Bad news about free-roaming cats

Lucky Wilbury, our most recent shelter cat, lounging on the cat throne. We have no intention of allowing Lucky outdoors off leash, as much for his protection as for the wildlife. Our previous cat, Bart, snuck out the door one night when the coyotes were howling and Great Horned Owls hooting. He was never seen again. We feel like we let him down and only hope that he met a quick, merciful end, not like the weeks, months, or years of suffering endured by most stray and feral cats.

There’s been a recent flurry of bad news about free-roaming cats, which is timely considering a recent visit to the comments section of one LB&E post by an incipient cat hoarder. His last comment was so out of touch with reality that I did him a favor by declining to publish it. That’s tragically typical of the breed, but I hold a polyanna-ish confidence in the power of facts to overcome the disinformation thrown around by obsessive cat defenders (OCDs).

Oregon Plague: Woman Contracted Disease From Cat

Thought theBlack Death” was history? Think again. These days, plague is usually contracted from the bites of fleas in and around rodent colonies, but cats and dogs that eat infected rodents can contract and transmit the disease and/or bring home infected fleas to their human families. (Warning: The article is headed by a grisly photo of the original victim’s blackened hand.)

Rabies threat prompts town to trap feral cats

A kitten adopted from a TNR program tests positive for rabies:

The kitten was friendly and domesticated, according to the family that adopted it. Because of its demeanor, police aren’t sure that the kitten was part of the feral colony – there is a chance it was abandoned in the park. [emphasis mine]

One big reason that TNR is such a failure at reducing, much less eliminating, feral cat colonies is that the conspicuous presence of “managed” colonies in public places tends to attract people looking for places to dump unwanted pets. Inadequate commitment to vaccinating all cats in a colony at recommended intervals to prevent outbreaks of rabies, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia virus, etc. makes it a public health failure, too.

Study Finds Free-Roaming Cats Pose Threat from “Serious Public Health Diseases”

This press release from the American Bird Conservancy reports on an important new paper published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health: “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats,” by R.W. Gerhold and D.A. Jessup (2012). The study reviewed the various diseases that infect free-roaming cats and the implications for public health of trying to manage feral cat populations via TNR. Three significant findings related to the second story above:

  • Free-roaming cats are disproportionately responsible for exposing humans to rabies.
  • Cat colonies “managed” by TNR attract unneutered, unvaccinated cats and increase their survivorship and reproductive success, leading to increases in colony size and potential for disease transmission.
  • Feeding stations for feral cats attract wildlife such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes that may transmit rabies and other diseases to the cats and/or carry feline diseases into the wild. (Wild predators that prey on free-roaming cats are also vulnerable to their diseases and parasites; strains of feline leukemia virus that have killed critically endangered Florida Panthers have been linked to domestic cats.)

An even more insidious public health menace related to free-roaming cats is toxoplasmosis. The organism that causes this disease can infect many animals, but cats are the only ones that pass the parasite’s infective oocysts in their feces. A cat may only shed oocysts for a couple of weeks early in the infection, but they can persist in contaminated soil—garden beds, children’s sand boxes—for years. Authors Gerhold and Jessup cited a 2011 study that found that 63 percent of the patients with acute toxoplasmosis had become infected through contact with cat feces.

One more cat item that relates to the “kitty-cam” study in Georgia:

Opinions from the Front Lines of Cat Colony Management Conflict

The authors conducted a survey of opinions about feral cats and their management with cat colony caretakers (CCCs) and bird conservation professionals (BCPs) across the United States. Naturally, they found strong polarization between the two groups (even though substantial portions of both described themselves as both cat- and bird-people), and they also documented how poorly informed/in denial CCCs were about the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and public health. Even among the BCPs, awareness of feral cat issues was lower among respondents who lacked college degrees, so there’s a need for outreach and education even within the bird conservation community.

