By Katina Antoniades
Study evaluates effects of feral cat sterilization program
Although a recent study on a Florida spay/neuter program for feral cats wasn’t able to identify the program’s precise effects, the results published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (Vol. 5, No. 4, 2002) suggest that a feral cat trap-neuter-return program can be an important facet of a community strategy to fight pet overpopulation.
Written by Kathy L. Hughes and Margaret R. Slater of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A & M University and Linda Haller of the Hawaiian Humane Society, the study focuses on the feral cat sterilization program that Haller oversaw when she managed Orange County Animal Services in Orlando.
Begun in 1995, the trap-and-return program was a cooperative effort between the county and a local volunteer group. Though the county had tried in the past to address feral cat issues, those efforts had focused mainly on trapping and euthanasia—and had failed to reduce the numbers.
Under the new program, the volunteer group trapped the cats and brought them to the county to be spayed or neutered, eartipped, and vaccinated against rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, panleukopenia, and rabies. (Some were later re-trapped for a subsequent vaccination.) The surgery was free, and caretakers paid $5 for each rabies vaccination.
“High-risk males” or cats who appeared ill were tested for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus infections, and, if positive, were euthanized. Kittens were not returned to the colonies but were socialized and, if possible, put up for adoption. Those who appeared to be at least seven weeks old were neutered or spayed.
From fiscal years 1990 to 2001, the period during which data was collected, the county sterilized 37,182 cats, including 7,903 ferals. Analysis of the program’s results was complicated by concurrent changes to regulations and other animal control programs (the study did not identify these), but statistics were still significant.
The number of cat impoundments remained stable during the study period, despite an increase of 32 percent in the human population. Although intake rates did not decrease as expected, the authors note, “This may reflect in part a change in the county code of September 1995, in which a renewed emphasis was placed on enforcement.”
The adoption rate during that period reached 12 percent, twice as high as it had been during the six years before the trapping program began. Euthanasia of impounded cats decreased by 18 percent from fiscal year 1996 to fiscal year 2001. (Feral cats who had already been spayed or neutered did not factor into impoundment statistics.)
The frequency of cat-related complaints also fell—by 25 percent between the mid-90s and 2001. The county’s policy of requiring relocation of colonies deemed a “nuisance” may have contributed to this decline (though the need for relocation was rare); public awareness also may have increased during the years because of educational outreach on the part of volunteers and rescue groups.
Reducing the financial cost of addressing feral cat issues was a goal of the program from the beginning, with county officials surmising that a neuter-release program would be less expensive and less labor-intensive than impoundment. They appeared to be right: Spaying and neutering the feral cats totaled $442,568, according to the study, substantially less than the estimated $1.1 million it would have cost to impound and euthanize the cats.
Other positive trends were recorded during the study period. The authors observed that the relationship between animal services staff and citizens concerned about feral cats improved, and that “citizens who previously felt overwhelmed by the dilemma of feral cats they saw in their neighborhood now feel empowered and able to make a difference in these cats’ lives.”
While the authors acknowledge that “separating out the effects of a single program may be impossible,” they stress that no negative consequences were recorded for the sterilization program. They also laud the creation of the program itself.
“The establishment of the feral cat program was done without a change in the county code,” they wrote, “through the persistence and teamwork of concerned citizens and county officials.”
Reproduced from the July-August 2003 issue of Animal Sheltering magazine.