OPINION: Real Facts Provide Real Hope for Feral Cats

By: Phil Pass


While Jim Wright’s “Grim reality for feral cats: Shelters euthanize thousands” (The Record, March 2, 2007) is certainly a grim story, it certainly does not portray the real facts of abandoned pets and feral cats.  If the great state of New Jersey is to address this challenging situation effectively, it must first address real facts and not unfounded fears. New Jersey has a great opportunity, and demonstrated need, to join other states (New York, Florida, California and others) leading the way to effectively manage strays and ferals populations. Not only will effective management provide a humane solution for the pets and their offspring that we humans have wronged, but it will also save New Jersey taxpayers money in the process—a real win-win for all.

In states where the old polity of adoption or euthanasia is the only offered solution, few strays are deemed adoptable and the remaining strays and feral cats are euthanized—a significant cost annually to maintain. In contrast, states that have operating programs that offer TNR (trap, neuter, return) and ongoing monitoring stray/feral colonies operate at one quarter to one third the expense of traditional euthanasia programs (Alley Cat Allies, ©2005) and reduces or removes the problems associated with unneutered feline behavior.

To clarify the difference between strays and feral cats, used interchangeably in Mr. Wright’s article at time, stray cats are abandoned pets and feral cats are born in the wild and have had no human socialization. Strays can be resocialized; feral cats in most cases cannot be socialized. Strays and feral cats live in social groups and do not tend to roam from their established territories.

While fining people $2k may be a mild revenue generator for the city of Passaic, it will not do anything to change the populations of strays or ferals. Studies have shown that when one group of stray/feral cats is eliminated, another usually moves into the unoccupied territory, versus elimination of the so-called “problem”. A real solution requires a multipronged approach to addressing feline overpopulation and abandonment.

First, humans do need greater education on the needs and care of cats prior to adoption. Misperceptions of cats have persisted over the centuries and still do today. This is especially true of feline behavior in the wild. Even most professionals in animal control are unaware of actual behavior and health statistics of cats in the wild. As a result, incorrect assumptions are made and false statements are made out of fear instead of based upon facts. This is evident in the comments from Ms. Tyler and Mr. Comery. The reality is there are no recorded cases ever of a cat biting or a cat vectored rabies case in the state of New Jersey. Further, feral cats are not socialized with humans and do not “play” with children or adults. Cities that employ management of undomesticated cats know that their strays/ferals are easily recognizable due to the practice of ear tipping after TNR. In fact, feral cats are generally in good health and have no greater incidence of disease of that of owned cats (“Characteristics of free-roaming cats evaluated in a trap-neuter-return program,” Karen C. Scott, PhD; Julie K. Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM; P. Cynda Crawford, DVM, PhD. JAVMA, Vol 221, No. 8, October 15, 2002).

Second, cats should stay indoors as this greatly enhances their quality of life and longevity. The average feral cat lives two to three years. The average indoor/outdoor domesticate cat lives seven years. The average indoor-only domesticated cat lives an average of 15 years. Further, keeping cats indoors and spaying/neutering pets greatly reduces unintended pregnancies and hence increasing the unowned cat population.

Third, both domesticated and feral cats need to be either spayed or neutered. This would eliminate the greatest contributor the increase in population of unowned cats. To show the dramatic effects, a good example follows: In San Diego county, the Feral Cat Coalition trapped and neutered more than 3,100 cats in a two-year period. Prior to that time, San Diego County Animal Management Information System was reporting an increase of 10 percent per year in the number of cats handled (more than 19,000 cats in 1992). After two years of the TNR program, however, the number' dropped 35 percent (12,446cats)—and euthanasia figures dropped 40 percent (as reported by Moira Allen, Cats Magazine; Mar1999, Vol. 55 Issue 3, p30, 5p, 5c, 1bw).

For those cats that we humans have abandoned, we must do the right thing and employ humane programs that provide quality of life and reduce/eliminate feral colonies. The proven program for success is TNR programs with ongoing monitoring of cat colonies. Although Mr. Wright gives mention of TNR programs, he failed to mention that kittens of TNR cats are removed from the colonies and placed in adoption facilitates as they are easily socialized and highly adoptable. This practice greatly reduces overall numbers of feral cats. In an eleven-year TNR study involving 155 cats in eleven discrete colonies ranging in size from three to twenty-five cats each, EVERY colony was reduced in number. The study concluded in April 2002 with final populations ranging from one to five cats per colony. Three colonies disbanded altogether and were not reestablished by new cats, despite the continued existence of a food source. Sterilization, attrition, and an aggressive adoption program as well as ongoing monitoring contributed to the study’s success. (“Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population,” Julie K. Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM; David W. Gale; Leslie A. Gale, BS. JAVMA, Vol 222, No. 1, January 1, 2003).

The bottom line is a bit more complex than just neutering our pets, but with a bit of effort it is clear that there is real hope for all cats if we simply engage ourselves in a real, humane solution based upon real facts.