Cat Tests Positive for Rabies, Unleashing a Clown Car of Crazies

If you’re reading this from Hillsborough County, Florida, I hope it’s from the safety of an underground bunker—while you await the movers’ arrival. You need to get out while you still can because—well, you know… rabid cats.

As local “investigative reporter” Steve Andrews put it in one of three melodramatic pieces on the subject, “It’s rabies roulette in Hillsborough County.” Actually, journalistic Jenga is more like it. But that’s Andrews in a nutshell: half used-car salesman, half ambulance-chaser. And, as he’s made clear through his previous “reporting,” also hell-bent on shutting down TNR efforts in the area.

Unfortunately, the local news media isn’t the only source of misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

Rabies in Cats Continues to Decline

Well, this must be awkward—for some, anyhow. In particular, the people who continue to overstate the threat of rabies, leveraging whatever fear they can muster in their ongoing campaign to undermine community cat programs and TNR efforts.

Awkward or not, though, it’s a fact: the number of cats testing positive for rabies in the U.S. declined for the second year in a row.

The 2013 data, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published November 15th in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, show a decline of 10 cases (3.9 percent) from the 257 cases reported in 2012—which represented a rather dramatic decline of 15.2 percent from 2011’s total of 303 cases. Read more

Montgomery County, VA: Then and Now

In answering one question, other more interesting questions sometimes emerge. That’s exactly what happened when I followed up on a claim made in “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes,” recently published in Zoonoses and Public Health (and critiqued in some detail in my August 3rd post).

As evidence of both the threat of free-roaming cats and the need for lethal roundups, the authors—five from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the other, George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy*—cite a 1992–1996 study of Montgomery County, VA, rabies exposure reports.

“Most striking, a study in Montgomery County, VA, attributed 63 percent of [post-exposure prophylaxis] recommendations to stray cat exposures compared with only 8 percent for wild animal contact. In this community, the high rate of PEP due to cats resulted in part from the lack of a county animal shelter facility for cats, illustrating the need for removal of feral and stray cats as a means of rabies control and PEP reduction.” [1]

A review of the work cited confirms that, indeed, 24 of 38 exposures requiring PEP (63 percent) over the course of the 55-month study period were related to stray and feral cats. [2] So far, so good. Read more

CDC Doing the American Bird Conservancy’s Bidding?

Representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sign on to the American Bird Conservancy’s witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, misrepresenting the relevant science to support their claim that “rabies transmission via feral cats is a particular concern.”

“Feral cat populations,” argue the authors of a recently published paper, “must be reduced and eliminated to manage the public health risk of rabies transmission.” [1] Their solution? “Traditional animal control policies [that] have stressed stray animal control and removal.”

It’s no surprise, given the American Bird Conservancy’s contribution (president George Fenwick is among the paper’s seven co-authors, and Steve Holmer, Bird Conservation Alliance director, is thanked in the acknowledgments for his “review and input during the writing of the manuscript”) that the article provides no evidence whatsoever of such policies and practices reducing the risk of rabies posed by free-roaming cats.

Witch-hunts, after all, have little use for evidence.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture, representatives of which make up the paper’s other six co-authors,* rely on solid evidence to develop sound public policy.**

Don’t they?

To borrow a line from Ernest HemingwayIsn’t it pretty to think so?

Read more

Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation’s Appeal for Support

I almost feel sorry for Don Thompson and his colleagues at the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. After all, it can’t be easy to recruit others in the local veterinary community when you’re essentially asking them to alienate themselves from a large segment of their clientele—and the public in general. The sharp distinction that HAHF draws between pet cats (which, presumably, are to receive top-notch vet services) and unowned cats (the vast majority of which are, apparently, to be rounded up and killed) is simply incomprehensible to many (most?) people.

Ignoring “Science and Fact”

In an e-newsletter sent out yesterday (with the headline Why the Veterinary Community is Needed!) from HAHF and the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society, Thompson and his colleagues tried to rally the troops by going after Sherry Silk, executive director of the Tampa Bay Humane Society. This, in response to her recent opinion piece in Florida Voices defending TNR.

“Ms. Silk’s letter demonstrates the need for the local veterinary community to be involved in ongoing county discussions regarding animal issues,” reads the unsigned appeal from HAHF/HCVMS. “As the director of HSTB Ms. Silk continues to ignore science and fact, even while the Humane Society has a prominent role in formulating county animal policies.”

So now Thompson & Co. have “science and fact” on their side? Hardly.

