Earlier this summer, the South Orange Board of Health made their case for opposing TNR in the Village. During the presentation, the Board of Health harped on diseases that are virtually never transmitted from feral cats to people, such as toxoplasmosis, rabies, cat scratch fever and ringworm. Ironically, the South Orange Board of Health claims they are cat lovers and favor “trap and adopt” when they know very well many community cats are essentially wild and cannot live in a home (i.e. trapped feral cats are killed). The South Orange Board of Health stated they would entertain other ideas, but took the extreme position that the risk of one person catching a disease is worth killing massive numbers of cats. Furthermore, the South Orange Board of Health asserted cats are decimating wildlife. Are the Board of Health claims about the risks feral cats pose to people and the environment correct?
Misleading Rabies Hype
The South Orange Board of Health’s assertion that feral cats are a significant rabies risk does not match the evidence. During the presentation, the South Orange Board of Health used two recent cases of raccoons in South Orange contracting rabies as a reason for their opposition to community cats and TNR. Furthermore, the Board of Health stated vaccinating feral cats multiple times over their lifetimes is difficult. While re-trapping feral cats is not easy, the rabies vaccine most likely, as with most vaccines, lasts for far longer than the stated 3 year protection period since that figure is based on studies only lasting for 3 years. A leading researcher in the field believes these vaccines provide protection for 7 years at a minimum and is conducting a study on this very topic. For example, this researcher found other common vaccines provide protection for 9 years. The fact that no person has contracted rabies from any cat, let alone a feral cat, in the United States in the last 40 years proves feral cats transmitting rabies to people is not a serious public health concern.
The Board of Health also mislead the public by stating 90% of domestic animal rabies cases involve cats. Cats making up 90% of domestic animal rabies cases sounds bad right? However, 90% of a small number is nothing to get alarmed about. Obviously, dogs will have fewer rabies cases since most are vaccinated and don’t roam. Thus, the only domestic animals that have any real chance of getting rabies are unvaccinated cats (which are vaccinated under a TNR program) making the Board of Health’s assertion misleading.
Virtually all rabid animals are wild animals. In 2014, the New Jersey Department of Health found only 6% of all rabid animals in New Jersey were cats (which were certainly not vaccinated). In fact, 10 times more raccoons contracted rabies than cats last year in our state. Additionally, outdoor cats have lived in close proximity to humans for centuries and it seems odd that cats all off a sudden became a major public health threat. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s obsession with cats makes little sense from a public health perspective.
Toxoplasmosis Hype Has No Basis in the Real World
The South Orange Board of Health asserted people contracting toxoplasmosis from feral cats is a major public health concern, but real world evidence contradicts this claim. During the presentation, the South Orange Board of Health stated cats going to the bathroom outside could cause people with compromised immune systems to catch the disease. However, a person would have to not only touch these feces, but also ingest it as well to catch toxoplasmosis from an outdoor cat. In addition, cats who have this disease are only contagious for a few weeks. No wonder studies showed most toxoplasmosis cases in people come from eating undercooked meat and pregnant women, which are among the most likely people this parasite would infect, are unlikely to catch toxoplasmosis from a cat. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health exaggerated a health risk from feral cats.
Ironically, the South Orange Board of Health hypes the risk of zoonotic diseases much like anti-wolf groups in the Rocky Mountain states. These groups advocate, and even celebrate, the killing of wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rightly responded that these diseases rarely are contracted by people and are not a significant risk. Sadly, the South Orange Board of Health sounds more like anti-conservation nuts than a respected government agency.
Cats Do Not Negatively Impact Prey Populations in Natural Areas
The South Orange Board of Health claimed community cats are an ecological disaster and are decimating songbird populations. In particular, one of the South Orange Board of Health members stated this personally hurt him because he likes seeing birds in the park. Additionally, the South Orange Board of Health took PETA’s position that it is better to kill feral cats than let them live outside since such cats are suffering. So what does the evidence state about cat impacts on bird populations and the health of feral cats?
