Local Veterinary Medical Society Publishes Open Letter to Community Regarding Feral Cats

The following is written to all citizens of Hillsborough County:

December 16, 2013

To our fellow Hillsborough County Citizens,

“Questions regarding the value or inutility of the domestic cat, and problems connected with limiting its more or less unwelcome outdoor activities, are causing much dissension. The discussion has reached an acute stage. Medical men, game protectors and bird lovers call on legislators to enact restrictive laws. Then ardent cat lovers rouse themselves for combat. In the excitement of partisanship many loose and ill-considered statements are made. Some recently published assertions for and against the cat, freely bandied about, have absolutely no foundation in fact. The author of this bulletin has been misquoted so much by partisans on both sides of the controversy that in writing a series of papers on the natural enemies of birds it has seemed best, in justice to the cat and its friends and foes, as well as to himself, to gather and publish obtainable facts regarding the economic position of the creature and the means for its control.”  Edward Howe Forbush, State Ornithologist, 1916

This sounds uncannily similar to what is going on in our county now almost 100 years later.

The problem of pet overpopulation, especially in cats, has been around for a long time without a successful solution. The pet overpopulation problem will not be solved with good intentions alone.

Cats have lived with humans for thousands of years, but never in the numbers and the density of modern times. Like other non-indigenous species introduced to our state, including feral hogs and pythons, cats have flourished. However, the affection we feel towards cats has led to an unprecedented phenomenon – the intentional and continued release of a non-native species (cats) into the wild, sometimes even endorsed and promoted by local governments.

What is and should still be up for debate is how this government involvement can be accomplished in an intelligent way, with as little harm as possible to the environment as well as not endangering our public’s health.

Proponents of TNR (Trap- Neuter- Release), or sometimes referred to as TNVR, (V being vaccinated once for rabies) say that their plan will reduce the number of feral cats and improve public safety. The argument that at least vaccinated once for rabies is better than never is deceiving.

No rabies vaccine provides protection against rabies for more than one year when given only once. In the proposed ordinance as written, the need to re-vaccinate for rabies is ignored. The precedent this sets is not only dangerous, but violates public health principles, state law and common sense. To inadequately vaccinate a cat and notch its ear will give members of the community a false sense of security that this unprotected cat cannot transmit rabies to them.

Dr. July Levy at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine has stated that TNR does not work to reduce resident cat populations unless 70-80% of the cats are SIMULTANEOUSLY sterilized. This is important because an estimated 200,000 – 500,000 cats exist in our county. Simultaneously sterilizing this many cats is simply not possible. TNR does not work to “stabilize populations” unless the colony is small or geographically isolated – our county is neither small nor isolated.

The veterinary community has significant concerns about some of the risks entailed by TNR. We realize this issue has a significant emotional investment by some members of the community, but feel the rationale application of science to an emotional issue such as this one is reasonable and mandated.

Adequate consideration and discussion needs to be given to concerns about public health, wildlife, property rights of citizens, the welfare of the cats themselves and also to unintended consequences of changes to our laws regarding feral cats.

Public health concerns regarding such diseases as Rabies (two citizens in our county have been bitten by rabid cats in the last 4 months, including a 3 year old toddler in Northdale), toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever (bartonellosis), cutaneous larval migrants (hookworms),etc. are real and significant risks.

As written, this ordinance would relieve responsibility of pet ownership. Cats with a notched ear would be exempt from the rabies vaccination and registration tags that state law mandates for all cats in our state. Citizens that own a cat would be required to pay a rabies tag fee to own that cat each year, but if the ear tip is notched no fee or vaccine boosters would be required. This is not sound medicine or prudent. What will stop cat owners from notching the ears of their own cats to enjoy the benefits of no responsibility (no need to register, no need to vaccinate, not responsible for them)?

The average lifespan of a feral cat is estimated to be 2-3 years. Feral cats suffer death from cars, malnutrition, parasites, and recent reports have shown they are baing actively preyed on by coyotes. In contrast, owned, indoor cats live an average of 12-13 years.

As written, the ordinance would make the fecal material from these cats a public problem. Owned animals must have their feces picked up at all times, but with a notched ear, the feces from these cats would legally become the responsibility of the recipient of the feces. AS CATS PRODUCE AN ESTIMATED 60 POUNDS OF FECAL MATERIAL PER CAT PER YEAR, THIS WOULD AMOUNT TO (60*200,000) or 12 MILLION POUNDS OF FECES THAT LEGALLY NO ONE COULD COMPLAIN ABOUT. To put this in perspective, a space shuttle ready to launch weighs about 4.5 million pounds. This amount of feces would equal about 3 fully loaded space shuttles every year. Toxoplasmosis, hookworms, roundworms are just some of the parasites that get spread in cat feces, all of which are extremely dangerous to humans (especially children), pets and wildlife.

No one in our county, especially the veterinary community, wants to needlessly euthanize animals.

Therefore, we propose that the guidelines set forth in the “Be the Way Home” pilot program be included in the new proposed ordinance. While not perfect, this pilot program at least addresses some of the public health concerns, wildlife concerns and property rights of our citizens. Ignoring these concerns or simply stating they do not exist is simply not a good plan for dealing with the realities of TNR. Advocates of TNR will argue that providing for annual health care and proper vaccination of these

cats is impractical or too much trouble. The question to be answered is whether TNR will be done to actually give cats a reasonable quality of life or simply to assuage the conscience of cat lovers.

Through community support and cooperation, a sensible and reasonable solution to these complex issues can be discussed openly in public forum and implemented.

We support changes that promote responsible pet ownership, not simply abandoning these cats onto our streets.

We welcome the community to read more about the TNR issue at www.hahf.org and form their own opinion.

On December 18th, your board of county commissioners will hold a public hearing on an ordinance regarding TNR in our community that will affect your lives. Visit the hillsborough county animal services website or write CommunityCats@Hillsboroughcounty.org to let your concerns be heard by your commissioners.


The Board of Directors for the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society

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