Community Cats

L to R: M. Moyer, Cynda Crawford, Julie Levy at UF CatNip, Jan 2010

I’ve been involved with feral cat issues in Pennsylvania since 2003, when (as I began ascending the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association’s chairs of office) I initiated “Feral Cat Summits”. All stakeholders to that issue were invited by the PVMA to discuss, debate, and argue the merits and deficiencies of Trap Neuter Return work. For those of you unfamiliar with feral cats, now more properly dubbed “Community Cats”, there are believed to be as many free-roaming cats as there may be pet cats in the United States. That’s a lot of cats. While that sounds unlikely, bear in mind that “domestic” cats have enjoyed a rather free-roaming relationship with humans for thousands of years, and this phenomenon of strictly indoor cats is an entirely man-made construct. These cats can be owned cats, stray cats, abandoned cats, or cats that were born outside, are poorly socialized with people (“feral”), and will spend their entire lives outside.

Enter—TNR. Trap Neuter Return. Very highly motivated, dedicated volunteers Trap, temporarily house the cats until they are surgically Neuter-ed, and then Return-ed them to their original site. They are not creating outdoor cats; they are merely interrupting their reproductive cycle-permanently. They are not “dumping” cats-these cats were there to begin with, and without intervention, would be producing kittens each year. These kittens face very high mortality and a rough first year; those that survive will begin reproducing as early as August or September of the year they were born (typically February/March/April). Despite claims to the contrary, many of these outdoor cats, once past the high risk of kitten hood, can live long, stable, comfortable lives, with overall health, parasitism, and infectious disease issues comparable to indoor/outdoor pet cats.

I describe myself as a reluctant proponent of TNR. Reluctant, because it is unsatisfying to release a cat to its own devices post-operatively. Yes, it is now vaccinated, yes, she won’t reproduce, but still, it isn’t the life I’d want for my cats. The alternatives, unfortunately, are very limited. When I discuss this with my Penn Vet students, I mention the alternatives as 1) Ignore Community Cats or 2) Trap and Euthanize, which is what happens in shelters that accept Community Cats/Feral Cats but do not have a TNR program to release them. Presently, there are no effective non-surgical methods of controlling cat reproduction. So, after years of leading discussions, listening to the back and forth, seeing the TNR clinics in action, and talking with some of the best minds on this subject (Julie Levy of University of Florida, for example), I have moved over to the proponent side of the fence.

This is an incredibly complicated problem, and even the success stories of TNR (Ocean Reef Club, Merrimack River) were successes with a lot of sustained effort. I can tell you that the extermination/euthanasia approach is extraordinarily expensive, does not attract a large volunteer base to sustain it, does not attract private humane philanthropy to support it, and does not invoke warm and fuzzy public relations with members of your community (upwards of 25 to 35% of community members report themselves as feeding outside cats on some sort of basis).

I’ve provided a sampling of links; I particularly love this vague, un-helpful sentiment (in the third link):

We recommend that advocates of cat colonies seek a long-term solution to the pet overpopulation issue by redirecting their efforts toward the underlying problem of managing irresponsible pet owners.

Of the three options extant, 1) TNR, 2) Ignore, 3) Trap and Euthanize, I’ll let you decide which option they’re rooting for. For my part, I’m siding with the option that gives these cats a chance-TNR.

Operation Catnip

Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society

Natural Areas Journal – Trap/Neuter/Release Methods Ineffective in Controlling Domestic Cat “Colonies” on Public Lands

Daily Record Article – Animal groups: Could ruling lead to hunters shooting cats?

5 Responses to “Community Cats”

  1. Maureen Koplow says:

    I am so pleased to read the well written article by a veterinarian. I’ve been an advocate for TNR for a number of years, and with the same sentiments expressed by Dr. Moyer. TNR is not a perfect solution to free roaming cat populations, and it doesn’t pretend to be. People who support and practice TNR do not believe that cats “should” be running at large. We do not believe that neighborhood cats’ best interests are served when they live outside. However, we fervently believe that the alternatives, ignore them or round them up to be killed, are unacceptable alternatives. Proponents of TNR want every cat to have a home, a family, and a couch to sleep on (and claw to pieces if they desire). But the reality is that thousands of free roaming cats exist, and their numbers and problems increase if there is no intervention. TNR doesn’t claim to be able to completely “fix” every cat, and we know that even if we could fix them all, others will arrive to take up the slack. But we also know that TNR prevents unwanted births as well as behaviors that anger many people (territorial spraying, fighting, “singing.” And TNR includes vaccines against rabies and usually distemper, inhibiting the spread of disease. We believe what we are doing makes a difference, and if it becomes more accepted and widespread, it will make even more of a difference.

  2. Elise Clyde says:

    I totally agree with the TNR, there seems no other choices.

  3. Hello Dr. Moyer. A little over a year has passed since we participated on a TNR panel at the University of Pennsylvania. I do remember that you were a reluctant proponent of TNR. Now that you have decided to give your full support to this method I realize my comments will not change your mind, but dialogue is nonetheless important as well as presenting varying viewpoints of this controversial issue.

