Saturday, March 27, 2010

Feral Cats

As an avid conservationist, I am very interested in the protection of our natural places and wildlife species. One of the biggest threats to our wildlife is the feral cat population. Hardy, wily, and efficient hunters, the domesticated cat could easily be considered the most destructive and invasive of the non-native species that threaten our wildlife. Here is an article from Rhode Island where there is current debate on what to do about them:

It is heartening to see the recent interest in the feline and canine populations in Rhode Island. We are faced with many discouraging problems as we become more exposed to growing animal populations that have been losing their usual environments. Aside from our dogs and cats, deer, geese, vultures, coyotes and other populations of animal species sharing our environment have become pressing problems, with very little being done by the state to address them. We often provide forage for these populations with our lawns and golf courses. The loss of a predator population has exacerbated this.

State Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr. has stated that he is withdrawing legislation regarding the feral-cat population because he “is starting to get some calls and complaints.” He also apparently will withdraw a “handful of other animal-related bills.” He goes on to state that he “can’t be chasing around feral cats when I’ve got people out of work.”

Yes, jobs, the economy and the state budget are certainly priorities.

But so is our public health and welfare. They can’t be put on a back burner, Senator. The feral cats are a definite health menace to people and their domestic pets. There are numerous diseases transmissible to man and other animals from feral cats. They also endanger our wildlife balance: It is well documented that cats take a heavy toll of our wild-bird population and other desirable species.

Veterinarians are very familiar with the sadness of having to destroy stray cats that are severely injured or mutilated by cars or other traumas. Our domestic-cat owners are urged to keep pets out of harm’s way by keeping them indoors. The rising coyote population in the state has been cited in urging owners not to let their beloved cats and small dogs roam. The American Veterinary Medical Association urges cat owners to keep their pets indoors.

Some reports indicate that the population of feral cats may be rising as irresponsible cat owners release their cats into the community when they can no longer afford to feed and maintain them. The studies of publicly supported spay and neuter clinics indicate that there is a drop initially in the feral population when the clinics comes on line, but in a short time, the population rises to its prior level. The checks and balances that occur in our wild populations of animals seem to account for many of the phenomena that we see in our feral-cat and -dog populations.

Emotional outbursts decrying measures to address this dangerous situation as “inhumane and outrageous” are not helpful or productive. That there is no rabies epidemic in our state is not comforting, since we know that there is an almost constant number of rabies cases in our state that threatens to expand into a much more dangerous problem.

A discussion of the problem of feral cats would really be helpful. A bill, such as proposed by our state veterinarian, Scott Marshall, should have the opportunity to be heard. But comparing the bill to a “Final Solution” lends little to rational discussion and will not contribute to any solution.

There are many concerns about importing dogs or other animals into Rhode Island without proper health and other safeguards. Knowing the environment where these animals originate can flag a potential hazard. These animals may not have been vaccinated or checked for the multitude of diseases that could threaten both the human and other animal populations. Even if examined and found to be without symptoms of disease, they may be in the incubation period of a disease, and a quarantine of such animals should be considered. State and federal regulations limit the importation of animals, but they are clearly inadequate, and some have loopholes that should be closed.

These issues should be considered in future legislation. The Department of Environmental Management’s recommendations need to be taken seriously. We should also confront other species with problems, indigenous to Rhode Island or not. Dr. Marshall’s call to form a working group is an excellent starting point.

Stan Fellenbaum, DVM, is a veterinarian in Narragansett.


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