Written by: Wesley Cheung, BVSc. Toronto Humane Society
NACA has recently released a position statement on animal control intake of free-roaming cats.
Summary: It is the position [policy] of the National Animal Care & Control Association that, at every opportunity, officers should [will] work to educate the public regarding humane and responsible co-existence and care of pet and community cats, to include education on the benefits and resources for spay/neuter and vaccination; responsible feeding and management practices for those choosing to care for community cats; and effective methods to humanely deter and exclude animals from homes, structures and targeted areas. It is the position of NACA that indiscriminate pick up or admission of healthy, free-roaming cats, regardless of temperament, for any purpose other than TNR/SNR [Trap-Neuter-Release/Shelter-Neuter-Release], fails to serve commonly held goals of community animal management and protection programs and, as such, is a misuse of time and public funds and should be avoided.
NACA has taken an evidence-based, utilitarian position on free-roaming cat management, which highlights the importance of providing proper education and support to the community. The full statement—available the NACA website—presents extensive, evidence-driven arguments to bolster their stance. In addition to these points, there are a few more topics of debate involving the major parties affected by free-roaming cat care: the individual community cats, wildlife, community (including caregivers and residents) and shelter staff.
What challenges do community cats face when they are not managed by TNR programs?
In this post, the term “community cats” refers to outdoor, unowned, free-roaming cats, and “feral cats” refers to unapproachable cats that can survive without direct human interaction. These cats face several challenges that are not experienced by household pets: enduring harsh weather, foraging for food in dumpsters, hunting wildlife, and exposure to infection, attacks, and accidents. Additionally, many kittens born outdoors do not survive to adulthood.1
How do we maintain the welfare of community cats that live in a colony?
Community cats are not accustomed to extensive human contact and human socialisation. Despite this, there is still a lot that the community can do to safeguard their welfare. Several studies have shown that Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), sometimes known as Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return-Monitor (TNVRM), improves the health, body condition, and longevity of community cats, even closing the gap with pet cats.2,3,4,5 Also, TNR has been repeatedly demonstrated to be the least costly and most efficient way to stabilise community cat populations.3,6 TNR is often associated with other auxiliary processes such as identifying friendly cats and kittens to be sent to adoption and foster programs, and those suitable for ‘working-cat’ or ‘barn cat’ placements.
The cats returned to a colony are often cared for by experienced or trained caregivers. These volunteers are responsible for feeding and monitoring the colony, placing winter shelters, trapping newcomer cats for TNR, recording data for municipal policies, and seeking care for cats if there are concerns for their welfare.
Within these colonies, the majority of feral cats are intimately tied to the territory where they have lived their entire lives. For this reason, relocation is often thought of as a last resort if there is no possibility of allowing them to stay.
What challenges are faced by the community?
For communities that have free-roaming cat colonies, nuisance complaints typically cite loud noises (part of fighting or mating behaviour), urine marking, injured cats, local wildlife predation, urban foraging, or fear of zoonotic diseases.
How do we ensure the community is on-board with this TNR plan?
Targeted TNR helps stabilise the population of cats within community colonies and may reduce their numbers over time. Additionally, there is a dramatic reduction in hormone-driven behaviours, including territorial marking, roaming, fighting, and mating.3,6
Public approval for targeted TNR programs can be garnered through transparency and education. Specifically, members of the local community should be educated on the benefits of the program and offered support in resolving factors that may attract cats (e.g. open garbage containers). As part of a TNR program, community caregivers will be trained to follow best-practice hygienic feeding in designated, discreet locations to minimise nuisance for the public.
What are the impacts of community cats on wildlife?
Many studies have examined the impact of free-roaming cats on wildlife. One recent systemic review that analysed data from 66 studies estimated that a single free-roaming cat kills an average of 186 reptiles, birds and mammals every year.7
How can we improve the impact on wildlife?
The impact of community cats on wildlife is an important concern. Studies have investigated alternative methods for controlling free-roaming cats, including feeding bans, lethal control, and trap-and-remove programs. In Australia, lethal control and trap-and-remove programs were ineffective, and in one instance, the number of feral cats increased. The increase was attributed to the vacuum effect, which occurs when cats move from neighbouring areas to benefit from the now-unguarded resources. Although targeted TNR is not a perfect and immediate solution to reduce wildlife predation, it is the best, sustainable, evidence-driven option we currently have in our toolbox.
What is the impact of community cats on shelters?
Trap-and-euthanise plans innately involve directing shelter staff to kill healthy community cats. This leads to a care-killing paradox with serious psychological ramifications for caregivers. This is well documented in literature. For example, the suicide rate in the animal rescue sector ranks first among all professions, alongside police and firefighters.8 Additionally, one survey found that 50% of shelter staff directly involved in animal euthanasia developed PTSD, and another found that two-thirds of workers in this sector burned out and left the profession entirely, citing the volume of unfair euthanasia as the cause.9,10
Inundating shelters and rescues with community cats will likely yield many unintended consequences, including overcrowding. This will be made even worse if there is little regard for cat-housing, shelter-staffing and adoption capacities.
How can we help?
Community support for local shelters and rescues embarking on programs of community cat management is critical, as these not-for-profit organisations face stressful and emotionally taxing challenges on a daily basis. Organizations should carefully consider this important element when planning or implementing any new program.
- Nutter FB, Levine JF, Stoskopf MK. Reproductive capacity of free-roaming domestic cats and kitten survival rate. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2004;225(9):1399-1402.
- Jessup DA. The welfare of feral cats and wildlife. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2004;225(9):1377-1383.
- Levy JK, Isaza NM, Scott KC. Effect of high-impact targeted trap-neuter-return and adoption of community cats on cat intake to a shelter. Vet J. 2014;201(3):269-274.
- Luria BJ, Levy JK, Lappin MR, et al. Prevalence of infectious diseases in feral cats in Northern Florida. J Feline Med Surg. 2004;6(5):287-296.
- Robertson SA. A review of feral cat control. J Feline Med Surg. 2008;10(4):366-375.
- Spehar DD, Wolf PJ. Back to School: An updated evaluation of the effectiveness of a long-term trap-neuter-return program on a university’s free-roaming cat population. Animals (Basel). 2019;9(10):768.
- Legge S, Woinarski JCZ, Dickman CR, Murphy BP, Woolley LA, Calver MC. We need to worry about Bella and Charlie: the impacts of pet cats on Australian wildlife. Wild Res. 2020;47:523-539.
- Tiesman HM, Konda S, Hartley D, Chaumont Menéndez C, Ridenour M, Hendricks S. Suicide in U.S. Workplaces, 2003-2010: a comparison with non-workplace suicides. Am J Prev Med. 2015;48(6):674-682.
- Rohlf V, Bennett P. Perpetration-induced traumatic stress in persons who euthanize nonhuman animals in surgeries, animal shelters, and laboratories. Soc Anim. 2005;13(3):201-219.
- Kira S, Sally M. Negotiating the challenges of a calling: emotion and enacted sensemaking in animal shelter work. Acad Manage J. 2017;60:584–609.