Feral cats: Problems extend to wildlife species, ecologists say

Feral cats: Problems extend to wildlife species, ecologists say

Sep 01, 2002

Feral cat numbers now rival the entire human populations in both Texas and California. Ecologists and wildlife advocates say this burgeoning population is challenging wildlife. They want cats back indoors.
Nashville-About 70 million cats are estimated as feral or free-roaming in the United States, and it is putting pressure on wildlife species and resources to solve the problem.

The result: the fight is on, and it is squarely focused on how to solve this population boom which now rivals the numbers of "owned" cats.

Ecologists and wildlife advocates want domestic cats out of native environments, because of their destruction to other native wildlife including birds, rodents, small mammals, lizards and other creatures. With the popularity of trap-neuter-release programs increasing, like one administered by the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), these groups are opposed to the program largely because cats are released back into the environment. In short, they want them out of parks and other habitats simply because of their impact on the area's ecosystem.

The argument goes: This is a man-made problem because these animals are not indigenous to the area; therefore, man has a responsibility to solve it.

Dr. Julie Levy
Dr. Julie Levy, DVM, dipl. ACVIM of the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, says, "Veterinarians are increasingly asked to participate in solving the cat and dog overpopulation problem, often by providing discounted health care for homeless animals for rescue groups or animals shelters," she says.

Veterinarians typically fall on the other side of the argument by endorsing trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs as a start to controlling this population glut. CVMA's feral cat program, sponsored by Maddie's Fund, was created to help reduce the population of these cats in the state.

While CVMA officials are touting its successes; critics are blasting the ethics of "re-abandoning" these animals.

Beginning in 1999, the program spayed and neutered about 20,000 feral cats each year. To date, a total of about 140,000 surgeries have been performed in the state. The program helped subsidize the costs to the surgeries for 1,100 practicing veterinarians.

The entire debate aired at the American Veterinary Medical Association's annual meeting here.

The issues surrounding feline abandonment are global in its impact. In public health circles there is a major concern about zoonotic disease spread, like rabies, toxoplasmosis, ringworm or bartonellosis while veterinary medicine is more closely focused on FeLV and FIV risks.

"The control of feral cats is rapidly becoming one of the most popular and controversial topics in animal control and welfare," Levy says.

She adds that small animal practitioners working with these unowned cats are developing a sort of "herd health" program in contrast to individual patient care. Levy also founded Operation Catnip in 1996, which is credited with sterilizing more than 14,000 cats at monthly clinics.

Ultimately, officials agree the problem could be better controlled if people stopped dumping litters of kittens in parks, or leaving unwanted cats to fend for themselves. But even if that societal ailment were cured today, which is obviously unlikely, what do you do with the millions of free-roaming cats all over the United States?

TNR programs were born and are increasingly popular.

Alley Cat Allies, which is a national resource organization for these programs, estimates that 2,000 groups and 6,000 people are doing TNR, Levy reports.

There's not much arguing about the extent of the feral cat problem in this country; the bickering is about how to solve the issue, and the devil's always in the details.

Not a solution What has been the impact of TNR programs like CVMA's feral cat altering program?

If you ask Dr. David Jessup, a senior wildlife veterinarian for the state of California and critic of the effort, TNR is not a viable long-term solution.

"As the public has grown more attached to companion animals and there has been recognition of the fact that animals feel pain and distress, the welfare of free-roaming cats becomes an issue," says Dr. Margaret R. Slater of Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
In fact, he believes these programs are just inviting litigation, especially considering endangered species laws, laws governing conservation lands and animal protection laws.

He says that the animals are being "re-abandoned" and under California penal code if an owner allows an animal to go without "proper care and attention is guilty of a misdemeanor". What if a feral cat is responsible for killing an endangered species and was recently neutered and released as part of a TNR program? "Cats are an aggressive, invasive, nonnative, subsidized predatory species whose presence results in loss of wildlife," he contends.

Jessup believes that officials need to shift emphasis toward prevention of abandonment, provision of homes and sanctuaries for abandoned cats and elimination of feral cat colonies on all wildlife lands.

He also says there is a real need for an inexpensive oral contraceptive for cats, as well as recognizing that re-abandonment of cats is generally not a humane, professional or legal way of handling this enormous problem.

He calls on veterinarians to support programs like "Cats Indoors," which help make feral cats adoptable; and support "closed" sanctuaries as an environmentally friendly alternative to feral cat colonies. Cats at these sanctuaries would be treated humanely, yet confined indoors.

He also says that officials need to recognize that the elimination of large and "open" feral cat colonies from wildlife lands may not be possible without euthanasia, given current technology.

TNR works Proponents of TNR programs counter they are a viable way to reduce feline populations.

Dr. Margaret Slater, DVM, Ph.D., at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, believes TNR reduces the numbers of animals.

"Only trap, neuter and return of feral cats has been shown to stabilize and decrease the numbers of cats; fewer cats means less predation."