One obvious sign: their newsletter repeats the now-standard drivel about Kerrie Anne Loyd’s Kitty Cam research: all the alarmist, out-of-context, meaningless “results” and no mention of the fact that 55 cats—observed for a total of about 2,000 hours—were responsible for killing just five birds. (There is, not surprisingly, also a link to the American Bird Conservancy’s August 6 press release about the Kitty Cam study. So much for “science and fact.”)

I don’t want to speak for Silk, but can’t help responding to the question posed by HAHF/HCVMS: Is the video evidence insufficient for Ms. Silk?

Yes, the video (from which, to my knowledge, only still images have been made public) is insufficient—to anybody familiar with the research and with the larger issues involved. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out previously, Loyd herself found the evidence less than compelling, admitting to CBS Atlanta in an interview earlier this year: “Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.” [1]

Not the sort of “science and fact” Thompson & Co. care for, I guess.

Rabies and “Cat Attacks”

Like ABC, HAHF/HCVMS continues its scaremongering about rabies. Although I addressed the topic in detail in Part 2 of my original HAHF series—and again last week—it’s worth revisiting the subject in light of some of the claims being made by HAHF/HCVMS.

There were, explain Thompson & Co. in yesterday’s newsletter, “455 cat attacks in Florida in 2010, the last year data is available.” But, as the Florida Department of Health report from which this figure was taken explains, this is a reference to the number of “possible exposure cases.”

“Rabies [post-exposure prophylaxis] is recommended when an individual is bitten, scratched, or has mucous membrane or fresh wound contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a laboratory-confirmed rabid animal, or a suspected rabid animal that is not available for testing.” [2]

Multiple “possible exposure cases” can result from interaction with a single animal—whether confirmed rabid or merely suspected of being rabid. If, as HAHF/HCVMS claims, there were, on average, nearly nine “cat attacks” in the state every week for all of 2010, one would expect to see hundreds of related news stories. A quick check of 38 Florida newspapers reveals a relative handful.

It’s true, as HAHF points out (more or less) on its website, that 2010 PEP incidents were up 41 percent over the previous five-year average. But, as the Florida DOH report explains:

“This increase in PEP may be due to improved reporting, increased exposures to possible rabid animals, increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP, or a combination of factors. Reductions in state and local resources may contribute to increases in inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP by decreasing resources to investigate animal exposures and confirm animal health status, and by reducing county health department staff time to provide regular rabies PEP education for health care providers.” [2]

But there’s another factor related to the “unnecessary use of PEP,” which occurs, according to a study of “11 geographically diverse [across the U.S.] university-affiliated, urban emergency departments” [3] in about 40 percent of the cases documented: “media hysteria.” [4] Make no mistake: HAHF/HCVMS, with their ongoing campaign of scaremongering, is becoming part of the problem. As if to prove the point, there’s this from their newsletter:

“The reason there have been no human rabies cases from feral cats is because we use rabies vaccines in the event of bites! 30,000 people got Rabies shots in 2010 in the U.S. to prevent Rabies—but according to Ms. Silk the bites from cat attacks are not a concern?  Should we skip the shots and see what happens? Rabies is 100 percent fatal! Fifteen feral cats were proven to have rabies in Florida in 2010—is it worth gambling a child’s life to see if the number of cat-to-human rabies increases?”

Ah, yes—I’d almost forgotten: this is all about protecting the children. And how will a ban on TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats make those children safer?

If HAHF/HCVMS get their way, the threat of rabies will only increase (along with the number of unowned cats in the community, and the number of cats killed by Hillsborough County Animal Services—which has an abysmal track record as it is). And yet, they have the gall to accuse Silk of “faulty logic” for defending TNR (and close their newsletter with the arrogant assertion: “It is obvious our leadership is badly needed in Hillsborough County.”).

•     •     •

The timing of the HAHF/HCVMS newsletter was hardly accidental. Just two days earlier was the first meeting of a taskforce charged, as Ian Hallett, director of Hillsborough County Animal Services, described in an August 7 memo, with “conduct[ing] a comprehensive assessment of best practices resulting in a financially feasible plan to minimize our county’s use of animal euthanasia.”

What better time for some more propaganda to both distract and rally the troops, some of whom are no doubt acutely aware of last week’s unanimous decision by the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (less than 500 miles away) to reject a proposed rule change that targeted non-profit spay/neuter clinics? The Alabama Veterinary Practice Owners Association may have used different tactics (i.e., “concern” for the care of the animals treated at low-cost clinics), but they seem to share what many of us believe to be the true goal of HAHF/HCVMS: to eliminate their low-cost competition.

