Targeted neutering bid takes bite out of feral cat numbers


Published: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 5:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 5:12 p.m.

Sterilizing a targeted group of feral and stray cats and releasing them back into their territory can dramatically help reduce the millions of cats impounded and euthanized each year in the U.S., the results of a University of Florida study reveal.

Facts

ADOPT-A-PET

Anyone interested in helping to save pets in Alachua County can come to a free adoption event sponsored by the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

More than 150 dogs and cats prepared by UF vet school students will be available for adoption

The event will be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at Alachua County Animal Services Department, 3400 NE 53rd Ave., Gainesville

A team of UF College of Veterinary Medicine professors led by Julie Levy, the Maddie’s professor of shelter medicine, demonstrated that focusing trap-neuter-return efforts on a specific population led to a sharp drop in the number of cats sent to the Alachua County shelter and killed.

The aim of the two-year study, funded by a $250,000 grant from Maddie’s Fund, was to find out whether they could reduce shelter intake by targeting a specific population for trap-neuter-return, educating the residents about control options and encouraging adoption.

The group targeted the 32601 ZIP code — a 5-square-mile area between Waldo Road and 13th Street that included downtown, industrial areas, wooded areas and trailer parks — an area with abundant food sources for cats, higher reproduction rates and a higher concentration of people who are likely to spot the cats and bring them to a shelter. The area had more lower-income households where people are more likely to not spay or neuter their pets, Levy said.

Over the course of the study, the group captured 2,366 stray and feral cats — about 54 percent of the estimated free-roaming cat population for that zone, Levy said. After two years, Animal Control intake for the target area declined from 13 cats per 1,000 residents to four cats per 1,000 residents, she said. Euthanasias dropped from eight cats per 1,000 residents to less than one per 1,000.

In the non-target area, cat intake declined only 13 percent from a baseline of 16 cats her 1,000 residents to 14 cats per 1,000 residents for the same two-year period. Euthanasias dropped 30 percent from 10 cats per 1,000 residents to seven cats per 1,000 residents, the report said.

“You can see it was quite dramatic. It exceeded our expectations,” Levy said.

“Our question was could we reduce shelter intake if we focused on a single area,” she said. “If we do that really intensively in a restricted area, would it be effective as a means of animal control? That was our goal: to have fewer cats coming to Animal Control.”

Alachua County is home to an estimated 40,000 free-roaming community cats that appear to have no owners. “They are generally not neutered and so are the major source of kittens in our community because people are good about neutering their own pets,” Levy said.

Operation Catnip, the local nonprofit organization Levy works with, sterilizes about 3,000 of those cats a year. “It seems like a drop in the bucket because the other 37,000 are reproducing,” she said. “It’s not targeted.”

Another big surprise was that shelter intake for dogs went down, too, which Levy attributed to a community outreach component that was part of the study.

“We got very engaged with the residents,” Levy said. “I hired a full-time person to go door to door, explain how to be a responsible pet owner, the resources for getting pets spayed and neutered.”

Another happy outcome resulting from the study was that half the cats that were captured and neutered were adopted out, she said.

While the study showed that such an intensely focused effort works, she said the challenge is figuring out how to scale it up. A countywide effort would cost millions.

An alternative would be to focus on the areas with the highest concentrations of community cat colonies and work out from there, she said.

“There are other neighborhoods based on shelter data that we can go to first to do a similar intensive approach,” she said.

Trap-neuter-return programs are becoming increasingly popular in communities across the nation as animal control agencies see how successful they are in dealing with the estimated 50 million free-roaming cats across the country. The method has been endorsed by the ASPCA and the Humane Society.

Some wildlife groups are opposed to the method because it releases feral cats to the wild to continue to prey on birds and pose other risks. They estimate feral cats kill millions of wild birds each year.

But the past method of randomly bringing strays in for euthanizing doesn’t stop the vicious treadmill of cat reproduction, Levy said, and it causes conflict between the government and residents with a soft spot for cats of all stripes.

“Our approach is we actually can impact the number of cats causing these concerns by high-density neutering. If we stop the reproduction of kittens, eventually the population will go down,” Levy said.

“If we just randomly remove cats and leave others out there, it’s just a constant treadmill of catch and kill. It doesn’t serve the birds or the environment because the cats are not being managed in any way.”

The results of the two-year study — written by Levy with co-authors Natalie Isaza, a clinical associate professor with UF’s Veterinary Community Outreach Program, and biological scientist Karen Scott — were published last month in The Veterinary Journal.

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