Animal Advocacy

The Dilemma of Homeless Cats

posted January 15th, 2007 by
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Free-roaming cats without owners have recently become the center of a national controversy. Some groups see these animals as victims that should be provided with food and shelter, while others see them as villains that should be eliminated by humane euthanasia. Many of these cats are feral or “wild,” the descendants of unaltered tame cats that were abandoned and gave birth to kittens that never had contact with humans. Although ferals are fearful of humans, they are still domesticated and ill-equipped to live on their own. Feral cats do not die of “old age.” They fall victim to disease, starvation, poisons, attacks by other animals, mistreatment by humans or are hit by cars.

It is estimated that the number of free roaming abandoned and feral cats in the United States may be as high as owned cats (about 73 million). Since most owned cats are sterilized, these unowned cats are the primary source of cat overpopulation. Many people who encounter feral cats start feeding them, but feeding alone can actually make the situation worse by increasing the birth rate of kittens. Animal shelters nationwide receive several million unwanted cats each year. Due to a shortage of available homes, approximately 75% of these cats are euthanized. Locally, the cat euthanasia rate at animal shelters is about 90% and less than 1% of these cats are ever claimed by owners.

The impact of both owned and unowned freeroaming cats upon the environment is an ongoing subject of debate. Even well-fed cats will hunt and kill prey. These predations cause a significant and preventable loss of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Free-roaming cats pose a small but important threat to human health. They can carry and transmit to humans such diseases as rabies, cat scratch fever, plague, tularemia and ringworm. Also, serious injuries can occur if feral cats are handled without precautions or experience.

Historically, communities have responded to feral cat colonies by capturing and euthanizing these unowned animals. In areas where there is a natural food source (mice), this resulted in the influx of more cats as the resident feral cats were removed. As long as there was a food source, the feral cats would repopulate the area. In areas where feral cats are fed by humans, a strong bond is created with these cats and usually the feral cat feeders will not cooperate with control strategies that involve euthanasia.

Most veterinarians and animal welfare groups now support managing these colonies by trapping, neutering, releasing and monitoring feral cats. The goal is to eventually reduce the feral cat population; however, eliminating the colony may not be possible due to immigration of new cats. Ideally, these colonies should be located in an area where the cats do not pose a threat to wildlife. The location should be inconspicuous so as not to encourage abandonment of pet cats. All cats within the colony are humanely trapped and receive a health exam, tested for feline leukemia and feline AIDS, neutered/spayed and vaccinated against rabies. Socialized adult cats and kittens should be adopted out to permanent homes and those that cannot be adopted should be returned to the colony. Most importantly, a monitoring program must be in place to identify new cats joining the colony, as well as cats requiring medical attention.

Stitch in Time is a local spay/neuter program for feral cats run by Street Cats, a local non-profit organization. Vouchers are issued that will cover a spay or neuter and a rabies vaccination. Over 50 vouchers are issued each month and once issued are good for three months. To receive a voucher call 918-298- 0104 and leave a message for Stitch in Time. Other local organizations that offer feral spay/neuter programs are Spay Oklahoma (918) 728-3144 and PAWS (Pet Assistance and Welfare Society) 918-376-2397.

- Dr. Judy Zinn