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And Then There Were 22 ...

Study conducted at a Florida university finds that patience, diligence, and discretion in a trap-neuter-return program can cut free-roaming cat numbers

Study conducted at a Florida university finds that patience, diligence, and discretion in a trap-neuter-return program can cut free-roaming cat numbers

It’s possible to reduce free-roaming cat populations through trap-neuter-return programs, but patience and careful monitoring are key to long-term success, according to the results of a study published recently in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Vol. 222, No. 1, January 1, 2003).

Written by Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, of the University of Florida and David W. Gale and Leslie A. Gale of Friends of Campus Cats, the study also concluded that, despite frequent statements to the contrary, cats in established colonies often don’t have enough of a territorial instinct to prevent new arrivals from joining their ranks.

During the 11-year study on the 1,415-acre campus of the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, caretakers came into contact with a total of 155 free-roaming cats who were either permanent residents or temporary guests of colonies that had existed near dormitories and food services buildings since the late ’60s. Students and university employees began sterilizing and adopting cats in 1991; the program worked so well that by 1995, they stopped seeing kittens.

By 1996, when a complete census of all existing colonies was taken and caretakers counted a total of 68 cats, all but one were already sterilized. By the end of the study in 2002, the number had dwindled again, this time by two-thirds: only 22 feral cats and one socialized adult cat remained. The rest of the original 155 cats were no longer on campus for the following reasons: 73 (47%) had been adopted; 9 (6%) had gone into nearby woods; 23 (15%) had disappeared; 10 (6%) had died either from “automobile trauma” or for unknown reasons; and 17 (11%) had been euthanized—11 because of positive test results for FeLV or FIV and the rest for neoplasia, injury, or unspecified diseases.

© Herbert L. Gatewood
If his rocky repose is any indication of his typical behavior, this chilled-out free-roamer appears to be proving what Florida researchers concluded in a recent study: that cats are often not territorial enough to prevent new arrivals from joining their ranks. The influx makes ongoing maintenance of a trap-neuter-return program even more critical—newcomers need to be immediately tested, vaccinated, and sterilized to ensure the health and containment of a colony.

As part of the decade-long effort to reduce numbers through trapping and long-term care, Friends of Campus Cats volunteers transported the animals to Orange County Animal Services and to private clinics. Veterinarians performed sterilization surgery; ear-tipped; tested for feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV); and vaccinated against panleukopenia, calicivirus, rhinotracheitis, and rabies. Veterinary involvement also included euthanasia of sick cats, injured cats, and cats who tested positive for FeLV and FIV.

Caretakers kept cats sustained and safe by placing food dishes in small moats that helped prevent insect infestation and by locating feeding stations in out-of-sight areas. Efforts to keep public attention at bay in this manner may be critical to colony reduction, Levy and the Gales wrote, citing evidence from a previous Florida study in which the number of cats actually increased after one year of trapping and sterilization. The failure of that project, they believe, was a result of the heightened visibility of well-fed cat colonies; publicity can be an open invitation to those who want to abandon their cats and think it’s humane to do so at a site frequented by caretakers.

“Immigration or abandonment of new cats may be a frequent event, and free-roaming cats do not appear to have sufficient territorial activity to prevent new arrivals from permanently joining colonies,” Levy and her fellow researchers noted. “These new arrivals could substantially limit the success of TNR if an ongoing surveillance and maintenance program is not effective.”

The discretion of caretakers in the UCF program was successful in minimizing public awareness of the colonies and keeping abandonment to a minimum. Even so, existing colonies were not static. “Sexually intact socialized cats that were apparently abandoned joined the colonies; their presence could have undermined the control program had they not been promptly captured and neutered,” wrote the researchers. “Migration of cats between colonies was common ...”

In addition to immediate sterilization of newcomers and discreet placement of food dishes, an aggressive adoption program for socialized cats can help accelerate the often slow decline in numbers achieved through spay/neuter and natural attrition, according to the researchers. In fact, adoptions contributed substantially to the decrease in the cat population on the UCF campus.

“It has been reported that feral cats become less aggressive toward each other and more friendly toward their feeders following neutering, and this may have encouraged adoption of previously feral cats,” the researchers reported. “Cats were often transferred to private homes only after several years of free-roaming status. The permanent placement of cats in homes is consistent with conventional animal welfare values; the more traditional pet lifestyle is considered to meet the needs of domesticated pet species better than a homeless and free-roaming existence.”

But at the very least, a trap-and-return program that includes sterilization, testing, and vaccination can improve the health of free-roaming cats by preventing the birth of kittens and increasing weight and body condition, the researchers concluded. And, they suggest, carefully run trapping programs are more successful than removal and euthanasia of cats—a method university administrators had already tried. “In our study, employees and students openly violated policies against feeding the cats and interfered with trapping efforts by university officials during removal campaigns,” the researchers noted. “In contrast, programs that control the population and improve the well-being of cats via neutering frequently have the support of cat feeders who may be recruited to assist with trapping and management.”


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