As communities across the U.S. consider how best to manage their population of unowned, free-roaming cats, an option often proposed is an outright ban on residents feeding “feral animals.” The relevant science suggests, however, that such policies are not only unlikely to reduce free-roaming cat populations but might actually backfire, increasing their numbers.
Why communities consider bans on feeding feral cats
There are three common reasons communities use when proposing a ban (or restrictions) on feeding free-roaming cats: (1) the cats are causing a nuisance to residents or business owners; (2) potential impacts to public health, wildlife, and the environment; and (3) the unowned cat population is too large and/or growing out of control.
Cat feeding ban reason 1: nuisance complaints
It’s understandable that feeding unowned, free-roaming cats might result in a legitimate nuisance complaint. Excess food can sometimes accumulate, attracting wildlife, for example, and empty food containers, paper plates, and other items can easily become an eyesore. Yowling and spraying can also become a problem where multiple cats congregate. But these issues can typically be addressed with guidance from trap-neuter-return (TNR) groups or animal shelter staff. And most communities have provisions in their municipal codes to address such situations if they persist.
Not allowing residents to feed unowned cats might seem like a logical approach to reducing such nuisance issues; however, enforcement of such policies is difficult and likely to impede sterilization efforts — thereby exacerbating the very situation these policies are intended to address.
Published research studies indicate that regular feeding of free-roaming cats can actually reduce nuisance complaints.
Although counterintuitive, published research studies indicate that regular feeding of free-roaming cats — as part of a targeted TNR effort — can actually reduce nuisance complaints. As researchers noted in a 1996 article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, these programs “not only address the overpopulation issue by preventing new litters, but also serve to reduce roaming, spraying of urine, and fighting among the cats” .
Researchers investigating the effectiveness of TNR programs have documented reductions in nuisance complaints. Examples from various locations outlined below:
University campus: On the Texas A&M campus, researchers documented the removal of more than one-third of the free-roaming cats for adoption following the implementation of a TNR program. Although their research methods did not allow them to evaluate the program’s impact on the population of campus cats two years later, researchers noted that, “based on the decrease in the number of complaints… those [cats] who remain are less of a nuisance than previously they were” .
Hospital campus: Similar results were observed three years into a TNR program at the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center in Carville, Louisiana, where researchers reported that “unwanted noise from cats fighting and from mating calls was commonly heard during nocturnal visits to the cats’ living areas before the study. Three years later, nocturnal vocalizing had been greatly reduced and was not detected by the authors at any time during the three-year census” .
Orange County, Florida: Following the implementation of Orange County (Florida) Animal Services’ TNR program, researchers reported: “Complaints have decreased gradually, and only rarely has it been necessary to move colonies… despite the change broadening the definition of a nuisance complaint in the last two years, complaints decreased in FY 2000/2001. There were no changes in procedure or code to account for this decrease” .
Alachua County, Florida: A two-year University of Florida study, reported in The Veterinary Journal, documented a 66% decrease in shelter intake of cats from a “target” zip code in Alachua County, Florida, as compared to a 12% decrease from the rest of the county. “The reduction in intake was most likely… due to several factors, including a decrease in kitten births via neutering, decreased nuisance behavior associated with breeding and territorial defense, and creation of alternatives to impoundment” .
Reason 2: potential impacts to public health, wildlife, and the environment
When included as part of targeted TNR efforts, regular feeding of free-roaming cats can reduce potential impacts on public health, wildlife, and the environment because targeted TNR efforts can be implemented more efficiently when cats are fed regularly.
By reducing the population of free-roaming cats, TNR programs protect humans from zoonotic diseases that can be spread by domestic cats (e.g., rabies, plague, etc.). In addition, vaccination against rabies is an increasingly common practice for TNR programs in the U.S. (sometimes referred to as “TNVR” to mean trap-neuter-vaccinate-return), and standard practice in parts of the country where rabies in cats occurs most frequently. TNR and TNVR programs protect public health by creating a powerful barrier between wildlife and humans, and not every cat needs to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” .
Vaccination against rabies is an increasingly common practice for TNR programs in the U.S.