Indoor/outdoor owned cats primarily live and hunt in disturbed ecosystems within human developments. In a study on the island of Corvo, where no competing predators or large scale TNR programs exist to limit cat movements, found owned cats virtually never roamed more than 800 meters from their home. A study taking place in Albany, New York where coyotes existed, and which also live in South Orange, showed cats on average only roamed through the yards of four homes and almost never entered a forest preserve adjacent to the area (only 2 of 31 hunts occurred more than 10 meters into the forest). Thus, owned cats that roam outside primarily hunt within human developed habitats where the ecology and the mix of wildlife species are already disturbed.
Feral cats also primarily live in human developed areas rather than native animal habitats when coyotes are present. A study conducted in the Chicago Metropolitan area found coyotes primarily inhabited natural areas while feral cats were almost entirely confined to residential locations. Furthermore, the study found feral cats were generally healthy and had survival rates at the upper end of the range of wild carnivores. Therefore, this study contradicted the South Orange Board of Health’s claims that feral cats are decimating native wildlife and are suffering living outside.
Another extensive study confirmed the fact that feral cats do not spend much time in native animal habitats when coyotes are present. The study, which was conducted in 2,117 locations in 6 states, found cats virtually never spent time in native animal habitats where coyotes existed. Below is the author’s summary of these findings:
“Given the fact that we know domestic cats kill a lot of native wildlife, if cats are getting in our natural areas, it’s a big conservation concern,” says Kays. “That’s not what we found. There were basically no cats in 30 of the 32 protected areas we surveyed, and the one consistent variable was the presence of coyotes. The pattern was obvious and striking.”
“Basically no cats” means that over the course of the study, 16 parks had zero cats, and in 14 of the protected areas, a single cat was detected. Cameras were set up in state and national parks in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and in 177 sites in small forested patches and suburban areas around Raleigh, N.C.
Thus, feral cats in our area, which has coyotes, cannot significantly impact native animal populations since these cats virtually never go to the places where native wildlife populations primarily live in.
Flawed Cat Predation Impacts
The studies purporting to support cats decimating native wildlife lack the basic requirements of reputable predator-prey research. To negatively impact prey populations, predators must remove a significant percentage of those prey populations. However, most of these studies purportedly showing cats decimating native wildlife populations, particularly those in continental locations like South Orange, do not quantify how significant these predation numbers are relative to the sizes of the prey populations. The author of the cat study from Albany, New York cited above clearly describes this as follows:
While a number of researchers have extrapolated kill rates from a few cats into huge estimates of prey killed by cats over large areas (e.g. free-ranging cats kill as many as 217 million birds/year in Wisconsin (Coleman, Temple & Craven, 1997) and 220 million prey/year in the UK (Woods et al., 2003)), these are rarely contrasted with similar estimates of potential prey populations over the same scales. Unfortunately, biologists have rarely sampled both cat and prey populations in such a way that direct effects on prey populations can be shown (e.g. house cats reduce scrub breeding birds: Crooks & Soule, 1999; cat colonies reduce grassland birds: Hawkins, 1998).
The study’s author also explains how cat predation studies conducted on islands and other parts of the world, which are commonly cited as a reason to exterminate outdoor cats, are not applicable in the northeast:
First, harsh New York winters probably function to not only restrict IOHC movement for much of the year (George, 1974; Churcher & Lawton, 1987), but also they may limit the suitability of the area for true feral cats compared with warmer climates. Second, the native potential prey species in mixed coniferous/deciduous forests of northeastern North America may be less vulnerable than other areas because it includes few lizards or low-nesting birds. For example, the scrub nesting birds hunted by IOHC in suburban southern California (Crooks & Soule, 1999) might be expected to be more vulnerable than small mammal or canopy nesting bird populations simply because their low nesting habits are more easily exploited by scansorial cats (i.e. an evolutionary trap: Schlaepfer, Runge & Sherman, 2002). Finally, the nature preserve around these neighbourhoods includes enough forest to support populations of cat predators including coyotes (Canis latrans) and fishers (Martes pennanti: Kays, Bogan & Holevinski, 2001). The presence of these predators probably functions to limit feral cat numbers, as well as the movement of any IOHC into the forest preserve (Crooks & Soule, 1999).
