Cats are the most popular domesticated animals. They have become so prevalent that we hardly recognize how many we actually come across. If you’ve ever been to a Walmart parking lot, you’ll see litters of them in boxes marked “Free Kittens.” You know where the stray cat is in your neighborhood, the one with a missing eye and the crooked tail. She’s been hanging out for awhile, taking care of the neighborhood mouse and snake problem. You drive down a back road, meandering along, and tap on the brakes as a gigantic tomcat darts across the road. You become exasperated when you see the pawprints on your car when you leave for work in the morning—always tracked from the hood of your car and right across the driver’s side of the windshield. Ever since that close call two years ago, you check under your car in the winter, just in case there’s a cat keeping warm next to your engine. Your son or daughter comes home from a friend’s house, their jacket zipped up all the way, suspiciously bulky, squirming, and meowing, as your child smiles sheepishly and pleads, “Can we keep him?”
The number of cats, specifically feral cats, has become an epidemic that has been gradually increasing for some time. Recent data has left experts to estimate the population of feral cats in the United States to be about 80 million. To put this into perspective, we have an estimated 320 million Americans currently. If we were to add the stray cat population to our human population, they would make up 25% of the United States’ population; that’s a ratio of one stray cat to every four people! According to the Solano Feral Cat TNR Task Force, the problem lies in the ability of cats to reproduce at alarming rates: “Feral cats have an average of 1.4 litters per year, with an average 3.5 live births in each litter. That equals 4.9 kittens per year, per female feral cat. Cats are able to become pregnant at only four months old, which means that a pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce 420,000 kittens over a seven-year period.” The numbers are staggering, and they grow annually.
You might be thinking to yourself, “What’s the big deal? So we’re just going to have a bunch of adorable cats running around.” And, if you love cats or you just don’t mind them, you probably don’t see the feral cat population as an epidemic (but if you hate cats, you’re going to have a bad time). The problem is that, with the growing number of feral cats, the more unforeseeable negative impacts it could cause. For instance, along with alarming rates in the rise of feline-specific diseases threatening the health of domesticated cats and other household pets, feral cats also carry with them diseases which can be spread to humans — namely, rabies. Last year, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) stated, “Over the past few years, public health officials saw a small decrease in the number of reported cases of rabid cats. However, in 2014, over four times more rabid cats were reported than rabid dogs.” Feral cats are also at risk of dying prematurely and suffering from low-quality of life. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation states, “Most of these cats will suffer premature mortality from disease, starvation, weather extremes, trauma, or euthanasia.” Even if you aren’t fond of cats—or even if you blatantly hate them—an animal that has been domesticated shouldn’t have to suffer unnecessarily for having the misfortune of being born in the wild. The most pressing issue when examining the epidemic of stray cats and the rise in the population of feral cats, however, is the problem of keeping that population fed. Stray cats will consume everything from birds to snakes to frogs, along with small mammals, fish, and anything they can scavenge. (However, if you have ever owned a cat—or if you know anyone who owns a cat—then you know that cats sometimes kill small animals recreationally.) This has lead to widespread endangerment of hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians; in the long run, this severely hurts an ecosystem and throws the habitat off balance. And they are not just an epidemic in the United States — Australia is facing a crisis as well. As of January 2017, the Australian feral cat population is growing at a rate similar to the United States. According to Science Alert, “Researchers in Australia have found that 99.8 percent of the country is now covered in feral cats, which are wreaking havoc on the country’s native wildlife and even driving certain species extinct.” Australia has been enacting initiatives since the early nineties to come up with solutions to control the feral cat population with little success. As for the United States, according to scientific journal, Nature Communications, “free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually. Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought, and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.” Having been domesticated in the Mediterranean region of the world, cats were “imported” to 6 of our 7 continents. With the boom in sea exploration and travel from the 16th-19th centuries, sailors would often keep cats onboard ships to control the rat and mice problem. Naturally, when the ships would dock at one country or another, what we now know as housecats made homes for themselves and have been multiplying ever since. However, habitats and ecosystems were unprepared for the predator known as the cat. “Notable predators, cats threaten native birdlife and other fauna, especially on islands where native species have evolved in relative isolation from predators,” according to the Global Invasive Species Database, in which cats are in the top 100 of their list, which is aptly named 100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species. Overall, feral cats are responsible for the disproportionate amounts of diseases, widespread species endangerments, and extinctions. The consequences of their uncontrolled breeding is certainly not the fault of the cats themselves, or humans, for that matter. But since we now recognize the problem, we have no choice but to play an active role in preventing a worsening and uncontrolled increase in the cat population. If not for the reasons listed in this article, then at least for the fact that cats have already taken over the internet—we can’t let them take over the world!
