The Deadly Gamble When Cats Go Free
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 10, 2014
The Washington Post ran a story over the weekend about feral cats and the flawed and falsely “humane” ideology of “trap-neuter-release,” or TNR. Here’s an excerpt:
The American Bird Conservancy points to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s 2013 review of previously published studies that estimated free-roaming cats kill 1.3 billion to 4 billion birds a year. Unowned cats do most of the killing, the study said. (Animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States have questioned the study’s validity.)
But these groups present no comparable peer-reviewed studies. That puts them in the same category as climate change skeptics who dispute the science because, well, they don’t like it. Calling them “animal welfare groups” is also misleading when they endorse policies that kill as many as 4 billion birds a year. It’s a bit like the Koch Brothers and coal companies forming “grassroots” anti-environment groups with names like “Americans for Prosperity.”
The conservancy also says free-roaming cats spread rabies. A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that in 2010, four times as many rabid cats (303) were reported as rabid dogs (69), although another study noted the last human rabies case associated with cats in the United States was in 1975. Cat feces in outdoor recreational areas can be a source of toxoplasmosis, which can lead to neurological impairment, blindness and birth defects.
The story skips over this bracing list of maladies. Regrettably, it also fails to cite a scientific study that would give a sense of the scale of the toxoplasmosis problem. But this epidemiological study says that the infection is present in 10 to 80 percent of humans, depending on the country, climate, sanitary conditions, and other factors. It’s generally asymptomatic, but in one study, 80 percent of pregnant women in France were infected, with unknown consequences for their offspring. Cats are the main source of the infection. That means, TNR doesn’t just gamble away the lives of birds and small mammals. It also trivializes the health of newborn children.
But, sorry, I’m getting sidetracked:
Research on TNR has found, at best, only modest success in reducing the numbers of free-roaming cats. In a 2004 paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarian David A. Jessup says the practice is likely to succeed only when the number of feral cats is small to begin with; when no new cats join the colony; when all females are captured and spayed; where the terrain is accessible and cats have trouble hiding; and where TNR efforts are early, intense and prolonged. “Many feeders of cats will not keep records, are not committed to population control, or are not willing or able to aggressively maintain a vigilant TNR effort,” Jessup writes. “How much of a fig leaf does TNR provide for people who just want to have lots of cats?”
Julie Levy, director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, estimates between 71 percent and 94 percent of the cat population must be neutered to bring the birth rate below replacement level. At one university campus she studied, the feral cat population was reduced from 155 in 1991 to 23 in 2002 through a combination of adoption, euthanizing sick cats, natural attrition and neutering “virtually all resident cats.”
In a 2004 research paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarian Paul L. Barrows concludes: “Sometimes it is better that some healthy animals die in light of the excessively negative impacts of their continuing to live. Our nation has greatly benefited from anti-littering campaigns and actions. We must similarly seek to make it politically incorrect and socially unacceptable to engage in biological littering resulting from irresponsible cat ownership and promotion of TNR programs.”
The bottom line: If you have a cat, keep it indoors. If you see cats roaming free in your neighbor, report them to your animal control person. Cats can be adorable in their place, at home. But outdoors they are just agents of disease and death.