Additionally, not all predation events have the same impacts on prey populations. Ecologists classify predation as either additive or compensatory. Additive predation, as the name suggests, means that killing a prey animal adds mortality and reduces the prey species’ population. On the other hand, if a predator kills a prey animal that is unlikely to survive long and/or breed, then the predation event is labeled compensatory and will not decrease the prey population. For example, if a cat kills a very young bird that fell from a tree or a very sick bird, then the cat is simply killing an animal that was going to die anyway. Given cats in TNR programs are fed, cats will have little incentive to work hard to kill healthy prey. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s review of the “evidence” failed to consider this critically important factor.
The South Orange Board of Health also ignored potential factors positively increasing songbird populations in developed areas. For example, bobcats are native to New Jersey and prey on birds, but this predatory species no longer lives in South Orange. Therefore, community cat predation on songbirds may partially compensate for native bobact predation no longer taking place. Additionally, people feed birds which may artificially increase populations of birds cats prey on.
The South Orange Board of Health also did not consider how people feeding birds negatively impacts native bird populations. A recent study in New Zealand found humans feeding birds increased non-native species numbers at the expense of native birds. In addition, another study found bird feeding resulted in many more birds catching serious diseases. A study conducted in Canada, reported bird collisions with house windows nearly doubled after bird feeding was started. Another study from Northern Ireland found winter feeding caused one bird species to lay its eggs too early in the spring when ample food was not yet available, and supplemental winter feeding could favor nonmigratory species over migratory species not receiving the extra food. Additionally the study stated bird feeding was disturbing the natural ecology of these species:
It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution.
Thus, the South Orange Board of Health ignores the very real dangers of residents feeding birds, but instead focuses on community cats which have little to no impact on native birds in the area.
Eradicating feral cats also has other negative unintended consequences. On Macquarie Island, which is a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) World Heritage Site, feral cat eradication efforts led to an increase in rabbit and other rodent populations. The increased rabbit populations devastated the island’s vegetation and likely negatively impacted many native birds dependent on these natural habitats. In New Zealand, another study documented a feral cat eradication program causing the rat population to increase. The rat population subsequently reduced the breeding success of the Cook’s petrel, which is a native sea bird species. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s cat eradication goal may negatively impact native wildlife.
South Orange Board of Health’s Desire to Eliminate Cats May Increase Lyme Disease and Other Infections
Lyme disease is a potential crippling disease. The disease, which is most commonly spread by the deer tick, can cause chronic fatigue, pain and other nervous system disorders if not effectively treated early on. Unfortunately, signs of the disease are not always easily seen soon after a tick bite and the disease can virtually destroy the quality of a person’s life.
Lyme disease has reached epidemic levels in New Jersey. The Center of Disease Control reported New Jersey had around 4,600 new cases in 2009 alone. While the number of people in the state contracting Lyme disease dropped since then, people are now starting to becoming infected in urban areas. Thus, public health officials must consider the potential impact of all policies on this epidemic.
People are far more likely to contract Lyme disease in areas with large populations of small mammals. While most people believe deer are responsible for Lyme disease, a recent study suggests the white footed mouse, eastern chipmunk and two species of shrews are the culprits. Specifically, the deer tick catches Lyme disease from these small mammals rather than deer. Thus, large numbers of these small mammals result in more infected ticks that can transmit Lyme disease to people.
New research suggests Lyme disease is far more common in areas where few natural predators exist. Scientists at the Cary Institute of New York found wooded patches of 3 acres or less, which are common in suburban areas like South Orange, contain 3 times as many deer ticks as larger more pristine wooded areas. Furthermore, 80% of the deer ticks carry Lyme disease in these small wooded lots and these ticks are 7 times more likely to harbor the disease than ticks in larger wooded tracts. In addition, other emerging tick-borne diseases, such as Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and Powassan encephalitis, may also be more common in these wooded areas.
