American citizens, like people the world over, are fascinated by cats, big and small. We admire them for their strength, their stealth, and their hunting prowess, and for their ability to blend in to their surroundings. And in the case of domestic cats, we value them for their companionship and the unique traits that make them endlessly fascinating to watch and interact with.
Whether you feel cats, social or feral, have a place in our outdoor environment or not, the truth is that cats are already there. In most areas across the globe cats are already living in proximity to humans and fending well for themselves.
At The Humane Society of the United States we think about the issue of domestic cats being outside every day, taking into account their predation impacts on vulnerable wildlife species, or assessing associated public health risks, and of course considering the cats’ welfare and the potential dangers they face. We strongly urge cat owners to keep their cats safely confined, whether inside or spending part of their time in outdoor enclosures specifically designed for them. To a growing number of those concerned with this topic, the issue is not whether cats who are not someone’s pets should be tolerated in outdoor environments, the issue is implementing effective, humane and practical approaches to reducing the number of unowned animals, curbing their rate of reproduction, and diminishing related risks.
These three parameters–humane, effective and practical–seem simple enough. However, once you take a step back to consider the scale of intervention needed to address approximately 30-40 million unowned cats living outdoors, you realize that very few tools are up to the task. If we’re serious about reducing the number of domestic cats outdoors, we need to have pro-active, targeted and methodical programs, or else the continued reproduction of cats left behind will outpace our efforts.
When viewed through this lens it is very clear to see that only one tool, scaled up to the level needed, is going to meet these criteria and be palatable to the public. That is non-lethal management through trap/neuter/vaccinate/return, otherwise known as TNVR, programs.
Non-lethal strategies have been utilized by animal welfare advocates for the past few decades, garnering such wins as colonies reduced by half, working waterfronts with no new kittens being born, or increased conversion on the part of those skeptical of the approach’s efficacy. Over time, TNVR has been honed and refined as a strategy: targeting interventions to reach high enough levels of sterilization to ensure a decline in reproduction is now the gold standard. Communities such as Newburyport, Mass.; Alachua County, Fla.; Albuquerque, N.M.; San Antonio, Texas; San Jose, Calif.; and more are seeing massive drops in intake and euthanasia of cats when such initiatives are well implemented.
Within the animal welfare field, comprised of an estimated 5,000 shelters and rescues across the country, we spend approximately $800 million on cat work every year. That is an amazing amount of resources required to cover everything from strategies to keep cats in their homes, housing and medical care of both lost and relinquished cats, and sterilization programs for both owned and unowned cats in the community.
Studies and surveys have shown that approximately 10-12 percent of American households feed and provide basic care to cats they do not own. That means we have a ready-made army of three-five million caring citizens who can be enlisted to assist with effective non-lethal management strategies. Even more advocates donate towards effective humane cat programs in their communities that align with their values. You will never see this scale of financial and volunteer support going towards other intervention such as trap and remove, since that effort will lead to a massive increase in euthanasia, which the public and animal advocates alike do not support. Given the scale of the unowned, outdoor cat population, we will never reach our shared goal of a massive reduction in numbers unless there is a large system of support and engagement.
We have the knowledge and the will; what remains is the need to pull together all who care about cats, wildlife and public health, to commit to large-scale, non-lethal interventions. The debates about whether domestic cats are native, or the exact number of songbirds predated upon are not helping. We should drop the unproductive arguments and get to work.
Katie Lisnik is the director of cat protection and policy at The Humane Society of the United States. She focuses on increasing interventions for and reducing community cats populations through sterilization and vaccination programs, as well as keeping more cats in their homes and preserving a strong human-animal bond. Katie has a BS in Animal Science with a focus on Wildlife Biology from the University of Vermont and an MS in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University. She is the former President of the New England Federation of Humane Societies and former Board Member and Advisor to the Maine Federation of Humane Societies. Lisnik currently resides in central Vermont with her husband and two indoor cats.
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This post forms part of the conversation about what to do about the growing problem of feral cats, which wreak large-scale havoc on birds and other wild species, according to numerous scientific studies. Other posts in this conversation include: