Vet: Feral cats are human concern

Toby Franks, of Canton, Ohio, sets up a feral cat display on Saturday prior to his talk at Victorian Hall in Weirton. Franks is an expert in the trap-neuter-return, or TNR, method of controlling the feral cat population. The cage shown is the kind that is commonly used in TNR programs. (Photo by Stephen Huba)

WEIRTON–Hancock County’s feral cat problem can be addressed with an aggressive spay and neuter program, not through more euthanasia cases, a veterinarian said Saturday.

Dr. Becky Morrow, speaking at Victorian Hall in Weirton, said the best way to reduce unwanted cat populations is through a method known as trap-neuter-return, or TNR.

She compared TNR to “turning off the faucet instead of bailing out the tub. We need to focus on stopping the population growth–turning off the faucet,” she said.

TNR programs focus on trapping feral cats, neutering the males, spaying the females, and returning them to their environment. “Killing is not the answer,” Morrow said.

Euthanasia programs are counterproductive because they create a “vacuum effect” in which more cats move into the area and replace the ones that have been removed. “You could see an exponential growth of a population,” she said.

As many as 1.6 million cats are euthanized in animal shelters each year, Morrow said, and still the feral cat problem persists.

Morrow, a veterinarian with Frankie’s Friends Veterinary Clinic, of New Kensington, Pa., endorsed the TNR method at a seminar sponsored on Saturday by the Hancock County Animal Shelter and Animal Care & Welfare Inc., a Pittsburgh-based rescue organization.

Also speaking were TNR expert Toby Franks, of Canton, Ohio, and, briefly, Weirton Mayor Harold Miller. Franks defined feral cats as free-roaming, outdoor cats that live with minimal human contact. There are an estimated 60 million such cats in the United States.

Hancock County Senior Humane Officer Nichole Busick Felouzis said the county is considering launching a TNR program sometime in the new year.

“We have to do something about these (feral cat) colonies,” she said, “because they’re really becoming a problem.”

Felouzis said such colonies exist mostly in population centers of Hancock County–Weirton, New Cumberland, Newell and Chester.

Morrow said feral cats, which she calls community cats, are a problem for humans mostly because of fights, destruction of property, marking of territory, diseases, aggression toward humans and breeding-associated issues.

“The main problem is that they reproduce really well,” she said. “TNR is ultimately going to address the vast majority of these issues.”

Female cats have seasonal heat cycles between January and August that can lead to two or three litters per season, she said. Cats have a gestation period of 62 days and an average litter size of 4-6 kittens.

Morrow said an effective TNR program must be targeted to a specific area and must treat all the cats in a particular colony. Frankie’s Friends, which has a mobile surgery unit, and its partners have spayed or neutered more than 6,000 cats in the past year, she said.

Morrow said it takes three minutes to spay a female cat and 30 seconds to neuter a male cat. Such cats also are given a rabbies vaccine and “tipped” on their left ear.

“Targeted TNR is the only method that will work and be sustainable,” she said.

TNR results in stable populations that decline over time through attrition, she said. Returning feral cats to their habitat also helps control the rodent population and the attendant threats to public health.

The Hancock County Animal Shelter is starting a “Barn Buddies” program that will provide spayed/neutered, vaccinated cats to farms for rodent control purposes. The adoption fee is waived for approved homes. For more information, call 304-387-4102.