POWNAL — I am writing in response to the article “Hello, Kitty” in the Telegram’s Oct. 17 Home & Garden section, which provided a frank and balanced look at the issue of cat predation on birds.

The problem of free-roaming cats, both feral and owned, is a significant and growing concern to both animal welfare advocates and wildlife conservationists. As a veterinarian and wildlife biologist, I have seen firsthand the pain, suffering and death of both cats and wildlife that occurs when cats go outdoors.

For cats, the outdoors is a hazardous place. In a 2001 Humane Society of the United States survey of 600 cat owners, of those who had a cat die, 30 percent said their cat had disappeared, and 22 percent said their cat was killed by a vehicle.

Cats that are allowed outdoors generally live a third to a quarter as long as indoor cats. Many cats thought to have run away are in fact killed by animals or vehicles, or end up in shelters, where an estimated 4 million to 6 million are euthanized.

In fact, euthanasia of “unwanted” cats kills more pets than any known disease. Any parents who believe that their children should witness the miracle of their cat giving birth should first come to terms with the fact that every kitten that is born takes a home away from a shelter cat.

Having “found homes for the whole litter” has deeper meaning. Outdoor cats on average are also more expensive to keep, being more frequent visitors, within their age cohort, to veterinary offices for diagnosis and treatment of infectious disease, parasites, bite wounds and abscesses, and bone fractures and other traumatic injuries, which are painful, if not life-ending because of lack of owner finances.

Anyone who dismisses the impact of cats on birds, using the argument that buildings, pesticides, vehicles, and/or habitat loss kill more, is missing the point. Whether or not the estimate of 1 billion birds or more killed annually by cats in this country is greater or less than the millions or billions killed by other human impacts, the effects are cumulative.

Whereas two-thirds of bird species are in decline in the United States, our responsibility with respect to cats is hard to ignore. Both owned and feral cats kill birds, and the impact of cats is a problem of both cat overpopulation (manifest as a feral cat population that rivals that of owned cats) and the practice of allowing pet cats outside.

The solution lies in reducing the population of feral cats (of which unsterilized owned cats are a significant contributor) and keeping pet cats indoors, or contained when outdoors.

Contrary to popular belief, cats can live happily and healthfully indoors. Millions do. Indoor cats are often more closely bonded with their owners, can provide more enjoyment and usually live longer.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners encourages veterinarians to educate clients concerning the dangers associated with allowing cats free-roam access to the outdoors, a policy to which adherence “reduces predation of native wildlife populations, a goal and policy of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the AAFP.”

Notwithstanding, it is much easier to have a happy indoor cat if it’s never been outdoors. This commitment, made early on, can have lasting positive effects for both cats and birds.

To address the elephant in the room, I mention only briefly feral cats. Unfortunately, this topic does polarize people into opposing camps: those who believe feral cats should be sterilized and returned to the environment, versus those who believe they should be removed and humanely euthanized because of low quality of life and/or because they kill wildlife, even if sterile.

Fortunately, there is common ground, based on a collective interest in reducing the problem of cat overpopulation. There is plenty that can be done to protect birds and cats without even having to mention the words “feral cat.” One such opportunity is subsidized spay-neuter to make cat sterilizations accessible to low-income households.

According to a 2009 paper in the Journal of the Veterinary Medical Association, only 50 percent of cat owners in households earning less than $35,000 neuter their cats. This study found cost to be an important factor. In Maine, according to the 2000 Census, this constitutes 47 percent of households.

If a third of these households own an average of 2.2 cats and roughly a third of these cats are unsterilized and a third go outside (according to a 2001 Humane Society of the United States survey), it becomes clear that neutering these cats can reap huge benefits for the welfare of both cats and birds.

This month, a high-volume, high-quality, low-cost spay-neuter clinic will open in Freeport to serve low-income communities. This clinic is part of a Humane Alliance program.

The purpose of the clinic is help cats, wildlife and cat owners who want the best for their animals. There are more than 100 of these model clinics opening around the country, and those in New England sterilize a minimum of 4,000 cats a year, the vast majority of which have never been to a veterinarian.

Success of these clinics can be measured by a drop in local shelter intake numbers and a decrease in euthanasia rates. Harder to measure are the benefits of greater satisfaction in cat ownership and protection of birds. This is a win-win situation for all.

 

– Special to The Press Herald