Which, no matter how you disguise it, is a pretty tough sell to a community of animal lovers (which is to say, any community). No wonder Thompson would rather talk about “cat attacks.”

Literature Cited

1. Paluska, M. (2012) Kitty cameras show Athens cats on the prowl

2. n.a., 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report. 2011, Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control, Bureau of Epidemiology: Tallahassee, FL.

3. Moran, G.J., et al., “Appropriateness of rabies postexposure prophylaxis treatment for animal exposures. Emergency ID Net Study Group.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000. 284(8): p. 1001–1007.

4. Noah, D.L., et al., “Mass human exposure to rabies in New Hampshire: exposures, treatment, and cost.” American Journal of Public Health. 1996. 86(8): p. 1149–51.

HAHF-Truths, HAHF-Measures, Full Price (Part 2)

Complaining of the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment, along with a range of public health threats, dozens of veterinarians in Hillsborough County, Florida, have banded together to fight TNR. Evidence suggests, however, that their real concern has nothing to do with the community, native wildlife, or, indeed, with cats. What the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation is most interested in protecting, it seems, is the business interests of its members.

In Part 2 of this five-part series, I use Florida Department of Heath data for rabies cases (in animals) and possible rabies exposures (humans) to challenge HAHF’s claim that free-roaming cats pose a significant rabies threat.

The “trouble with trap-neuter-re(abandon!),” as the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation explains on its website, “is simply stated by the executive summary of the 2012 Florida Department of Health Rabies Guide.”

“The concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats (Felis catus) is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease. While the risk for disease transmission from cats to people is generally low when these animals are maintained indoors and routinely cared for, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concern to communities. Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from these cats.” [1]

“Veterinarians are legally required to follow the Rabies Guide,” argues HAHF. “As a result, we are gravely concerned about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), and the implications of any such county funded or endorsed program.”

But if TNR truly increases the risk of rabies exposure, what difference does it make where the funding comes from? (I’ll get into that in Part 5.)

In any case, veterinarians are legally required to follow the law.

And while the Rabies Guide (PDF), issued by the Florida Department of Health, cites a variety of statutes, codes, and ordinances—in addition to multiple references to the “legislative authority” granted the Florida DOH—it’s curious that the publication doesn’t actually refer to any law prohibiting “the concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats.” (In fact, the entire section covering free-roaming cats is of such poor quality—claims directly contradicting CDC data and reports, for example, and its failure to acknowledge the potential for TNR to provide a rabies barrier between wildlife and humans [2]—one wonders about the motivation of its authors. Perhaps I’ll tackle this in a future post.)

Humans (Possibly) Exposed to Rabies
“More than 2,000 people were exposed to rabid or potentially rabid animals in Florida in 2010,” explains HAHF. “This represents a 46 percent increase over the five-year average, and cats represented 25 percent of the incidents.” In fact, the increase was—according to the very report HAHF cites—actually 41.33 percent, with cats representing 24 percent of “exposed persons for whom treatment was recommended.” [3] But that’s quibbling, I suppose.

What’s far more interesting is how HAHF chose to “edit” their summary of the Florida DOH report, which is worth quoting at length:

“In 2001, reporting of animal encounters for which rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is recommended was initiated. Rabies PEP is recommended when an individual is bitten, scratched, or has mucous membrane or fresh wound contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a laboratory-confirmed rabid animal, or a suspected rabid animal that is not available for testing. The annual incidence of exposures PEP is recommended has increased since case reporting was initiated. In 2010, the incidence rate was up 41.33 percent over the previous five-year average although the number of confirmed rabid animals decreased in 2010 compared to 2009. This increase in PEP may be due to improved reporting, increased exposures to possible rabid animals, increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP, or a combination of factors. Reductions in state and local resources may contribute to increases in inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP by decreasing resources to investigate animal exposures and confirm animal health status, and by reducing county health department staff time to provide regular rabies PEP education for health care providers.” [3, emphasis mine]

(As I pointed out in my previous post, HAHF may very well be contributing to the “increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP” with all their scaremongering.)

Suddenly, what seems like a dramatic uptick in rabies exposure—one in which HAHF suggests cats played a key role—looks more like what it is: the result of several poorly understood (and, in some cases, competing) factors. Puzzling, but hardly the public health threat suggested by HAHF.