The high incidence of Lyme disease infected ticks coincides with larger populations of small mammals commonly found near residential areas. In smaller wooded tracts, ecological diversity decreases as competing species find it difficult to find enough resources to survive. Furthermore, predators of these species are less common due to altered habitats and threats from people.
The South Orange Board of Health’s desire to eradicate outdoor cats may have the unintended consequence of increasing Lyme disease rates. Cats are essentially the only predator of small mammals in the very small wooded lots harboring Lyme disease close to where humans live. Despite the hype about cats decimating songbird populations, cats mostly prey on small mammals. For example, the study conducted in Albany, New York cited above found 86% of cat prey were small mammals, most of which were mice. While scientists would need to conduct extensive scientific studies to determine if differing cat population numbers impact Lyme disease rates in people, logic would suggest eliminating cats could only cause more humans to contract Lyme disease or have no effect. In addition, fewer cats could result in more instances of other diseases carried by rodents, such as Hantavirus, Bubonic plague and Salmonellosis. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health may exchange eliminating non-existent health risks (i.e. rabies, toxoplasmosis, etc.) for increasing the chance of residents contracting other serious chronic diseases.
Furthermore, the South Orange Board of Health ignores the emotional distress killing massive numbers of cats has on animal loving residents. Given excessive stress has a tremendous negative impact on all aspects of one’s physical health, one has to wonder if the South Orange Board of Health considered this factor.
TNR Will Alleviate the Very Issues Raised by the South Orange Board of Health
In reality, TNR will achieve the very goals the Board of Health seeks to achieve. While I do believe we very much need cats to maintain a healthy balance in our human altered ecosystems, a large scale and well-run TNR program will more effectively reduce cat populations and limit cat ecological impacts than trap and kill policies. In a recent computer modeling study taking into account cats both migrating in and out of colonies, the authors found, in contrast to the South Orange Board of Health’s claim that all feral cats must be spayed/neutered to reduce the feral cat population, TNR programs only need to sterilize 30% of the reproductively active feral cat population to decrease colony size over the long term. While catching and killing would only require removing 20% of the reproductively active feral cat population, such efforts are much more difficult as few in the community would help trap or donate money to catch and kill cats. Additionally, the study found focusing sterilization efforts on females, if say financial resources are limited, could decrease the population with a lower sterilization rate. Unsurprisingly, despite the South Orange Board of Health’s assertion that TNR does not reduce community cat populations, multiple studies found TNR programs reduced feral cat populations. As a result, large scale and well-run TNR programs certainly can decrease the size of feral cat populations.
TNR also limits cat predation, roaming and nuisance behaviors. Specifically, altering the animals, particularly males, reduces roaming and the loud noises associated with fights males have over females. In addition, regular feeding reduces the distance feral cats range in search of food and decreases their desire to hunt. As a comparison, catch and kill policies do not remove enough cats to reduce the feral cat population and those cats are more likely to roam further, hunt more, and make loud noises fighting over mates. In addition, well-run large scale TNR programs have active conflict resolution procedures, often times performed by volunteers, to reduce nuisance complaints. Thus, TNR is a no-brainer based on the very claims the South Orange Board of Health makes.
South Orange Board of Health Proposes More Polices to Kill Even More Cats at Taxpayer Expense
The South Orange Board of Health proposed the following polices that will result in impounding and killing more cats:
1) Mandatory licensing and microchipping for all cats
2) Increase enforcement of public pet limit and cat feeding ban laws
3) “Educate” people on the dangers of outdoor cats
In a bizarre statement, one Board of Health member stated the town’s Animal Control Officer would go door to door to force residents to get their cat licensed and presumably give people a choice – kill or license your cat. That sure sounds like a wonderful way to educate people about an issue – threaten to kill their cat and then tell them that their beloved family member is a filthy disease carrying animal that should never leave their home unless the cat is on a leash or in a maximum security prison like enclousure. In addition, to reach a significant number of homes, South Orange taxpayers will have to pay for more ACOs or accept slower response times from their existing ACO. Additionally, the South Orange Board of Health’s trap and kill policy will lead to increased animal control costs due to the impounding of more unadoptable cats. Thus, the South Orange Board of Health’s proposed policy will be ineffective and costly to South Orange’s taxpayers.
