It has been argued that cats should be collected from the community and impounded in shelters to protect wildlife and public health. Studies have come to varying and sometimes contradictory conclusions regarding the impact of cats on native species.
Most Shelter Programs Are Insufficient
The advisability of removing and destroying cats and/or limiting their population through Trap-Neuter-Return is likewise debated. Even when successful at substantially reducing the feline population, lethal control or removal methods may lead to an increased population of other non-native species with an even more detrimental effect (Fan 2005, Courchamp 1999).
However, there can be little doubt that free-roaming cats, owned or not, can have a negative impact on native species in some cases. Likewise, all free-roaming animals, including cats, can carry diseases that are harmful to people or pose a risk to pets, although the magnitude of the threat posed by cats has been questioned (Levy 2011).
Although the actual impacts of community cats compared to pet cats on wildlife are hotly debated, one issue that is not is that the capacities of most shelter programs are simply insufficient to decrease the overall number of outdoor cats in a community. Even with open-admission shelter policies that encourage the public to turn in cats at any time without restriction, few shelters take in more than 10% of the community’s free-roaming cats each year.
These numbers are far too low to have any meaningful impact on the daily risk of disease, injury, or wildlife predation by cats.
Untargeted Removal Is Well-Intended But Ineffective
The untargeted and indiscriminate removal of cats in an attempt to control the threat of rabies is an example of a well-intended, but ultimately ineffective approach to protecting public health. In addition to being too small to be effective, municipal cat removal programs focus on the symptom but not the source of rabies infections.
In the U.S., wildlife species such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, mongooses, and bats are endemically infected with rabies and serve as a continuous reservoir of infection for domestic species and people.
While rabies infections are diagnosed in cats (303 in 2010) more commonly than in other domestic species (184 in 2010), this pales in comparison to the number of cases diagnosed in wildlife (5,666 in 2010) (Blanton 2012). In many communities, wildlife infection is so common that suspected cases are not even tested unless a person has been exposed; such practices lead to under-reporting and underestimation of the true number of wildlife cases.
TNR Reduces the Risk of Rabies Exposure
Simply removing and destroying a small fraction of community cats and leaving the majority unvaccinated and free to reproduce is unlikely to enhance public health. In contrast, cat management programs that include spaying, neutering and vaccination of community cats against rabies, are likely to immunize the cats that have the highest interaction with residents and thus reduce the risk of human rabies exposure.
In the history of feline rabies in the U.S., there is yet to be a single report of a cat with a tipped ear (the mark used to identify cats enrolled in Trap-Neuter-Return programs) being infected. Cats diagnosed with rabies are predominantly unvaccinated strays and pets. In Alachua County, Operation Catnip neutered and vaccinated 3,183 community cats in 2013, making it the single largest provider of rabies vaccines for cats in the county.