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The feral cat problem: What is the solution?

This was a difficult article for me to write. I know that the feral cat problem is a controversial topic both locally and nationally. On the one hand, I see feral cats as many of the beautiful, well natured cats that pass through the doors of my hospital every day — just not socialized to humans. On the other hand I feel that I should not only have sympathy for the impact these cats have on the wildlife that they hunt, but also concern for certain diseases they harbor which can be deadly to other cats and dangerous to humans.

Do trap-neuter-return programs work? Many conservationists will insist that TNR programs do not work. To be fair to conservationists some of the published studies on TNR programs did not show a significant decrease in overall numbers.

Feral cat advocates counter with the argument that these studies were not funded long enough to really see an impact or there was a reduction in colony size but money ran out to continue TNR and then the numbers came up again.

Rather than TNR many conservationists believe humane euthanasia is the only option if a feral cat population threatens any endangered species, citing the Marion Island example as a true success story. Marion Island is a small island just off the coast of South Africa and there are no indigenous cats on the island. Back in the late 1940s some scientists introduced a small colony (five cats) to help with a mouse problem around their laboratory. When the lab shut down the scientists left but the cats remained. Over the next 25 years this small colony grew to almost 3,000 cats, and rather than take care of the mouse problem, these cats found it much easier to hunt some indigenous seabirds that nested on the coast of the island during certain parts of the year. These cats were so successful that they completely wiped out certain species of petrels (nesting sea birds) and in order to save other species of birds the island government initiated a cat eradication program.

The government started with release of a deadly virus but the cats developed immunity. They then went to poison, hunting with dogs and finally, hunting parties at night armed with flashlights and shotguns. After 19 years the feral cat population was truly eradicated.

The flaw in this line of thinking is that Marion Island is a very small island, and once the cat population was eradicated no new cats could migrate in. In contrast, in larger areas, especially on the mainland, an eradication program could temporarily reduce numbers, but studies have shown that new colonies will migrate in and numbers will quickly rise.

I have to say that many feral advocates and rescue groups (although well-meaning) put their resources and efforts in the wrong direction. What I mean is their goal is to feed, house, nurture and hopefully adopt out all of the feral cats and kittens they come in contact with.

Unfortunately, this leads to two problems. The first is that it has been proven that even well fed feral cats hunt just as much as starved ones, and making adequate food available will not curb that predatory instinct. The second is that well-fed cats breed more. And although there is more food available for these cats, the population growth puts a strain on overall space and resources. The result is the spread of disease and mortality rates increases. Not only will you have more sick and dying cats but they still hunt, as well as have the potential to spread disease to owned indoor and outdoor cats and people.

I have seen many sick cats and kittens and it breaks my heart to see them put to sleep or watch them pass away in my care. However, I think it is not only more humane to euthanize, but also important in reducing the spread of disease amongst the rest of the population. I have seen entire budgets of some small rescue groups evaporate in the care of a single sick cat only to have the cat pass away regardless.

I think that TNR programs do work but need constant funding and volunteers. However, if I was going to donate my time or financial resources to a rescue group, I would want to know that my time and money is going towards something effective. I would ask the leadership not only what proportion of their budget is goes toward TNR programs, as well as what their policies are on testing for diseases and humane euthanasia. A "no-kill" policy with feral cat populations is an admirable but unrealistic goal.

Once again, thank you to Ellen Barcel and all the staff at the Times Beacon Record and affiliates. I hope all my readers (two- and four-legged) have a happy and healthy 2011.

Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 13 years and is pictured with his son Matthew, as well as the newest member of the family, Jasmine, a Labrador retriever.

Author: 
Matthew Kearns, DVM