The authors suggest:

To the extent the beliefs held by CCCs are rooted in lack of knowledge and mistrust, rather than denial of directly observable phenomenon, the conservation community can manage these conflicts more productively by bringing CCCs into the process of defining data collection methods, defining study/management locations, and identifying common goals related to caring for animals… Our findings suggest that when such collaborative measures are not logistically possible, CCCs may be more likely to accept scientific results framed in terms of directly observable phenomenon (e.g., feral cats kill wild animals) rather than indirectly observable phenomenon (e.g., feral cats contribute to global declines among songbird populations). For instance, most CCCs see direct evidence of cats killing wild animals and would find denying those experiences difficult without creating some degree of cognitive dissonance.

In discussion of the Georgia “kitty-cam” study, OCDs glommed onto the low number of documented kills by the pets in the study, even though a conservative extrapolation of the results suggests that free-roaming cats kill more than 2 billion animals per year. It seems obvious that feral cats, even those that are being fed, will hunt more than well-fed, part-time outdoor pets, but seeing might be believing. It’s time to put “kitty-cams” on feral cats in managed colonies so that CCCs and OCDs can see the carnage up close and personal.

Advertisements

“Kitty-cams” document lives of outdoor cats

Injured phoebe

An Eastern Phoebe with a mangled wing awaits death at the jaws of a pet cat.

The National Geographic Society and University of Georgia recently teamed up to apply “critter-cam” technology to understanding the lives of pet cats, documenting not only their predatory habits but the many hazards they face.

The team, led by Kerrie Anne Loyd of the University of Georgia, attached small video cameras to 60 outdoor house cats in the city of Athens, Georgia. The cats’ owners were recruited through newspaper ads and assisted the team by doing daily downloads of video from the cameras.

The most important findings were about cat predation. Loyd said:

In Athens-Clarke County, we found that about 30 percent of the sampled cats were successful in capturing and killing prey, and that those cats averaged about one kill for every 17 hours outdoors or 2.1 kills per week. It was also surprising to learn that cats only brought 23 percent of their kills back to a residence. We found that house cats will kill a wide variety of animals, including: lizards, voles, chipmunks, birds, frogs, and small snakes.

It’s no wonder so many cat owners are unaware that their pets ever kill wildlife. Even if they found every animal their cats brought home, they’d still miss more than three quarters of the death toll.

The cats in the study were outside for only 5 to 6 hours a day on average. It’s sobering to compare these well-fed pets to homeless/feral cats that are outdoors 24/7/365 and may hunt for survival as well as recreation.

Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy, found the project’s findings alarming:

If we extrapolate the results of this study across the country and include feral cats, we find that cats are likely killing more than 4 billion animals per year, including at least 500 million birds. Cat predation is one of the reasons why one in three American bird species are in decline.

Think about that: 4 billion animals, including at least a half billion birds, that die purely because of human irresponsibility.

The cameras also documented risky behavior that should alarm cat lovers: crossing roads, hiding under vehicles, climbing trees, exploring roofs and storm drains, confronting dogs, opossums, and other cats, and killing small mammals that are vectors for diseases such as toxoplasmosis and Lyme disease.

The National Geographic & University of Georgia Kitty Cams Project

American Bird Conservancy: “KittyCam” Reveals High Levels of Wildlife Being Killed by Outdoor Cats

American Bird Conservancy: Cats Indoors

Search of the Week: “care for feral cats”

Two simple steps:

  1. Trap them. Animal control agencies often have cat-sized traps to loan. Canned cat food and sardines make good baits where you’re not likely to catch a skunk or other wild animal; otherwise, try catnip.
  2. Take them to the nearest shelter that will rehome or permanently house them, or euthanize them if all else fails.

Alternatively, have them neutered and vaccinated and confine them to your own property in a predator- and escape-proof enclosure.

Do not leave them out on their own. Cats are domestic animals, and prolonging their homelessness to the detriment of your neighbors, other pets, and wildlife is almost as irresponsible as abandoning them in the first place.