Feral cat neuter/return results appear to have plateaued

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2012:

Feral cat neuter/return results appear to have plateaued

MOUNT RANIER, Maryland– Data gathered by Alley Cat Rescue from 120 feral cat neuter/return projects in 37 states affirms the longtime ANIMAL PEOPLE belief, based on estimated feral cat intake at animal shelters, that neuter/return is helping to hold the U.S. feral cat population at the present level, but is no longer achieving the steep drops in feral cat numbers that characterized the rise of neuter/return to widespread practice in the 1990s.

The data suggests that neuter/return projects will need more funding, more skilled cat-trappers, and more ability to work in hard-to-access habitat to further reduce the U.S. feral cat population, which for about 10 years has hovered at about 25% of the 1990 peak. Shelter intake data projects that there are currently

about six million feral cats of breeding age in the U.S. each winter, with a summer high of about 12 million, including kittens who have survived past weaning.

The Alley Cat Rescue survey respondents represented about 17% of the 700 organizations now known to be doing neuter/ return feral cat control. The respondent organizations had operated for an average of about 12 years, six months; the oldest 28% had operated for 16 years or longer, with 12% having operated for at least 25 years, though not necessarily always doing neuter/return.

Cumulatively, the respondent organizations have sterilized and released about 618,000 feral cats. They currently sterilize and release about 45,500 feral cats per year.

Neuter/return feral cat control appears to have been practiced on a limited basis by private individuals for more than 50 years. Neuter/return feral cat control was introduced to Kenya and South Africa by the British-based Universities Federation for Animal Welfare in 1983-1984. A feral cat neuter/return project debuted at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, in 1988.

Neuter/return feral cat control gained momentum in the U.S.

in 1990 with the formation of the neuter/return advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies by Becky Robinson, who still heads ACA, and Louise Holton, who had become aware of neuter/return in South Africa, and later left ACA to form Alley Cat Rescue.

Then-Animals’ Agenda magazine editor Kim Bartlett and news editor Merritt Clifton in 1991-1992 conducted a neuter/return demonstration project at eight locations in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut. As well as seeking to reduce the feral cat population, the Connecticut project was meant to prevent a regional raccoon rabies pandemic from spreading through feral cats to domestic pets. The positive outcome was amplified by Friends of Animals, the Tufts University Center for Animals & Public Policy, Animals’ Agenda, and by ANIMAL PEOPLE, founded by Bartlett and Clifton after they left Animals’ Agenda in mid-1992.

Among the first ANIMAL PEOPLE projects was a national survey of cat rescuers and feeders, funded by the Massachusetts SPCA. This survey found 249 people who as of mid-1992 were doing neuter/return –about 38% of the survey respondents. A 1995 ANIMAL PEOPLE follow-up survey found that the neuter/return practitioners had achieved an average decrease of 48% in kitten births in their target areas.

What such reductions meant to the feral cat death toll in animal shelters, as neuter/return spread, may have been shown most dramatically in data for the whole of Maryland. Data collected by then-Calvert Animal Rescue League executive director Phil Arkow showed that in 1992 Maryland shelters killed 85,600 homeless cats. Within five years the toll dropped to 58,000. By 2000 it was down to circa 30,000. In 2012 it may be as low as 10,000, but the conging reductions may be chiefly due to removals of cats and kittens from feral colonies to be socialized for adoption, rather than because of further declines in the birth rate.

The 2012 Alley Cat Rescue survey found a 52% average decrease in kitten births in neuter/return project target areas, barely more in the past 17 years than in the three years from 1992 to 1995. Since the projects surveyed by Alley Cat Rescue were of durations ranging from less than one year to more than 25 years, the average rate of decrease per year is unclear, but appears to be modest.

If a neuter/return project achieves sterilization of all female cats in a colony within a single breeding cycle, the kitten birth rate can drop to zero, and in the 1991-1992 ANIMAL PEOPLE project, which emphasized quick and total capture of all cats, usually did. But most neuter/ return projects do not succeed in rapidly sterilizing every female cat in a colony. Fertile females also often immigrate into sterilized colonies, refilling habitat niches opened by attrition through mortality and removal of cats to be socialized for adoption.

Alley Cat Rescue found that 4% of the cats known to respondents in 2012 were under one year old, down by two-thirds from the 1992 ANIMAL PEOPLE finding. Alley Cat Rescue respondents reported that 79% of the cats in their colonies were mature adults under age 10, compared with 80% in the 1995 ANIMAL PEOPLE survey.

The Alley Cat Rescue survey found that number of feral cats living to age 10 or longer is approximately equal to the reduction in kitten births.

The 2012 Alley Cat Rescue survey found that 55% of the reported colonies have fewer than 10 cats, while 34% have between 10 and 20 cats, and 11% are larger. The 1992 and 1995 ANIMAL PEOPLE surveys found fewer colonies with less than 10 cats, and only half as many with more than 20.

The 1992 and 1995 ANIMAL PEOPLE surveys found that of known feral cat mortality, 25% died from disease, 28% were roadkilled, 33% were victims of predation or violent abuse, and 14% were killed by animal shelters. The 2012 Alley Cat Rescue survey found that 30% of known feral cat mortality was due to disease and other “natural causes,” 22% were roadkilled, 23% were victims of predation or violent abuse, and 25% were killed by animal shelters.

“Sadly 36% [of respondents] said animal control agencies had trapped and killed whole colonies in their areas. As expected, 28% said cats moved back into the areas where they were all trapped and killed, most within two to three months,” said Alley Cat Rescue in a prepared statement.

Alley Cat Rescue reported that 96% of the surveyed projects provide rabies vaccinations to feral cats; 64% provide distemper vaccination; 12% provide feline leukemia vaccination; 62% deworm feral cats; and 64% provide flea treatment.

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