologists just want them inside.

Feral cats have been credited with exterminating one bird species from the face of the planet, and it poses the biggest risk for certain protected species especially on islands, reports David Duffy, Ph.D., a botany professor at the University of Hawaii.

Officials say reducing unwanted populations of free-roaming feral cats is a huge problem worldwide, and a first of a kind survey in Wisconsin has documented the problems it is posing to wildlife.

In Wisconsin alone, says Stanley A. Temple, Ph.D., of the Department of Wildlife Ecology of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1.4 million free-roaming and feral cats are believed in the state even accounting for attrition from cold winters. Surveys estimate that this population of cats has bagged 7.8 million birds. Roughly 20 percent of the documented cat kills were birds.

Temple says, "Why are we picking on cats?" He says that even though there are many, many ecological and societal trends that are impacting native wildlife species the "cat threat can be reduced by responsible human actions. There are solutions."

Temple explains, "Feral and free-roaming cats are exotic predators (in the ecological sense) that are not naturally a part of any North American ecosystem. They are not ecologically equivalent to any North American mammalian predator, and their impacts on prey species are distinctly different from those of wild predators."

Temple characterizes these cats as 'subsidized predators' in that they receive food, shelter and other benefits from their relationship with human beings, yet also hunt. "Their predation on native wildlife can have serious consequences for species already stressed by other sources of human-caused environmental degradation," he adds.

How to help Slater says that veterinarians can help the feral cat problem in many ways.

"Veterinarians are involved in the control of free-roaming cats as a part of practice and in many other ways. Even working to encourage responsible pet ownership is a huge help in the effort to decrease the numbers of homeless cats in the U.S.," she adds.

Client education and a talk on responsible pet ownership can go a long way to controlling feral cat problems.

"The two primary roles outside of regular private practice are as educators and as surgeon for neutering cats," Slater says.

"Education of the general public, government officials, shelter professionals and other animal welfare groups are all within the purview of veterinary practitioners."

She says that topics to discuss could include public health risks, vaccinations and infectious disease control, the importance of identification and neutering.

Other important concepts include:

  • The human animal bond keeps cats in homes. Foster it.
  • Don't underestimate the power of an initial kitten visit. Statistically, there is an increase in relinquishment of cats in the first two years of ownership and it became more pronounced for cats owned less than six months.
  • Educate owners about normal cat behaviors, since it is a leading cause of relinquishment.
  • Neuter more cats, sooner. "In one study, only 50 percent of relinquished cats were neutered while 77 percent of owned cats still in the home were neutered," she says.
  • Identify cats by collar and tag, microchip or tattoo.
  • Help to get homeless cats adopted.


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