    I must disagree regarding the term ‘community cats’. Organizations including Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends use this term and frankly, this seems to be a deliberate attempt to influence people to believe that cats are a natural part of the landscape when they are not. They have been around humans, as noted by TNR advocates, for thousands of years, but never as much as the past few decades.

    The 2009 U.S. State of the Birds report, which compiled 40 years worth of research and data, shows the precipitous decline of birds. There are many causes of this, including non-native invasive species. During that same period, the number of cats exploded to over 90 million pet cats, many of which are permitted to roam outdoors for at least part of the day and an estimated 60 to 100 million homeless or feral cats. Pet, skittish, semi-feral, or feral – they are all the same species of domestic cat.

    In your research I imagine you have come across the fact that there is no scientific support indicating that TNR results in a statistically significant decline of the feral cat population. Decreases in particular colonies do not indicate whether or not there has been a reduction or an increase in a given area (i.e. municipality, county or state). Due to the food source and the fact that not every cat may be trapped managed colonies could very well be creating more outdoor cats as areas become saturated with managed colonies. Well-known is the fact that dumping does take place at some colonies as people become aware of the site and opt for someone to ‘take care of’ his/her no longer wanted pet. Colony caregivers may not ‘dump’ cats, but also well-known is the fact that when a problem arises at a colony site, caregivers often relocate cats to another existing colony, thereby adding to the density of the second colony.

    Ocean Reef Club is featured in the video below. Apparently, success means different things to different people.

    There is no scientific indication that colony management inhibits diseases, however we do know from observations and the paper below that increases in mesopredators can be devastating to native wildlife.

    I noticed you did not mention socialization and adoption of feral cats or sanctuary placements or fencing in/enclosing colonies. While you may feel that these are not viable options, they are still options that result in true compromises for cats and native wildlife – both are protected and thus these options are worth mentioning. There are individuals and organizations that put forth such efforts. One organization was recently featured in a NJ newspaper.

    While you may find the third link you posted unhelpful, the American Bird Conservancy has recently updated a page on their website which includes recently published research, a letter from USFWS, and below is also an article that may be of interest.

    As for that comment in the third link, both advocates of TNR and those against TNR understand that the root cause of this problem is irresponsible pet ownership. Unfortunately, by condoning outdoor lives and deaths for cats we not only send the wrong message about responsible pet ownership, but also undermine our efforts to convince people to be responsible for their pets. In my opinion, TNR is both counterproductive and counter intuitive to that end.

    Respectfully yours,
    Linda Cherkassky
    NJ State Apprentice Wildlife Rehabilitator

  4. Michael Moyer says:

    As I mentioned, this is an incredibly complicated problem. Linda takes exception to the term “community cat”, but feels that “feral cat” is more apt. From my work in shelters and observing TNR clinics, I’m not sure I know what a “feral” cat is on first examination. For my line of work, it’s the cat in the trap in front of me.

    There have been TNR successes; I know well of TNR’s limitations. Trotting out the failures is instructive, but not license to abandon a tactic.

    Suggesting that there are sanctuary resources for tens of millions of cats, or that they can all be turned into pets is not realistic.

    This is a blog; there is a great deal I did not cover, and cannot in this forum. I present two hours of this material to vet students at Penn Vet, and could probably carry on for longer than that. I post Linda’s comment because you–the reader–should learn as much as you can.

    I rest my case with the following quote:

    “Official organizations that oppose cat-neutering programs often do not have a viable, economically self-sustaining program proposal as an alternative.”

    James A. Tantillo, Killing Birds and Killing Cats: An Overview of Philosophical Issues Involving Feral Cats and Wildlife.” Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine

  5. carrie finch says:

    Broken untreated bones and sustained injuries virtually left infected and untreated.. malnourished.. parasites.. cold in winter
    . Cats are domesticated and like dogs they should be licenced and kept as family pets not ‘re tipped out under the guise of trap neuter/spay and release.. release to what ?? Eating wildlife or out of garbage bins ? If the community is too lazy to rehabilitate and ‘re home semi wild cats than pressure legislations to change the companion act. Dogs don’t roam so why are cats getting so disrespected on the status scale. Stray cats are either lost pets or born of a lost pet somewhere down the line. Changing legislation to apply cat curfews and no free roaming will help as well as licencing for cats like dogs. Problem is cats are easier cleaner and quieter to keep as pets so they are the secret pet of people who shouldn’t have them or the person who wants a pet but not that kind of responsibility that comes with a dog. By desexing and releasing we are lowering the status of cats in the community.. we certainly couldn’t desex and release stray dogs would we.. so why cats. We should be fighting to protect the rights of cats as pet citizens. Offer free or affordable desexing programs at base costs to new cat owners.. all vets should be involved on referral basis. Shelters font want to euthanize any animal but they need volunteers in their community to help rehabilitation and foster to ‘re home the animals who come in. Its a community problem because we Srebrenica not lobbying parliament to change the companion animals act to give cats the same right to be reunitedvwith their owners if they become lost.. free to roam mean s free to remain lost … and ignored. Please dont desex and release.. desex and take home to give them time to calm down get well feel safe and than rehome them.. social networking.. facebook.. all doors open.. rescue don’t dump them out.

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