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My Pet World: Unify to address feral cat problem

Feral cats are a problem. And there are a lot of them out there — about 50% to 150% of the number of owned cats. (According to the American Veterinary Medical Assn., there are about 90 million owned cats.)

That's a lot of feral cats mousing from farm to farm, living in big city alleys and suburban parks. They are everywhere.

These cats can be a nuisance, yowling overnight, using gardens as their litter boxes, or just inciting indoor cats to spray in response to them. Feral cats aren't vaccinated for rabies, and therefore there's a potential health risk.

Also, feral cats eat what they can; a diet that sometimes includes songbirds and lizards. That's why in recent years, there's been a line drawn outside the cat box. On one side stands the bird groups, such as the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society. On the other side are feral cat advocacy groups like Alley Cat Allies, who support trap, neuter and return (TNR) programs.

The grass-roots TNR programs are supported by animal shelters and volunteers who humanely trap feral cats to be spay/neutered; vaccinated for rabies, often microchipped and ear-tipped (so caretakers know which have been spay/neutered). TNR is humane, and obviously if all the cats in colonies (their social groups) are altered, their population ultimately dwindles.

Also, many TNR groups supplement their colonies with food, so the cats are less motivated to kill as much wildlife.

However, feral cats remain the object of outright hostility by the bird groups, who call TNR an abject failure, and attempt to find fault anywhere they can. On Sept. 21, the American Bird Conservancy issued a press release entitled, "Feral Cat Colonies Present Perfect Storm for Rabies Risk."

The release also states: "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people are exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals, such as cats and dogs."

This is true, but that definition doesn't include feral cats. While feral cats are considered a domestic species, the CDC is referring to pet dogs and cats.

Because they are cats, the press release notes that they are perceived as domestic, and approachable. Perhaps they're domestic, but feral cats are not approachable.

While formerly owned cats might not run off, feral cats might not scamper away from people they know, such as colony caretakers. Also it's true that some cats have been identified with rabies.

However, managed colony cats are supposed to be vaccinated for rabies in the first place. Vaccinating for rabies is what caretakers ensure happens, though it would be ideal to somehow provide boosters. Still, I'll bet the percentage of feral cats in managed colonies vaccinated for rabies is far higher than the percentage of pet cats in homes vaccinated for rabies.

Regardless, it's a fact that cat-to-human rabies transmission hasn't occurred for more than 30 years.

In any case, repeatedly launching salvos at feral cats offers no solution. We do know that the various solutions offered through the centuries, from poisoning cats to trapping and then euthanizing has never succeeded.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the squawking about birds and feral cats. And it makes me sad because, like many cat owners, I also love birds. I believe bird groups can be a part of the solution. Continued assaults, particularly those without basis, presumably to get publicity, are not constructive. Here's my plan:

Let's agree that feral cats are a problem. But let's also agree that even if TNR is imperfect, it's the best solution anyone's come up with to date, not to mention the most humane approach.

The bird groups are right (to benefit birds, cats and the environment) to strongly support the notion of restricting cats indoors. Being indoors 24/7 nearly guarantees compliance that cat owners will also spay/neuter.

One problem with TNR is simply a lack of dedicated volunteers and other resources; here's where the bird groups might be of help. Their members could volunteer in TNR programs.

We need to find ways that cat lovers, and all of America, can do more to preserve songbird habitat, as well as deal with light and air pollution; each is a more significant threat to birds than feral cats.

I've never read that cat groups hope for open season on owls, hawks and eagles, which sometimes prey on cats.

You can help cats wherever you live; there are likely feral cat colonies near you. Learn more by contacting your local shelter or Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org).

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.

(c) 2011 DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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