I live with an 87-year-old woman who is learning to use a computer. In addition to e-mailing, discovering that Oprah has put her book on the Kids' Reading List: Classics for 6 to 9 Years, and playing rousing games of solitaire; she is using the computer to type her memoirs. Through helping her learn the advanced features of Microsoft Word such as copy, paste, and the life-changing Cntrl-Z, I have had the opportunity to read pieces of her story.
The other night, a lesson on the Backspace button let to a tangent on the book Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág. It turns out, one of the paintings in my room is by Ms. Gág. My housemate had a copy of the book, one that Ms. Gág used to read to her. I read it for the first time and years and realized…it’s kind of a violent story!
For those of you who haven’t read the book, it is about an elderly couple that are lonely and want a cat. The husband goes off to find them a feline friend, but is unable to restrain himself from bringing home "...hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats..." This animal hoarding proves unsustainable and a giant catfight breaks out. When the dust settles, only one cat is left. The couple takes in the one cat, nourishes it, loves it, and lives happily ever after. Although it isn’t mentioned in the story, I like to think that they kept their new pet mostly indoors and also took it to be registered, microchipped, vaccinated, and spayed.
Lessons from this story (from my perspective) include the fact that feral cats will fight and kill other cats and people should only try to keep as many cats as they can house and feed. Had a giant catfight not broken out, the man or his wife may have contracted one of the several diseases that unvaccinated feral cats can transmit to humans such as rabies, ringworm, or toxoplasmosis. Their home may have become infested with fleas. The number of birds that visited their window feeder surely would have been reduced. And, despite popular belief, they would still probably have mice. Not a very happy ending for the well-meaning couple.
Cats contribute to the lives of many people as loving companions. As pets they may be classified as indoor, limited-range, or free-range depending on how far they are allowed to venture from home. Home is the key word here—cats that are pets are owned by someone and thus a person is responsible for the care and activities of the animal. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), feral cats are born outside and are never socialized in the first 24 weeks of their lives. Pet cats that are abandoned are called stray cats. So who is responsible for feral and stray cats?
The answer is surprisingly complicated. Feral and stray cats are not technically classified as wildlife, so Wildlife Control Operators (WCOs) or game and parks commissions often won’t deal with them. Feral and stray cats are not technically pets, so municipal animal control may not want to deal with them either. In some towns, if the cat is on your property it’s your responsibility to deal with it, but a feral cat may wander throughout 1.5 square miles regardless of property boundaries. So what can you do?
Many may ask, why would you do anything? If you had skunks or raccoons crawling all over your property, people would be concerned and want you to take action. For some reason, cats are a different story. People have an affinity for cats and don’t like the idea of controlling them as if they were pests. The reality is that too many cats can be a problem because of the diseases they can carry and harm they can cause to native wildlife and other cats.
Many believe that if they are well fed, cats won’t kill birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, research doesn’t support this belief. Cats will hunt regardless of how much food we provide them. This is only one of the myths about feral cats that science is proving wrong. Before beginning an IPM program for cats, I recommend you read the four resources recommended here and hold a community meeting so that everyone has an opportunity to understand the problem and can give their input into the management plan.
The goal of feral cat management is to reduce the number of feral cats and manage their care. First, it is good to know your local options. This is a nice rainy day activity—gather your policies and contacts so that when you have feral cats to deal with you know who to go to for help.
- Re-read your lease and pet policy so that you know what residents are required to do.
- Contact your local animal control officer and ask him or her what the regulations apply in your area. In many cases this will include referring you to local shelters.
- Call the local shelters and find out if they accept strays and ferals and also ask if there are any trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) programs in your area. For more information on what the Humane Society of the United States recommends, see http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/pets/overview_caring_for_feral_cats.pdf
Although I don’t know of any studies on it, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the rat control information I posted last week could apply to cats. Cats breed in the springtime (when the days get longer), so in order to impact the population the most, you may want to reduce the population as much as possible in the winter. Here is a start to what your IPM plan for cats could include:
1. Inspect and identify
We learn to identify a cat from other kinds of animals as toddlers, but how do you know whether a cat belongs to someone? It is very hard, and possibly impossible to tell—encourage cat owners in your community to put collars on their pets and have a microchip implanted so that if the pet is trapped it will be returned.
