Feral cat management paper grabs attention of veterinarians

AAHA pans paper's passage on how to shoot feral cats

December 23, 2010 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

A report published in July by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) that suggests shooting or using leg traps to control feral cat populations is attracting delayed attention, the latest coming form the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), which recently condemned the paper.

The AAHA statement reads in part: "As a veterinary association dedicated to the health and welfare of companion animals, it is shocking that a university publication would advocate shooting and the use of leg-hold traps as acceptable methods to control/exterminate free-roaming cats. These methods are indiscriminate, inhumane and are unacceptable for the purpose of cat population management."

The report titled "Feral Cats and Their Management," by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension attracted little attention from the public and veterinary community initially. Then last month, the Associated Press (AP) ran an article on the seven-page paper titled "Report: Kill the Feral Cats." The story was circulated by many news agencies.

Apart from the report's suggestions to shoot feral cats as a means for controlling overpopulation, critics are taking aim at its findings that trap-neuter-release methods for managing the problem are ineffective.

The authors of the report are listed as natural resources, wildlife and pest experts. Lead author Scott Hygnstrom, Ph.D, UNL extension wildlife specialist, said that while he expected the paper to be controversial, he didn't foresee the delayed furor.

“It surprised me initially that we didn’t get much response because I knew it was a controversial topic, but I was surprised by it six months later,” he stated.

While the work is viewed as reprehensible by some, not all veterinarians disagree with its basic concepts of managing felines as a non-native species.

In discussions on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online professional community, veterinarians explored points within the paper that talked of feral cats as an invasive species and methods of population control. While the suggested means for killing the cats were not widely approved of, the paper brought about what one veterinarian characterized as a "fascinating discussion."

“They are a non-native, destructive species,” posted Dr. Robert Jones, a practitioner in Tampa, Fla. “I agree with the policy of most game management departments and environmental groups, and all of my field biologist friends whom I have queried say that they are a pest species and should be managed as such. If someone feels otherwise they should be prepared to capture and HOUSE them.”

The description of feral cats as a pest species is not what incited AAHA's response, explained Dr. Michael Moyer, president-elect of the association. Nor was it the opposition to trap-neuter-release as a means of population control.

The objectionable part "was their publication of an inhumane lethal approach as being on-par with more humane solutions,” said Moyer, the Rosenthal Director of Shelter Animal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in an interview.

He explained: “Calling (shooting cats) an ‘integrated approach’ does not raise it to the level of being humane, and a peer-review process that produced that series of ‘how to shoot a cat’ suggestions clearly is in need of a more humane set of peers. We offer our Animal Welfare Task Force as a resource to them."

Still, damage to wildlife populations caused by feral cats has some veterinarians in favor of control via euthanasia.

“A very good article overall, though I do agree with the criticism of traps/gassing/shooting,” wrote Dr. Brian Novak of Trappe, Pa., in the VIN discussion. “However, if we are viewing feral cats as 'pests' (a term used repeatedly in the article), shooting and trapping are used and accepted for every other pest — rats, starlings, deer, nutria, monk parakeets, etc.”

Novak considers the public appeal of cats as pets to be the biggest obstacle in controlling what he calls an invasive, introduced and highly destructive species.

“People do not see you destroying an environmental curse, they see us wanting to kill Fluffy,” he said.

Concerns about wildlife are a consideration of feral cat colony management. Dr. Bill Folger, a boarded feline specialist in Houston and member of VIN has no doubt that outdoor owned or abandoned cats contribute to a significant loss of wildlife in America.

“I would estimate that these cats destroy 1 to 2 billion reptiles, mammals, and birds — in that order — every year. Everybody gets upset about the birds, but birds are third on the outdoor cat menu,” Folger said in an interview with the VIN News Service.

As for the report, Folger considers it to be “a generic overview that really is uninspired, there’s nothing new in it, and it almost looks like a senior level wildlife and fishery sciences or ag science book report."

But that's not the veterinarian's only concern.

"The term 'pest management' says it all about their attitude about it," said Folger, who is chair of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Feline Welfare Committee. “You can estimate there are anywhere from 60 to 100 million feral cats in the U.S., and I would like to say the way they categorize feral cats is incorrect. Cats are either owned outdoor cats, or unowned abandoned or feral cats."

