A substantial number of the cats euthanized in animal shelters are considered unadoptable because they are feral. Groups such as Operation Catnip seek to control the homeless cat population by neutering instead of culling cats in shelters.
Operation Catnip volunteers can be very proud of their accomplishment of sterilizing more than 22,000 cats in Alachua County from 1998-2007* and preventing the births of more than 6,000 homeless kittens each year. That alone is a huge accomplishment for cat welfare.
However, we suspect that since the effort is diluted over the entire county, the impact on cat overpopulation may be difficult to detect. Surprisingly, despite two decades of growth of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs, no information exists about the impact of TNR on shelter admission statistics.
To close this knowledge gap, Maddie’s Fund accepted a proposal from the University of Florida to study the effect of intensive TNR on an area with historically high cat admissions to the shelter. The research team was composed of UF veterinarians Drs. Julie Levy and Natalie Isaza and Alachua County Animal Services Directors Ray Sim and David Flagler.
Focused on Controlling the Stray Cat Population
Beginning in February 2006 and continuing for a two-year time frame, the team focused on controlling the stray cat population in zip code 32601 through increased TNR, adoption of friendly kittens, and complaint mediation. A goal was set to sterilize more than 1,000 cats each year in this zip code. If successful, it was expected that the shelter would witness a decrease in complaints about cats and fewer cat admissions from the area, particularly of kittens.
ACAS personnel referred calls regarding stray cats in this zip code to the research team for resolution instead of encouraging relinquishment to the shelter. In nearly every case, the team was able to find a solution in which residents agreed to allow the cats to stay on site following sterilization.
Many residents indicated that they enjoyed the cats, but that they felt overrun with kittens, frustrated by noisy cat breeding behavior, or concerned about aggression towards their own cats, issues which are resolved by sterilization.
More Than 2,300 Cats Were Handled
In the two years of the project, more than 2,300 cats were handled through the project. Of these, the vast majority (95%), were sterilized, vaccinated, and microchipped. Approximately half of the cats (primarily kittens) were adopted directly from the project, or were transferred to other rescue agencies for adoption. All of the cats made available for adoption were spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and tested for FeLV and FIV prior to adoption.
The adoption of friendly cats is one of the most tangible ways that TNR programs can quickly reduce the number of homeless cats in a community. Adoption also represents a considerable enhancement to the welfare of the cats involved, since adopted cats enjoy the comfort of a loving family. In contrast, feral kittens are reported to suffer a mortality rate as high as 75% in the wild.
An Animal-Friendly Alternative to Culling Cats
The project was also associated with a decrease in cat admissions to the shelter, proving that TNR is an animal-friendly alternative to culling cats for animal control. Nuisance calls to the shelter decreased, allowing officers to focus on more important tasks such as cruelty and dogfighting investigations.
In an interesting side-effect of the project, intakes of dogs from 32601 also decreased, but not as dramatically as that of cats. We suspect that our intense involvement and outreach in the target community engaged caregivers of both cats and dogs to improve the welfare of both species.
Approximately half of cats (primarily kittens) were removed from their colonies following sterilization for adoption (12%) or transfer to a rescue group for adoption (39%). Nearly half (primarily adults) were returned to their colonies following sterilization (46%).
The relative contribution in Year 2 of animals from 32601 to total animal intake decreased by 61% since year 0 for cats vs. 37% for dogs.
*Through 2014, Operation Catnip has sterilized more than 44,000 community cats.