What Should We Do About Stray Cats? Policy Options And Public Attitudes
There are currently 100 million stray cats in the United States. This large and growing population has prompted the question: What, if anything, should we do about stray cats?
Stray cats have drawn concern from many perspectives. Animal rights groups worry that stray cats experience undue hardship and suffering. Stray cats are extremely likely to contract diseases; must endure environmental extremes of heat, cold, and rain; and are vulnerable to predators and being hit by traffic, together causing stray cats to live shorter and more brutal lives than domestic cats. Wildlife conservationists see stray cats as invasive species that can cause chaos in established ecosystems. And public health officials worry that stray cats will spread disease through biting or excretion. Therefore, most observers see a need for human intervention.
So what can we do? There are three main policy responses to growing stray cat populations: euthanasia, sterilization, and cat sanctuaries.
Euthanasia has historically been the most common form of stray cat management. Given the harshness of stray cat life and high cost of other solutions, some animal rights groups advocate euthanizing stray cats as the most humane practice. In particular, those who care more about habitat conservation and less about the welfare of cats tend to support euthanasia, which ensures that stray cats will no longer disrupt local habitats. Yet most observers agree that euthanasia, while cheap and simple, is less humane towards the cats than other possible responses.
Trap-neuter-release (TNR), in which stray cats are neutered at local shelters and then released back where they were found, is a solution growing in popularity among governments and non-profits. Most animal rights groups consider TNR cost-effective, more humane than euthanasia, and guaranteed to prevent stray populations from growing any further. Those who oppose TNR tend to believe (a) that neutered stray cats can still disrupt local wildlife or (b) that stray cats experience so much suffering that euthanasia is better than a life on the streets. TNR is slowly being adopted in the United States, but the practice remains infrequent and controversial.
Cat sanctuaries represent the ideal solution for many advocates. These sanctuaries are enclosed areas where stray cats who have been trapped and neutered can be released, free to live happier and healthier lives without fear of coyotes and cars and with no damage to the wildlife outside. These sanctuaries can be expensive, requiring large plots of land, secure fencing, and continued maintenance and staffing. Yet millions of dollars and dozens of volunteers are already committed each year towards helping stray cats in other ways, so it is possible that these efforts could be redirected towards building and maintaining cat sanctuaries. Several examples of successful sanctuaries already exist, but sanctuaries have not been adopted on a large scale and likely require more evaluation before being widely implemented.
This study surveyed public opinion on stray cats and management policies in Athens, Georgia, where large stray cat populations have spurred much public debate. The authors surveyed random Athens residents on their past experiences with stray and domestic cats and their views on cat rights and management.
Athens residents had extensive interactions with stray cats, with one in four residents reporting seeing stray cats almost every day. Residents reported about as many positive interactions (e.g., feeding or adopting stray cats) as negative interactions (e.g., seeing a stray cat urinate, defecate, or kill another animal). Though more than half of residents agreed that these stray cats are a “nuisance”, residents still held mostly sympathetic views towards the cats, saying stray cats live tough lives and deserve to be cared for.
Most Athens residents believed that TNR is a more humane solution than euthanasia, though they acknowledged that TNR may be worse for local wildlife and less effective at reducing cat populations. On the whole, residents believed that cat sanctuaries are the most acceptable stray cat management strategy, though not substantially better than either TNR or euthanasia.
In sum, this study gives us a good picture of the evolving debate over stray cats. Going forward, more research is still necessary on the cost-effectiveness and practicality of TNR and cat sanctuaries. Governments and non-profits alike should also further educate the public on the various possible policy responses so that strategies can be developed to handle the growing national question of stray cat management.