Measures taken to stabilize the stray cat population include relocation, adoption, and euthanasia; however, all of these methods are ineffective and pointless. Relocation has proven to be ineffective because when a cat or a group of cats are moved from a neighborhood, another cat or group of stray cats will take its place. Alley Cat Allies, an organization created for the sole purpose of eradicating the feral cat epidemic calls this the “vacuum effect.” Adoption is also not a viable solution for a good portion of feral cats for the simple fact that stray cats—especially older ones—are not equipped to handle a domesticated lifestyle. Though, there are plenty of cases in which a younger stray cat or kitten can lead a long and happy life with a family, this is sadly not the case for all stray cats, especially after generations of living a feral life. Euthanasia (or the Catch and Kill Method), is another solution that is not only futile, but inhumane. Besides the fact that these cats are killed unnecessarily, euthanasia doesn’t work because it doesn’t solve the root of the problem: uncontrolled breeding. The tried-and-true method of controlling the feral cat population is the Trap-Neuter-Return method, or TNR. Alley Cat Allies lists a myriad of reasons why the TNR method is the most effective solution: it improves the health of female cats since they aren’t constantly having litter after litter of kittens, which risks the lives of the mother and her offspring; it improves the health of the male cats because neutering calms the male cat down, making him less aggressive and less of a threat to household pets and children; and it eliminates the risk of dangerous diseases of both the feral cats and any other domesticated animals and people, because the TNR method also includes vaccinations. But the reason that is most relevant to this specific article, is its effectiveness in controlling breeding, and ultimately reversing some of the damage that has been done. Alley Cat Allies states, “During an 11-year study of TNR at the University of Florida, the number of cats on campus declined by 66%, with no new kittens being born after the first four years of operation...A study of the impact of TNR on feral cat colonies in Rome, Italy, also observed colony size decrease between 16% and 32% over a 10-year period.” Research, experimental implementation, and data all point to the solution of the TNR method, so how can we help?
This is an issue in which we can all contribute to providing the necessary outcome. I am not saying that everyone has to go outside, catch a wild cat, take it to the vet, pay to get it neutered, nurse it back to health, and release it back into the wild. However, there are still plenty of fairly simple steps you can take to help out with the problem. If you have a cat that is not neutered yet, do so as soon as possible —for both male and female cats. Although there isn’t much research on this topic, a good portion of the feral cat problem is related to cat owners having their cats neutered too late or not at all. If there’s a surprise from your cat in the form of several little kittens, try to have as many as possible adopted by loving homes or give them to an animal shelter. If you don’t own a cat, or simply want to help out even more, you can still help out by donating or volunteering at your local animal shelter. Visit humanesociety.org to find a list of local vet clinics, animal shelters, and spay/neuter clinics and donate to help their efforts in fixing this problem. The best part of the TNR method is that most of these cats are completely wild, so animal shelters don’t need to keep these cats and use up too many resources in finding homes for them; these cats are free to live out in the wild, where they will not be fruitful—and they won’t multiply.
"Statistics." Solano Feral TNR Task Force. Solano Feral Cat Group, n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
"The Burden of Rabies." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 12 July 2017.
" Free-roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats." Free-roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.
Hrala, Josh. "Almost 100 Percent of Australia Is Now Covered in Feral Cats." Science Alert. N.p., 5 Jan. 2017. Web. 12 July 2017.
Loss, Scott R., Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra. "The Impact of Free-ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States." Nature News. Nature Publishing Group, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 July 2017.
"100 of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species." GISD. Invasive Species Specialist Group, 2017. Web. 18 July 2017.
"Why Trap-Neuter-Return Feral Cats? The Case for TNR." Alley Cat Allies. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2017.