Feral Cats – Living on the Edge of Society

Creeping through the back alleys and vacant lots, millions of stray and feral cats live on the edges of  our cities and suburbs. Fearful of humans, these “wild” cats are blamed for everything from killing off songbirds to attacking the sea otters. So, what is the truth behind these feral felines and why are some humans so determined to help them ans save their lives?

More than 80 million pampered felines share our homes and cat lovers are abundant across our country. But, those cats living outdoors have few admirers and live in constant danger of imminent death, usually at our hands!
There is no way to know for certain, by some experts estimate that the feral cat population in North America may equal or even exceed that of the “owned’ cat population. Feral cats are not socialized to humans and avoid contact with people whenever possible. In contrast, “stray” cats are often those cats that have left a home or have been abandoned by their owners. These strays may have been socialized to humans at one time and will often approach people and may even allow petting.  All cats, feral, stray and owned cats that simply roam the neighborhood are all members of the domestic species, Felis catus.

Traditionally, feral and stray cats are trapped whenever possible and then are taken to local animal shelters. Once at a shelter, if they are socialized to humans and have a calm disposition, some cats may be adopted out. However, the vast majority of these feral cats may be harboring diseases, such as Feline Leukemia, or they are totally wild and cannot be adopted out. These cats will often face death by lethal injection and may be euthanized. According to an organization for feral cats known as Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org) nearly 70% of the cats that arrive at shelters are euthanized making euthanasia the number one documented cause of death in felines in the United States.

Alley Cat Allies formed their organization in 1990 hoping to stop the killing of millions of cats. One of their founders, Becky Robinson, recalls walking in an alleyway and seeing a whole colony of “tuxedo cats”.  Observing the alley cats interacting with one another gave her insight into the social lives of these “wild” animals and prompted her to work towards their preservation. Since that memorable night, Becky and her volunteers have introduced the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) concept to the United States. Originally conceived in England, these TNR programs have helped to improve the health of many feral cats through vaccinations and sterilization and are working towards reducing the size of the feral cat colonies.

Simply put,  the TNR uses volunteers to capture the feral cats in humane cage traps. These wild cats are then transported to participating veterinarians who anesthetize, neuter and vaccinate the animals. To help identify the cats that have been sterilized so that they do not have to be trapped again, a notch is cut in the cat’s ear. The notched ear is easier to see from a distance than a tattoo on their belly. Once they have recovered from the surgery, the cats are taken back to their original capture location and allowed to re-join their home colony. Caretakers will then monitor the overall health of the colony and conduct a population census while providing feeding stations for the cats.

The TNR programs do have their critics. Bird watchers are concerned about the impact of feral cats on songbird populations and other wildlife. Neighbors living near feral cat colonies worry about cats urinating and defecating in their gardens. While public health officials are concerned about zoonotic diseases, such as toxoplasmosis, plague and rabies. These colonies also seem to have a higher incidence of Feline Leukemia, and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus that can cross over to “owned” cats that may be outside. The website TNR Reality Check (www.tnrrealitycheck.com) states that there is little evidence that TNR programs help control the feral cat population.

Ms. Robinson disagrees with their findings and points to several recent scientific articles that demonstrate TNR is a valid means for controlling and even reducing the size of a feral cat colony. Furthermore, she also questions the validity of claims by such groups as the American Bird Conservancy that feral cats are the biggest threat to songbird survival.
Cat owners may also be contributing to the controversial issue. Many of the cats in these feral colonies are abandoned by their owner and are left to fend for themselves in these colonies. Some cat owners are hesitant to take their cats to animal shelters and may feel less guilty about leaving the cat alone outside if they know the colony of feral cats has a caretaker that is feeding the cats. However, this is unfair to the people attempting to care for the colony and exposes your defenseless cat to the dangers of the outdoor world.
With the economy tightening, many people are given the tough choice concerning their pet cats, especially if they are forced to move and cannot afford the pet deposit of the new apartment or rental house. If your personal circumstances changes and you simply cannot continue to keep your cat, do not simply leave your cat to the mercy of the outdoor elements to fend for himself. Contact your local humane group or city shelter and request their assistance to help find your feline friend a new home.