Maintenance staff often know the cats on a property based on daily observation (which is inspection). If a cat looks skinny, sick, or has wounds from a cat fight, it may be feral or stray. If the cat has a notch out of its ear or the top of the ear is clipped off (“tipped”), it is neutered. Inspect until you know about how many cats you have and whether each is neutered. During your inspection, also note where the cats get food, water, and shelter so that subsequent control efforts can be focused on these areas.
2. Determine if action is necessary
This is for your IPM team to decide. At the very least, have a TNVR program in place so that all outdoor cats are vaccinated and neutered. Feral cats can produce up to 5 litters per year, each with 2 to 10 kittens... “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats...”
3. Plan treatment and take action
There is a documented phenomenon with cat control called the vacuum effect. Basically, if you remove cats from an area and there are still resources (food, water, and shelter) present, more cats will move in. Unless you are going to reduce the food, water, and shelter available on your property it is not worth your time or money to remove cats for relocation or euthanasia.
Cultural control and habitat modification:
Help prevent strays by educating residents about pet ownership and enforcing your pet policy. You may be able to partner with a local shelter or vet clinic and offer affordable microchipping, vaccinating, and neutering.
Part of property wide pest control is sanitation—cat control is no exception. Cats will eat both human refuse and pet food, so do what you have to in order to limit the food and water available.
Knowing your property and identifying the areas where cats are getting food and shelter will allow you to implement other creative control strategies. For example, if there is a birdfeeder that the cats are hunting around, move it at least 10 feet from anything the cat could hide under—this will give the birds a better chance of escaping.
As with any pest, exclusion is a great option. If cats get into your building’s basement, crawl space, or under a deck, use fencing or netting to keep them out.
Another popular mechanical control option is live-trapping in order to relocate or neuter and vaccinate the animal. Only experienced professionals should trap. If you are relocating cats, do so through a shelter. Simply driving down the road and letting the cat go doesn’t help the community and that cat will be trap shy in the future. For a (somewhat controversial) report on IPM for feral cats, including guidance on trapping, see http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf
Dogs that have a limited range may scare cats from coming into an area. If dogs are used in this manner, make sure the dogs are confined so that they don’t chase down and kill the cats.
And I suppose fertility control is part of biological control. The Nebraska report states that more than 70% of the cats must be neutered in order to reduce the population, yet it is mentioned in most control guidances.
There are no toxicants labeled for cats. Although there are repellents labeled for use against cats, the repellents are not effective for long term control.
Chemicals may play a role in feral cat control if you choose to find a professional to humanely euthanize trapped cats through injection.
There is great debate about feral cat euthanasia. If you decide to euthanize, the ultimate goal is always to end the cat’s life with as little distress and pain as possible. The Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management advocates trapping and shooting (http://icwdm.org/wildlife/housecat.asp) because these methods eliminate the stressful live-trapping and handling. The AVMA does not advocate trapping or shooting cats. Regardless of how you morally weigh-in on this subject, your options may be limited because of local regulations around firearms and trapping.
FYI, in addition, AVMA specifically lists drowning, blows to the head, chloral hydrate, chloroform, cyanide, formalin, and household products and solvents as being unacceptable agents of euthanasia for any animal in their AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia: http://www.avma.org/issues/animal_welfare/euthanasia.pdf
4. Evaluate effectiveness
Continue to inspect your property for cats as well as the food, water, and shelter they need to survive. If the control plan isn’t working, revisit your options and try a different approach. Regardless of whether you have feral cats or not, make sure people in the community know what they can to do be responsible pet owners—register, microchip, neuter, and vaccinate…oh, and feed and love them too!