A few weeks ago I wrote about invasive species. Usually we think of plants when we use that term, but several animals fit the definition too. Domestic cats are a good example.
My neighborhood is overrun with feral cats. There are times I have over a dozen on my front porch. The most likely reason is that I have an outdoor cat and I feed her outside. I might have to change that.
It’s not that I hate cats. In fact I like the fact that I have never seen a mouse or rat around my house. I do feel somewhat sorry for the little felines, so I don’t begrudge that they steal about half of my own cat’s food.
My biggest problem with feral cats is that they can spread disease both to pets and people. They carry toxoplasmosis and other diseases. Toxoplasmosis is a potential nightmare for pregnant women and it’s spread through cat feces. Feral cats also fight with pet cats and these wounds can get infected and cause other problems.
We also can’t overlook the possibility of rabies, which is spread in the saliva of infected animals. Bats, skunks, foxes and raccoons have been the leading traditional suspects, but feral cats are becoming increasingly problematic. In many places they may now be the biggest rabies transmitter. Compared to wild animals, people don’t think about a house cat giving them rabies. The problem is that these cats are wild animals. While a smaller percentage might be infected, interaction with humans or their pets is greater.
Cats are prolific breeders. They become sexually mature at about six months of age and their gestation is slightly over two months. Furthermore, cats are what we call induced ovulators. That means that the act of breeding stimulates a female cat to release her eggs. Because of this and the overabundance of tomcats, virtually all wild queens will become pregnant. If they receive good nutrition cats can easily raise three litters in a year.
Feral cats can have a drastic impact on wildlife populations. Cats are very efficient predators. Many birds and small mammals both game and non-game fall prey to them. Feeding them calls in other animals like raccoons, opossums, skunks and foxes.
Killing feral cats is not a practice acceptable to the general public. I agree for several reasons. Human safety, property damage and killing someone’s pet are just three. One popular practice is the trap, neuter and release program. Once caught, females are spayed, males are neutered and both are released back into the same environment.
Failing to catch the entire population weakens the effectiveness of this technique. Sometimes feral cat populations aren’t greatly affected even if a majority of the animals are caught and sterilized. Furthermore, sterilized cats have much longer lifespans, particularly in high traffic areas.
So what do we do? Feral cats are difficult to tame and therefore are poor candidates for pets. I think the long-term solution is to make sure all domestic cats are spayed or neutered. Feral cats are a human induced problem that gradually worsened and we need to work together to solve it regardless of our strategy. It won’t be a quick fix.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).