Living with Community Cats
Everywhere you look there are more cats. Nothing seems to be “solving” the problem. Are we not working hard enough? Are shelters just not doing their job? The truth is, shelters have been working hard and actually doing more than their job. They have taken on the job of eliminating free-roaming, outdoor cats single handedly. But it is a situation of working harder, not smarter.
Math, Science and Humanity are working against us if our goal is to remove all free-roaming cats. The sheltering community has been spinning their wheels for years in this continual cycle. Finally, someone looked at the relationships between cats, wildlife and animal shelters with science, math and common sense. Kate Hurley is a Board-Certified Shelter Medicine Veterinarian and professor at the UC-Davis’s Koret Shelter Medicine Program. She put together a free webinar called, “Cats, Birds and Animal Shelters” which covers this subject in depth. We encourage anyone who has an interest in this subject to watch this free, online resource.
What is a Community Cat Anyway?
Community cats is a term that describes the collection of stray (socialized to people) and feral (unsocialized to people) cats that live in our neighborhoods. They are the relatively healthy looking cats that make it everyday out of the streets. They come from many sources: abandoned by their caretakers, born outside or merely taking a stroll around the neighborhood only to go back to their home later that day. The evidence is out there that these cats are not going anywhere anytime soon. Cats have lived outside around humans for centuries and this is not going to change anytime soon. We just need to learn the best way to live with them.
Despite the negativity that surrounds them, these cats actually have an important job that they do very well. They keep the vermin that are naturally attracted to human populations down to a reasonable level, decreasing the mess and deadly diseases that are spread by rats and mice (Lyme disease, Leptospirosis, Plague, Salmonella and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to name a few). Bonus: This fact has been proved to actually benefit the bird populations too!
The Vacuum Effect: Why Catch and Kill Will Never Work
Removing these cats that are adapted to living outside from the environment they live in, regardless of whether you think you are helping that cat or because you don’t want it to bother you anymore, creates a “vacuum” effect. This means that other surrounding cats will just move in and fill that void left by that removed cat. The issues the original cat presented will just continue. The problem will still exist.
Free-roaming cats will always exist in our communities, at least for the foreseeable future.
The following is why removing cats will not help:
Litter bearing animals will breed to the carrying capacity of the environment.
A simple way to look at this is if there is food, there will be more kittens.
Removing cats just creates more food and even more kittens.
Killing or removing enough cats to actually make a difference in the population is unattainable in the US.
By most estimates, 80% or more cats would have to be removed every year for as many as 50 years in order to eliminate the population.
Owned cats continue to be abandoned or allowed to breed outside, supplying more cats to the population.
Spay/Neuter is the answer! This leaves the cats in the environment to eat the food that is there without making more kittens.
How About The Birds?
But what about the birds? Should we just sacrifice the birds and other wildlife to protect cats? The answer is no. On a small island in the Pacific, a concerted, expensive, time consuming, arguably inhumane, but ultimately successful effort was put forth to remove all the cats to protect the native wildlife. To their surprise, more wildlife died after the cats were removed! Why was this? The rats were eating the young and nestlings. The cats actually were protecting the wildlife from the rats! Cats, in general, are more adapted at killing small mammals than they are at birds. Without neighborhood cats, the rat and mice population would explode, taking a significant toll on the wildlife and human health.
Maybe we can protect birds and wildlife in other ways? Creating bird and other wildlife friendly environments to replace destroyed habitats and surrounding these with cat repellents is a much better use of time and resources than trying to remove all the cats. You can start with your backyard! Small patches make a big difference. There are a few things to remember to keep the birds safe and happy:
Keep feeders and bird baths high off the ground out of the reach of cats and other ground predators
Provide safe nesting places such as bird houses with tamper proof poles so nothing can climb them
Leave dead trees and branches to provide insect food and housing
Plant native plants that attract insects and provide berries for birds to eat
Keep indoor cats inside - it is safer for them anyway. They will be happy to watch the birds with you from the comfort of your home!
Check out the bird and wildlife resources on the right to get started living in a humane balance with all animals.
What Can't You Do?
It is actually illegal to kill a community cat or cause it intentional harm (or any cat). Contrary to a popular urban myth, cats are not considered “wildlife” under the law, even community cats. Ohio law specifically defines all cats as companion animals and subject to all animal cruelty laws regarding companion animals: ORC 959.131 (A) (1) “"Companion animal" means any animal that is kept inside a residential dwelling and any dog or cat regardless of where it is kept” (emphasis added). In ORC 959.131 (C) “No person shall knowingly cause serious physical harm to a companion animal.”
Even if it were legal, killing or otherwise removing cats is an extremely short-term solution at best, as discussed earlier. Learning to live with cats is the best outcome for all concerned because it is the only solution that will be effective and will last over a long period of time.
What Can You Do?
Spay and Neuter!
This is the best strategy to decrease problem causing behaviors in cats. Sexually intact cats are almost impossible to live with - inside or outside! This is why young, friendly cats start showing up outside around 6 months old - they lost their homes for their spraying, yowling and escape behaviors related to being intact.
Spay and neuter inside cats too! Don't let them be part of the problem. They will get out and when they do, they will come back with reinforcements.
Decreases annoying behaviors in adult cats
Decreases the pungent tom-cat urine smell
Prevents more kittens from coming into the world
Less kittens to suffer and die outside of disease and exposure
TNR programs generally include vaccinations as well. Vaccinating outdoor cats for FVRCP and Rabies decreases disease in the population which leads to a more stable population and protects public health.
There are two approaches to living with outdoor cats, the love cats camp and the hate cats camp. Many times, these two camps live right next door to each other.
Do you love cats? Do you feel sorry for them out in the cold? Do you feed them because they look hungry? Before you give them the first bite of food, the kindest thing is to make sure they cannot reproduce. Feeding more cats only increases the carrying capacity of the environment, leading to more hungry mouths to feed – a vicious cycle. You feed the pregnant cat more food because she is pregnant, then more because she is nursing, then more because the kittens are growing, then more because she is pregnant again and now the kittens are too. Don’t wait until they are “friendly;” trap them in a live trap and take them to get fixed. Commit to only feed enough food for the cats that you have fixed. Any more is just creating more cats that will suffer and die. Create easy outdoor shelters for the cats you take care of.
Do you hate cats? Do you wish they would all just disappear? The yowling, the smell, the fights, the 'presents' in the flower bed - not much to love there! Maybe secretly you don't want to see the suffering every spring either. Fixing the cats solves most of these problems. Maybe you don't want to make that investment - that is ok. But some of your neighbors are. It is a benefit for you too. Let them help you by allowing them to trap cats on your property and bring them back fixed with an eartip. If you see a cat with an eartip, let it be. If you know of a neighbor that is feeding and not fixing, let them know that spay and neuter is a better option and use of their money. As for keeping cats out of certain areas, it is a much more long term option to make those places less attractive for the cats than to remove the 'one' offending cat. Prevent unauthorized access to food by securing garbage in tamper proof containers and not leaving cat or dog food outside. This not only discourages cats, but also raccoons and rats, much more likely garbage culprits. Placing deterrents such as citrus smells or motion activated sprinklers in yards and gardens is a more long-term solution to creating a cat free zone in flower beds and gardens. For more information, please read the handouts to the right.
This cute cartoon explains the best way to live with and around these cats no matter if you love cats or hate cats.