Feline predation study ruffles feathers

Cat advocates speak out on bad rap they feel cats get from study.
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Mar 05, 2013
By dvm360.com staff

Headlines such as “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in U.S. every year” and “Hello Kitty! Please Don’t Kill Me!” prompted quick rebukes by organizations including CATalyst Council, Alley Cat Allies and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA). Allusions to “killer cats” were plentiful after “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States” study was published in the online journal Nature Communications earlier this year. The study, written by Scott R. Loss, Tom Will and Peter P. Marra, concluded that free-ranging domestic cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals annually. The feline advocacy groups hope the study’s results will be understood in a more insightful way before all cats are deemed rampant serial killers.

First and foremost, Jane Brunt, DVM, CATalyst Council executive director, wants it to be clear that unowned cats cause the majority of the mortality. “We regret the fact that the articles written about the study have maligned cats as a whole, when in fact, the vast majority of the estimated destruction to wildlife was reportedly by feral or stray cats,” Brunt said in a statement from CATalyst. “This works to discourage prospective cat owners from adopting one of the hundreds of thousands of healthy, enjoyable cats that are held in shelters across this nation.”

She says cat owners can do their part to prevent pets from being part of the problem by keeping cats indoors. “This is not only for the protection of wild birds and mammals, but also for your cat’s own good,” Brunt says. “Cars, dogs and people pose a threat to your cat while it roams, as do parasites, fleas and ticks, and chemicals.”

As for feral and stray cats, Brunt agrees with Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, and Barry Kellogg, VMD, HSVMA’s senior veterinary medical advisor, that trap, neuter and return (TNR) programs are essential to controlling the population. HSVMA sponsored a conference in Los Angeles in late 2012 to discuss research focused on outdoor cats and practical solutions to reduce their impact on wildlife.

“While HSVMA supports community-based TNR programs with ongoing responsible and defined management as the most viable, long-term approach available at this time to reduce feral cat populations, it is clear that effective solutions to the problems of free-roaming cat overpopulation and wildlife predation will have to include newer and more innovative approaches,” Kellogg said in a release. Additional research, new contraceptive tools and expanded public education campaigns--especially regarding spaying and neutering of cats and keeping them indoors--are also necessary, he said.

Robinson of Alley Cat Allies harbors concerns about the nature of the research itself. “This study is part of a continuing propaganda campaign to vilify cats,” she said in a release. Robinson worries that the study and the media attention it has received may increase euthanasia of cats.

“Tens of millions of healthy cats have already been killed in animal pounds and shelters, at great taxpayer expense, without achieving anything,” she says. “A policy of just more killing can never be the right answer. Because of the success of TNR--which stabilizes and then reduces the population--places where there were once large colonies of feral cats have seen those colonies fade away. There is good reason for cities to change from ‘catch and kill’ to ‘neuter and return.’”

Brunt hopes the study won’t be just an easy headline but an opportunity to discuss responsible cat ownership and the importance of community involvement to help all animals--including feral cats. “What we don’t want to see is inflammatory media coverage that discourages cat ownership and portrays cats in a negative light,” she says. “Because of the millions of cats sent to shelters each year, CATalyst Council has worked hard to enhance community relationships between shelters and veterinarians to solve problems in individual communities, and cat population is a significant one. Commentary in response to the report does nothing to help our shelter population or the people who work so hard to place these wonderful pets in forever homes.”

To view the study, go to the Nature Communications journal.