He further explains: "Feral indicates cats who are born outside and have never been socialized by 24 weeks of age. After that age it is difficult to socialize them sufficiently for ownership. That’s how AAFP and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have categorized them.”

When it come to feral cats, one of the county's foremost experts is Dr. Julie Levy, a professor at the University of Florida's veterinary college and director of Maddies Shelter Medicine Program. Levy criticized the UNL paper for the way it cited sources and selected references.

“Even though they said it was a science-based review, they didn’t have citations, they had a bibliography, but it didn’t reference any of their statements,” Levy said. “There are some statements that you don’t know where they come from, such as a 3- to 5-year life expectancy for feral cats compared to 15-year life expectancy for owned cats. There’s another discredited statement, often found on the Internet, that says the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimated that 400,000 cats could result from one pair of cats, but it’s impossible or there would be billions of cats in the U.S. About eight years ago HSUS agreed it didn’t make sense, and they removed it from their website.”

Levy said that the authors do not support evidence for their statements specifically, instead choosing to include a list of publications at the end of the document.

“Thus, it is not possible to know which statements are supported by peer-reviewed published research and which lack credibility. For example, several statements of fact are collected from lay Internet sites. As such, the authors fail to provide the balanced ‘research-based’ review that this topic deserves,” she said in an interview by e-mail with the VIN News Service.

Beyond problems with referencing and facts, Levy criticized the paper for the euthanasia methods it outlines.

“They talk about shooting cats or body-crushing traps; the way it’s written (and it may just be poor writing) implies that those are acceptable AVMA euthanasia procedures, which they are not,” Levy said. “The article says if you can’t shoot them in the head you can shoot them in the heart and lungs, and AVMA says that’s not appropriate.”

The paper states, “Aim shots between the eyes or in the heart/lung area to ensure a humane death.” The AVMA euthanasia guidelines state the contrary: “A gunshot to the heart or neck does not immediately render animals unconscious and thus is not considered to meet the panel’s definition of euthanasia.” 

Lead author Hygnstrom said his work was reviewed by numerous experts prior to publication, including veterinarians.

“We had veterinarians review the Extension Circular, Feral Cats and Their Management, Hygnstrom said. “We sent it to our Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at UNL for review. Three veterinarians are on the UNL IACUC. In addition, 24 individuals from 10 agencies/organizations/entities reviewed drafts of the publication. 

"We knew it would be controversial, and we wanted to minimize the controversy," he added. "Our interest was providing a publication that would identify all the methods of control for dealing with feral cats. We addressed the social issues, proper pet ownership, history, biology and impacts of feral cats. We tried to develop a comprehensive publication.”

The UNL School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences was not contacted about the paper, according to Associate Dean Dr. David Hardin.

Hardin does not think the article recommends any particular methods, including nonlethal methods, for controlling feral cat populations. He believes the intent of the paper and its authors are misunderstood.

“What they were attempting to do was to put out all the issues for the public, including methodology to deal with these situations," he said. "Would I have changed it? Yes, but it is an effort to deal with a difficult problem we have in the area. The point they’re making is that in some situations it can be a real challenge."

Hygnstrom echoes that, noting that he's no stranger to the AVMA euthanasia guidelines, and even provided comments to their revision last year as a representative of wildlife management.

While there's disagreement as to whether shooting or the use of foot-hold traps are humane or ethical means for euthanasia, Hygnstrom notes that segments of the public view these to be proper practices.

“State wildlife agencies across the nation recognize shooting and foot-hold trapping as appropriate for wildlife management, and our interest was not to editorialize on these practices but to inform the public of all of the methods that are deemed appropriate for dealing with feral cats,” Hygnstrom said. “When I say ‘appropriate,’ that’s the reactionary word. We all have different experiences, value systems and opinions. Some people oppose foot-hold trapping, while some actively practice it; some oppose shooting, while some practice it with deer, bears, rabbits or cats.”

Hygnstrom said the authors added a special note on page six of the document in trying to make their approach clear:

‘We are advocates for research-based information, integrated pest management, native wildlife, public health, and the right to protect personal property, and have presented both nonlethal and lethal options of control to help individuals make informed decisions.” 

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