The estimated number of pet and feral or free-roaming cats in urban and rural regions of the United States has grown to over 100 million. Between January 2002 and August 2003, more than 7,000 feral cats were neutered in Utah through the No More Homeless Pets in Utah campaign, but this may only be the tip of the iceberg. Methods to best manage the growing feral cat problem were addressed in the 2011 Utah Legislature with the introduction of two bills, each proposing different solutions.
According to Terry Messmer, Utah State University Extension wildlife specialist, a feral cat is the descendant of a domesticated cat that has returned to the wild. It is un-owned and free roaming. A feral cat differs from a stray cat, which is a pet cat that has been lost or abandoned. While feral cats are born in the wild, the offspring of a stray cat can be considered feral if they are born in the wild. Many feral cats are wary of humans, as they have had very little exposure to them.
Messmer said that although cats make affectionate pets, many domestic cats can also hunt as effectively as wild predators and need to be managed. There are many things homeowners and citizens can do to keep feline populations under control. One logical and easy way is to keep only as many pet cats as can be fed and cared for. Controlling reproduction and humanely euthanizing unwanted cats will also help. Neuter cats or prevent them from breeding, and encourage others to do the same. For information on local licensing and neutering laws, contact a local health department or humane society.
On farms, keep only the minimum number of free-ranging cats needed to control rodents. Well-fed, neutered females will stay close to farm buildings and do the majority of their killing where rodent control is needed most. Traps, properly used rodenticides, sanitation and rodent-proof storage and construction will usually contribute more to effective rodent control than will cats.
“If possible, keep your cat indoors,” he said. “Confinement will eliminate unwanted reproduction, injury, predation on wild animals and the spread of disease. Declawing may reduce hunting success, but many declawed cats are still effective predators. The two most common causes of death for rural cats are disease and being struck by automobiles. If cats must be allowed outdoors, consider using a fenced enclosure or runway.”
Messmer suggested protecting birds by placing bird feeders in sites that do not provide cover for cats to wait in ambush. Cats are a significant source of mortality among birds that come to feeders. To prevent cats from climbing to bird nests, put animal guards around trees that may have nesting birds.
It’s important not to feed stray cats and to eliminate garbage or outdoor pet food dishes that may attract them, he said. Cat colonies will form around sources of food and will grow to the limits of the food supply. Some colonies can grow to include dozens of animals. Cats suffer because of disease and physical injury, native wildlife suffers from predation and competition and cat colonies can be a source of disease for animals and humans.
“Another important point is not to dispose of unwanted cats by releasing them in rural areas,” he said. “This practice enlarges rural cat populations and is inhumane. Cats suffer in unfamiliar settings, even if they are good predators. Contact your local animal welfare organization for help.”
Laws that relate to domestic cats vary by local government, he said. In most areas, the person who provides care for a cat is legally responsible for its welfare and control. If ownership can be established by collar or other identification, a cat is considered personal property, and it is usually the responsibility of the owner to control the cat's movements. In most areas, a cat can be live-trapped and either returned to the owner or turned over to authorities if it wanders onto others’ property. Many cities have leash laws and require vaccination and neutering of pet cats.
“Free-ranging domestic cats may also transmit new diseases to wild animals,” Messmer said. “Domestic cats have spread feline leukemia virus to mountain lions and may have recently infected the endangered Florida Panther with feline distemper and an immune deficiency disease. These diseases may pose a serious threat to this rare species. Some free-ranging domestic cats also carry several diseases that are easily transmitted to humans, including rabies and toxoplasmosis.”
Messmer said that ultimately, the management of most human-wildlife conflicts rests within the ability of those who contributed to its creation. In most cases, humans have the skills and knowledge to identify the root cause for these conflicts as well as meaningful strategies to manage the conflicts. Implementation of long-term, comprehensive programs requires education, cooperation and communication.
By: Terry Messmer - Aug. 26, 2011