‘Cat’aloging Common Practices Of Community Cat Care
A new study, led by advocates based in Washington and Nevada, paints the clearest picture to date when it comes to answering ‘what does today’s typical, day-to-day feral cat care and advocacy community practice in the U.S. look like?’, and ‘what are common practices and pitfalls feral cat care and advocacy organizations experience?’. Answering these questions provides advocates with an in-depth understanding of standard practices, assumptions, and attitudes of feral cat care and advocacy organizations across the nation.
The inspiration behind this comprehensive study was that little is known about how feral cat care and advocacy organizations operate. So, the authors’ goal was to fill this information gap. Over the last decade, feral cat care has moved from ‘the fringes’ to mainstream animal welfare and sheltering. To help feral cat care advocates, national veterinary bodies and non-profits have published many best practice guidelines which recommend ways that advocates can best care for feral cats in their communities. In spite of these materials being available to advocates, it was unknown how they were being used.
Filling this information gap, and providing advocates with a greater understanding of current practices will help organizations to standardize, professionalize, and make further progress on the care that they provide to feral and community cats. This, in turn, will help them continue to reduce the number of cats suffering, being relinquished, and being euthanized in the U.S. In addition, it will help reduce the risk of zoonotic disease transmission to humans (e.g. rabies).
The researchers used an online survey, advertised as ‘The State of the Mewnion’, to gather answers on a broad range of topics, including caretaking and trapping, veterinary medical procedures, and adoptions of friendly kittens and cats. The survey ran from January to March 2018. It was promoted in many ways, including through Facebook Groups dedicated to feral and community cat advocacy, amongst university student feral cat clubs, by contacting organizations working in the space listed in databases (Petfinder, the Humane Society of the United States), and through using Google search results.
Casting their net as widely as possible, the researchers asked organizations of all sizes, who identified themselves as involved in feral cat advocacy in any way (i.e. not just those who worked exclusively with feral cats) to participate. A total of 567 organizations responded to the survey, making it the largest, most in-depth study of its kind to date. The data represented every state except for Alaska, Wyoming, and Vermont, with most respondents coming from grassroots organizations. Most questions were multiple-choice, and some had write-in response options. Results were reported using summary statistics (i.e. percentages), and we’ve highlighted the most notable ones below.
The authors report that generally, organizations across the U.S. appear to have the same challenges, make similar decisions, and offer the same types of care to the feral cat communities they serve. Digging deeper into the report, we’ve broken out notable responses under the below categories. Of course, not all responses are reported here for brevity, however, if you’re interested in digging even deeper, we encourage you to review the publication below, and its Supplementary Material.
The majority of respondents shared these reported operational characteristics: they had no paid employees (74.6%); served 499 or fewer feral cats per year (75.0%); engaged between 1 and 9 active volunteers (54.9%); did not operate a ‘brick and mortar’ facility (63.7%); had 501(c)3 U.S. federally-recognized non-profit charity status (73.7%); engaged in direct feeding and colony care for feral cats (53.6%); and scanned cats for microchips (52.7%).
Key common practices reported by the majority of organizations included that they:used a minimum weight cut off for spaying/neutering of 2.0 pounds; removed the tip of the ear (usually the left ear, and under anesthesia) to indicate sterilization; used post-sterilization recovery holding times of 1 night for males, and 1-2 nights for females; and recommended that adopted cats are kept indoors.
- The most commonly reported bottleneck preventing organizations serving more feral cats was grants/funding;
- Data collection and maintenance is difficult as organizations don’t have the staff capacity to maintain records;
- Where humane and live outcomes weren’t possible, the most cited causes of euthanasia reported were signs of chronic illness, followed closely by tumors, followed by testing positive for feline leukemia virus and showing symptoms;
- 50.9% of respondents were interested in using expert advice and assistance in designing and interpreting their data collection, but only if it were provided free of charge, and if the motivation by the expert were in line with improving cat welfare. Respondents generally were uncomfortable with the idea of quantifying the impacts of cats on wildlife or public health;
- The use of antibiotics post-sterilization that are not marketed for cats (e.g. human, aquarium, or feed store bought antibiotics) is concerning, as this could contribute to antibiotic resistance in the community.
Areas For Improvement
- Organizations should establish their goal, with a measurable value and time frame, e.g. “reduce the outdoor cat population of our town by 25% by 2025” (only 32.1% of respondents did this);
- Establish routine scanning for microchips, so that lost cats can be reunited with owners;
- Establish routine data collection and maintenance (the main incentive for this, currently, is to receive new grants and funding, or for administrative needs, rather than benchmarking and measuring progress toward goals;
- Using data to identify areas to focus sterilization efforts, and to maximize effectiveness in reducing the feral cat populations (by using population modeling);
- Using standardized injection sites for vaccinations (one third don’t use standardized sites);
- Improving access to affordable veterinary care and oversight and to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance that comes from using antibiotics not marketed for use in cats;
- Improved education and outreach so advocates are more comfortable with using data-driven approaches for cat population management.
It’s important to note that the authors highlight some key considerations when advocates interpret these reported results. Although the 567 organizations that participated in this survey represent the largest study of this kind to date, these respondents may not represent the views and practices of all organizations in the U.S. In addition, since this was an online survey, the researchers may have missed out on the most isolated organizations that may not have access to online resources and were not represented in this study’s report.
The authors also report that in some Facebook groups, there were accusations that the researchers were “’bird people’ infiltrating cat welfare Facebook Groups with the intention of spying on cat advocates and harming cats,” potentially reducing participation in the survey.
An important insight the authors report is that respondents may not have had the knowledge to answer certain survey questions, as some organizations rely on third-party veterinarians when serving feral cats. An example they highlight is the unusual and unlikely answer that 44 organizations gave when asked what they routinely do as part of trap-neuter-release programs – tail amputations. As such, the authors urge advocates and readers of the publication to be more cautious when interpreting answers to more technical questions. In the future, the authors note that the responsibility lies with them to ensure that the next survey they advertise focuses on questions that can be answered by anyone in an organization, not just people with strong scientific and veterinary backgrounds.
Lastly, the authors highlight that the intention of their study was not to directly make recommendations on policies regarding survey topics, but instead to inform the many veterinary bodies and animal welfare organizations across the U.S., equipping them with more information to support them in their direct policy-making decisions. In saying that, the researchers point out that during their process, they discovered that there were only a dozen issues covered by their survey where the most popular ‘how to’ guides were largely in agreement. This can be confusing for advocates and those supporting feral cat welfare. The team highlighted that future ways to avoid disagreeing materials would be to foster collaboration between organizations so that they can cooperatively contribute content with a single, aligned, voice. This is important to further standardize best practices in the feral cat care community.
What action can you take to help, based on these insights? Action that contributes to data gathering, maintenance, and / or interpretation, especially if motivated from a feral cat welfare perspective, is largely sought. Unsurprisingly, donations would also help support feral cat advocacy organizations.