This commonsense approach to public health is recognized across the globe where free-roaming animals are a concern. Using a computer model to “to study the transmission dynamics of rabies in China,” for example, researchers concluded that “controlling dog birth rate and increasing dog immunization coverage rate are the most effective methods for controlling rabies in China,” and that “large-scale culling of susceptible dogs can be replaced by immunization of them” . Again, the effective management of these animals would be considerably more difficult if they were not regularly provided food (intentionally or not) in areas of dense human population.
Published research studies show that regularly fed free-roaming cats are less likely to hunt and kill wildlife. Researchers in Chile, for example, concluded that “underfed” cats are nearly five times as likely to prey on wildlife, compared to adequately fed cats . And a study in the Florida Keys reported that more than 81% of the free-roaming cats tested “consumed mostly anthropogenic foods” , and cats living farther away from human settlements (e.g., more than 1.9 miles) were more likely to prey on wildlife.
Regularly fed free-roaming cats are less likely to hunt and kill wildlife.
Such findings correspond well with those indicating that free-roaming cats are more likely to be found in close proximity to humans. A recent “landscape-scale camera-trap study across 16 counties in southern Illinois,” for instance, found that 75% of cat detections occurred no more than 0.32 miles from “human-made structures” and never more than 0.83 miles from such structures . And since multiple surveys have shown that feeding “stray” cats is a common activity (10–26%, depending on the survey) across the U.S., it’s reasonable to conclude that many free-roaming cats rely largely on food provided by humans and therefore pose less of a threat to wildlife than they otherwise might [5,9,11,12,13].
Regularly fed cats are also less likely to spread the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii). Researchers investigating infection rates among domestic and wild felids (bobcats and mountain lions) along the coast of central California found that infection rates in domestic cats “collected from small to large colonies in close proximity to people, where they had access to provided food sources (e.g., commercial cat food or discarded human foods),” were approximately 79% lower than rates in free-roaming cats living in undeveloped areas (81%) .
Reason 3: “the feral cat population is out of control”
Although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, feeding free-roaming cats is a critical step in reducing their numbers through TNR. A 1993 survey conducted in Santa Clara County, California, found that only about 7% of residents made efforts to sterilize unowned, free-roaming cats despite the fact that 62% of the cats were being fed in residents’ yards. These findings led the researchers to conclude that “efforts should be intensified to sterilize cats living in close proximity to homes, rather than less accessible colonies” .
Regular feeding of free-roaming cats is also known (by TNR group volunteers and other community cat caretakers) to make trapping these cats for sterilization/vaccination significantly easier. Two researchers undertaking a detailed study of TNR in Randolph County, North Carolina, noted, for example, their “remarkable success trapping feral cats” perhaps because the cats were “well acclimated to humans and used to being fed in particular locations” .
Cats living in proximity to humans — generally as a result of being fed — are much easier to trap than those living in remote areas.
Indeed, a number of studies reporting trapping efficiency data indicate that cats living in proximity to humans — generally as a result of being fed — are much easier to trap than those living in remote areas. The aforementioned study of a TNR program on the Texas A&M campus, for example, revealed trapping efficiencies comparable to those reported in Randolph County: approximately 9.5 trap-nights per cat (one trap-night = 1 trap × 1 night’s use) . And results of various other studies [17,18] demonstrate an increased difficulty trapping feral cats in more remote natural areas, where the cats are not likely being fed by humans. On Ascension Island, for example, 298 trap-nights resulted in the capture of just three feral cats .
Feeding as part of an effective community cat management strategy
Restrictions or outright bans on feeding “stray” or “feral” cats are typically proposed in response to complaints about the presence of unowned, free-roaming cats. However, according to the research outlined above, such policies are likely to be ineffective.
Stabilizing and reducing the population of unowned, free-roaming cats through targeted TNR efforts, on the other hand, is made much easier (and thus more cost-effective) when cats are fed regularly. And by reducing a community’s feral cat numbers, TNR can also reduce nuisance complaints and potential impacts to public health, wildlife, and the environment.
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