South Orange Residents and Animal Loving People from Elsewhere Must Make Their Voices Heard
The South Orange Board of Health will hold a meeting on their anti-community cat policies on September 17 at 7:30 PM in the South Orange Performing Arts Center (1 SOPAC Way, South Orange, NJ 07079). All animal loving people should attend this meeting and make the case for TNR in an intelligent and fact based manner.
As a back-up strategy, people should lobby the South Orange Village Council to not reappoint Board of Health members opposing TNR and also provide pro-TNR replacement Board of Health members. Four of the seven members terms expire within the next year. Simply put, if the South Orange Board of Health insists on killing massive numbers of cats at taxpayer expense, these people must go.
Rabies Vaccination Duration Research:
Other Domestic Animal Vaccine Protection Period:
Rabies Animal Cases in New Jersey:
Feral Cat Disease Risks to Humans:
Owned Cat Roaming Study on the Island of Corvo:
Hervías, S., Oppel, S., Medina, F. M., Pipa, T., Díez, A., Ramos, J. A., Ruiz de Ybáñez, R. and Nogales, M. (2014), Assessing the impact of introduced cats on island biodiversity by combining dietary and movement analysis. Journal of Zoology, 292: 39–47. doi: 10.1111/jzo.12082
Cat Predation and Roaming Study in Albany, New York:
Kays, R. W. and DeWan, A. A. (2004), Ecological impact of inside/outside house cats around a suburban nature preserve. Animal Conservation, 7: 273–283. doi: 10.1017/S1367943004001489
Cat Roaming Study in Metropolitan Chicago Area:
Gehrt SD, Wilson EC, Brown JL, Anchor C (2013) Population Ecology of Free-Roaming Cats and Interference Competition by Coyotes in Urban Parks. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75718. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075718
Cat Roaming Study in 6 State Area:
Roland Kays, Robert Costello, Tavis Forrester, Megan C. Baker, Arielle W. Parsons,Elizabeth L. Kalies, George Hess, Joshua J. Millspaugh, William McShea Journal of Mammalogy Jun 2015, DOI: 10.1093
New Zealand Study Showing Bird Feeding Negatively Impacting Native Birds:
Canadian Study Documenting Increased Bird Collisions into Windows Due to Bird Feeding:
Northern Ireland Study Documenting Negative Impacts to Birds from Bird Feeding:
Macquarie Island Feral Cat Eradication Study Detailing Negative Effects on Native Flora and Fauna:
Bergstrom, D. M., Lucieer, A., Kiefer, K., Wasley, J., Belbin, L., Pedersen, T. K. and Chown, S. L. (2009), Indirect effects of invasive species removal devastate World Heritage Island. Journal of Applied Ecology, 46: 73–81. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01601.x
New Zealand Study Documenting Feral Cat Elimination Negatively Impacting a Native Bird Species:
Spatial heterogeneity of mesopredator release within an oceanic island system PNAS 2007 104 (52) 20862–20865; doi:10.1073/pnas.0707414105
Study Showing Small Mammal Prey of Cats is Primary Cause for Increase in Lyme Disease:
Deer, predators, and the emergence of Lyme disease PNAS 2012 109 (27) 10942-10947; doi:10.1073/pnas.1204536109
Research Reporting Increased Lyme Disease in Small Wooded Areas with Few Natural Predators:
Diseases Transmitted to People from Rodents:
Computer Modeling Study Reporting the Percentage of Sterlized Feral Cats Needed to Reduce the Population:
Simulating Free-Roaming Cat Population Management Options in Open Demographic Environments. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119390. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0119390