Feral cats have been completely removed from several small uninhabited islands as a result of decades of intensive control measures including poisoning, hunting, trapping, and the introduction of infectious feline diseases (Nogales 2007). Despite the success of eradication campaigns on geographically isolated islands, logistic barriers and opposition from residents would make the application of lethal strategies in populated mainland areas unfeasible.
Safety, Affordability, Sustainability and Public Acceptance
Cat control programs in populated areas must incorporate safety considerations for non-target animals and humans, be affordable for participating municipal agencies or charitable organizations, include plans to curtail continuous cat immigration and reproduction, and be aesthetically acceptable to the public.
The most common cat management policy in the U.S. is to impound cats reported by residents and to ignore the cats that do not generate concern. Rarely is this targeted to have an impact on the overall cat population or to focus on the cats that present the greatest welfare, environmental, or public health concerns.
An Example of Untargeted Failure
Here’s an example from a typical municipal shelter in a mid-sized suburban community. There is an estimated 1 community cat for every 6 people in a region (Levy 2003). Using Operation Catnip’s home base of Alachua County as an example, there were an estimated 40,000 community cats and 70,000 pet cats living in the county in 2011.
Approximately 60% of pet cats are allowed outdoors, resulting in a total of 82,000 pet and community cats roaming the county. In 2011, 2,421 stray cats and 596 pet cats were admitted to the municipal shelter. This represents less than 4% of the potential outdoor cat population. On any given day, the average number of cats held in the shelter was 76, well under 0.1% of all the outdoor cats in the county.
At an estimated cost of $150 or more to impound, house, and adopt or destroy each cat, the county spends nearly a half million dollars each year in a futile cycle of insignificant cat removal. Such an untargeted approach may placate the most vocal residents, but cannot be expected to have any effect on the overall cat population or its welfare. Similarly, there is no expectation that wildlife or community health would be protected by such uncoordinated activities.
ACAS: Alachua County Animal Services
Sheltering Programs Are Too Small to Mitigate Impact
The estimated cat population in Alachua County in 2011 is shown. Only 3% of the estimated cats in the county were impounded by the Alachua County Animal Services municipal shelter. About one-third of the impounded cats were destroyed and two-thirds were adopted, returned to owners, or transferred to rescue groups.
An additional 3% of the community’s cats were admitted to Operation Catnip’s Trap-Neuter-Return program to be sterilized and vaccinated against diseases before being returned to their homes in the community. Community-wide, the largest populations were outdoor community cats (mostly non-neutered) and outdoor pet cats (mostly neutered).
Current calls to remove community cats from the environment ignore the fact that sheltering programs are not large enough to effectively impact overall cat populations, nor are they sufficiently targeted to mitigate cats’ impact on particularly sensitive environments or address specific public health concerns.
Recognizing the Magnitude of the Cat Population
Most Trap-Neuter-Return programs are too small to impact the size of the community-wide cat population, but by targeting cats most at risk for impoundment, they can dramatically reduce the deaths of cats in shelters. Similarly, Trap-Neuter-Return programs can target cat colonies that pose significant risks to vulnerable wildlife populations and mitigate the risk via reproduction control or relocation of cats.
Clearly, any realistic plan to control community cats must recognize the magnitude of the cat population, the need to engage in continuous control efforts, and the significance of the public’s affection for the cats.