Dealing with the sheer quantity of millions of feral and stray cats in this country alone will be a controversial topic for many years. But, as Becky says, “cats have lived on the outskirts of our society for almost 10,000 years. This is a fact we shouldn’t try to change.”
To learn more about the work of feral cat organizations across the country, feel free to visit www.alleycat.org

Rabies still a problem in San Antonio, Montana

An elderly man in San Antonio, Texas that feeds the stray cats, was bitten by a kitten that proved to carry Rabies. This is the second rabid cat in San Antonio this year. Rabies is carried by skunks, foxes, raccoons and bats in the wild and can cross over to domestic animal if not vaccinated. People must still be vigilant around wild animals and unvaccinated animals to ensure they do not get exposed to Rabies. Fourteen people in Texas have died from Rabies in the past 30 years.

See complete story here http://www.mysanantonio.com/health/30077809.html

Another Rabies story comes from Montana where a parent brought a dead bat to school and allowed the children to touch it. School officials took the bat and it tested positive for Rabies. Now all the kids that were exposed will have to take post exposure Rabies injections.

See complete story here http://www.greatfallstribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081003/NEWS01/81003024

Yet one more story of Rabies involves some rescued animals brought back from Iraq. A labrador retriever puppy named Crusader, adopted by a soldier became ill shortly after arriving from Iraq. He was later euthanized and tested positive for Rabies. SPCA is now requiring rabies vaccinations 30 days before boarding planes and entering the United States.

Read more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/03/nyregion/03rabies.html?_r=2&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

World Rabies day was on September 28, the following is a prevention tips for pet owners.

Rabies – Prevention tips for Pet Owners

Basic facts
•    There are around 7,000 cases of animal rabies, mostly in wildlife species, reported in the U.S. every year.  These animals can expose humans or pets to rabies.
•    Cats are more likely to be infected with rabies than dogs! Probably because they are less likely to be vaccinated and may not be well supervised when outdoors.

Rabies prevention starts with the animal owner
•    All dogs, cats and ferrets should be vaccinated against rabies.  Consider vaccinating valuable livestock and horses.  Animals that have frequent contact with humans should be vaccinated.
•    You can reduce the possibility of your pets being exposed to rabies by not letting them roam free.
•    Spaying and neutering your pets may decrease undesirable behavior, like aggression and roaming.
•    Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals – even if they appear friendly.

Reduce the risk of exposure to rabies from wildlife
•    Don’t leave garbage or pet food outside, as it may attract wild or stray animals.
•    Wild animals should not be kept as pets.
•    Observe wild animals from a distance. Do not feed or handle them – even if they appear friendly.
•    If you see a wild animal acting strangely, report it to city or county animal control personnel.

What to do when your pet bites someone
•    Contact your local health department or local animal control.
•    A dog, cat or ferret that bites a human will need to be examined by a veterinarian.
•    The local public health official will require monitoring of the pet for 10 days, even if it is vaccinated.
•    Report promptly any illness or unusual behavior of your pet to your veterinarian.

What to do when your pet gets bitten by another animal
•    Consult your veterinarian immediately who will examine your pet and assess your pet’s vaccination needs.
•    Contact local animal control if your pet was bitten by a stray or wild animal.
•    If you can identify or safely capture the animal that bit your pet, this will help determine if your pet was exposed to rabies.
•    If your pet is currently vaccinated and possibly exposed to rabies, it will receive a booster vaccination and be subjected to close supervision for 45 days or more as specified by state law or local ordinance.
•    If a rabies-suspect or confirmed rabid animal bites your pet and your pet is not currently vaccinated, the only options are euthanasia (to prevent the development of rabies) or a strict 6 month quarantine (to see if your pet will develop rabies from this potential exposure).

What to do if you are bitten by an animal
•    Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water.
•    Contact your physician immediately.
•    Report the bite to the local health department to evaluate the need for rabies post exposure prophylaxis.
•    If you can identify or safely capture the animal, you may not need to have shots. Dogs, cats and ferrets can be observed for 10 days to see if they pose a risk of rabies exposure to you. Other animals may be tested for rabies although this requires euthanasia and testing of brain material.
•    Prompt and appropriate preventative treatment after being bitten and before the disease develops can stop rabies infection and prevent the disease.