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2009-01-29

Saving feral cats, a two-sided story with a bite

By Stephanie Parker

(Editor’s note: the Lakehills resident preferred that her last name not be used in this story.)

Lakehills resident Charity trapped a feral cat at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, Jan. 14, intending to transport it to a veterinary clinic for shots and neutering.

Too tenderhearted to leave the cat in the trap without food and water all night, she transferred the cat into a larger cage for one last meal before restricting its food for the night - according to pre-surgery protocol.

When the cat tried to escape, she reached out her hand to stop the fleeing animal and, for her efforts, was bitten to the bone on her right hand. After being bitten, Charity dropped the cat and it ran off.

Although her hand began to swell immediately after the bite, the woman took all precautions.

“ I washed the bite with anti-bacterial soap and put anti-bacterial cream on it,” Charity said. “I didn’t have ice, so I put a package of frozen fruit on it for the swelling. It was hurting badly.” She even began taking some “left over antibiotics.” However, the next morning the wound on her hand appeared worse, so she went to a physician.

Even with stronger antibiotics, the infection progressed and moved half way up Charity’s arm. When she went back to the doctor, he admitted her to the hospital for treatment. She spent three days in the hospital and now faces the possibility of taking the expensive series of rabies shots.

The problem

While the problem is irresponsible pet owners who have abandoned their cats, leaving them to fend for themselves, the evidence of that problem is a nationwide feral cat population that preys on wildlife and poses a safety hazard to humans. Within two to three years, abandoned cats become feral and raise their offspring to distrust humans.

Non-spayed female cats can have up to three litters that average eight kittens each every year. Within seven years, a single female cat - and her offspring - can produce 420,000 kittens.

Additionally, pet owners who allow their cat to have one litter of kittens before spaying her “so children can witness the miracle of birth” add to the problem.

In the United States, 10 to 12 million unwanted pets are euthanized each year.

One possible solution

Bandera County Animal Welfare Society (AWS) Director Sandee Bowman helped the City of Bandera start a Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) program four years ago.

Under TNR, managers of feral cat colonies trap the cats, have them neutered and then release them back into the colony.

Supporters claim that killing stray cats does not stop over population because new feral cats introduce themselves into the remaining feral cat colonies and reproduction continues. However, when the neutered animals are returned, they guard the colony against intruders.

Although met with distrust and reluctance at its inception, Bandera’s TNR program seems to have worked. Four years ago, AWS picked up at least six cats a week and transported them to a veterinary clinic for spaying and neutering. Only six cats were picked up throughout the municipality last year.

“We went to a zero population growth in a year-and-a-half,” Bowman said. “We became a model city for smaller communities that didn’t know if this would work for them.”

Similar claims of success have been made in US cities from San Diego to New York and in states from Washington and Montana to Illinois and Pennsylvania.

When former Bandera utility clerk Christine Gentry left her job due to health problems, Bowman said, the city’s TNR program suffered a cruel blow. No one is trained to replace her.

Bowman has shifted her vision to the county and hopes that fundraisers will purchase enough traps to begin controlling feral cat populations around the county.

Cats that are trapped in the TNR program in Bandera County are transported to Boerne’s Hill Country Animal League, 924 North Main Street, for medical attention. For more information about Boerne’s spay-neuter clinic, call 830-249-2341.

Bowman said feral cats are nocturnal and should be trapped between 9 pm and 11 pm and left in the trap until they are transported to a veterinary clinic to be spayed or neutered. They should not be given food or water in the trap, nor should they be moved to another cage. After the cats are spayed or neutered, they should be released back into the colony and given appropriate food support by a colony manager.

The other side of the story

Bandera County Rabies Control Officer Dr. Conrad Nightingale of Hill Country Animal Hospital strongly opposes the TNR program.
Under state law, anyone feeding or sheltering an animal for three consecutive days becomes its owner. Thus, by maintaining a feral cat colony the manager becomes the cats’ de factor owner. Although the cats may be wild, legally they are no longer feral.

Charity learned this the hard way. She was informed that besides being financially responsible for her hospital bill, she would be also be responsible for the cost of quarantining the cat that bit her.

Nightingale’s criticism of TNR runs deep. “No one re-traps the animals to give them booster shots for rabies control. Rabies is increasing in the State of Texas and rabies vaccines do not last a lifetime.”

While figures for 2008 are not yet available, Nightingale said positive rabies cases have been climbing since 2005 - despite the rabies bait drop program aimed at lowering the fatal disease in coyotes and foxes.

“There were 888 positives for rabies in domestic and wild animals in 2006,” he said. “Ten of these were cats. There were 969 positive cases in 2007 and 14 were cats. That’s a significant number when you consider the fact that people who can’t capture the cat that bit them must undergo thousands of dollars worth of medical treatment.”

Nightingale added, “Our office uses a rabies vaccine for cats that produces less cancer-related health issues and it has only been cleared for one year. When a person traps one of these animals and gets bitten, it is at someone’s expense - often the taxpayers.”

According to Nightingale, animals that have bitten a person must either be quarantined or euthanized and the animal’s head sent to a state lab for testing. “If the animal can’t be found, the person has to have rabies shots which can cause serious side effects,” he noted.

In addition, there is a nationwide shortage of human rabies vaccine. Nightingale said for the past six months, there hasn’t been enough to provide boosters for veterinarians and their staff.

“We can only do so much for stray animals,” he added. “Feral cats increase the risk of diseases like leukemia, infections peritonitis and AIDS. Some are carriers and don’t die from the diseases right away, which puts domestic cats at risk from exposure.”

He added, “The TNR program goes against everything we were taught in veterinary school about preventing disease. It’s basically throwing the animals back out there to die from fights, disease or getting run over by vehicles. The average life expectancy of a cat is between 12 and 15 years. Bowman admits that feral cats only live a third of that time.”

Nightingale concluded, “I am against using public funds for this program. Someone has to pay when a person gets injured by one of these animals. I’m not convinced that the number of feral cats within the City of Bandera has decreased. I get a lot of calls about them. And I’m against catching them and giving them medical treatment, then putting them back to eat all the songbirds.”

Meanwhile, the dilemma of what to do with Bandera County’s unwanted pet population, including feral cats, continues.