Interestingly, dogs were implicated in 46 percent of PEP incidents, nearly twice as many as were cats. And, 75 percent of the owned animals (which made up 20 percent of the total) involved in the 2,114 exposures that occurred in 2010 were pet dogs. [3] My point is not to shift attention to dogs, but simply to add a little perspective. One would expect HAHF—as members of the veterinarian community concerned for “our precious children”—to at least acknowledge the point.

Instead, HAHF quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “In 2009, rabies cases among cats increased for the second consecutive year. Three times more rabid cats were reported than rabid dogs.” Which is true—but also misleading. As a report of CDC data makes clear: “differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states [make] comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states… inappropriate.” [4]

In other words, the rabies surveillance data at the heart of all these claims are not an accurate reflection of rabies prevalence in the population of any particular species. The low numbers for bobcats in Florida (just 44 across 20 years), for example, are likely a reflection of this cat’s relatively few encounters with humans as much as anything else.

Some additional perspective: since 1960, only two cases of human rabies in the U.S. have been attributed to cats. [5]

The Risks to Children
Contrary to the claims made in the Florida DOH Rabies Guide (“Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from [free-roaming] cats.”) and on the HAHF website (“a large burden of the [public health] risk lies against our precious children!”), Florida DOH data suggest that the only age group less likely to be exposed to rabies is adults 55 and older. According to the 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report (from which the chart below was taken):

“The average age of the victim for the 2,114 cases reported in 2010 was 37 years, with a range from under one year to 110 years of age. The highest incidence was seen in individuals aged between 20 and 24 years, but incidence was similar for ages 15 to 19 and 45 to 54 years. There were some variations in age based on the type of animal involved. Average age for those recommended to receive PEP who were exposed to dogs was 32 years; cats, 41 years; and wildlife, 43 years.” [3, emphasis mine]

Rabid Animals
It’s perfectly understandable for public health officials to focus on possible exposure and PEP incidents—but it’s also worth looking at the data documenting confirmed cases of rabid animals in Florida and Hillsborough County. (Tampa Bay Online has developed a handy interactive state map of 2006–09 rabies cases.) Doing so reveals a steady downward trend since the mid-1990s* at both the state [6] and county levels, [7] as indicated in the graphs below.

The trend is even more striking when one considers Florida’s population explosion over the same period, from 12,937,926 in 1990 to 18,801,311 in 2010, an increase of 45 percent. More people means more pets—as well as the kinds of interactions with wildlife that lead to increased surveillance reporting.

Now, I’m not prepared to attribute the notable downturn in rabies cases—in cats and in animals overall—to TNR. There are simply too many factors involved. On the other hand, the trend challenges the assertion made by HAHF (and the Florida DOH in its Rabies Guide) that TNR—which has become increasingly popular over the past 20 years—leads to an increased risk of rabies exposure.

•     •     •

*The data suggest that the sharp increase during the early 1990s was due to an increase in rabies cases among the state’s raccoon population.

Coming up:

• Part 3: Toxoplasmosis prevalence
• Part 4: Hillsborough County Animal Services: Past, Present, and Future
• Part 5: Would the real HAHF please stand up?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Rabies Prevention and Control in Florida, 2012. 2012, Florida Department of Health: Tallahassee, FL.

2. Clifton, M. (2010). How to introduce neuter/return & make it work. Animal People, pp. 3–4, from

3. n.a., 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report. 2011, Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control, Bureau of Epidemiology: Tallahassee, FL.

4. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689.

5. n.a., “Recovery of a Patient from Clinical Rabies—California, 2011.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2012. 61(4): p. 61–64.

6. n.a., 20 Year Animal Rabies Summary by Species (1991–2010) 2011, Florida Department of Health: Tallahassee, FL.

7. n.a. Rabies Surveillance: Charts, Maps, and Graphs. 2006 [cited 2012 August 25].

Westchester County, NY, Rabies Case

“A rabies alert was posted Tuesday by the Westchester County Department of Health,” reported the Tarrytown Daily Voice earlier this week, “after a police officer shot a stray cat who attacked him after trying to attack a man and woman in Elmsford.”

“When Elmsford Police Department responded, the cat chased the officer into a neighbor’s yard and attacked him. The cat bit the officer’s leg as he tried to fend off the animal, police said. The officer shook the cat from his leg, but the animal pounced at the officer again, puncturing his skin with its teeth and claws.

‘An officer got a few nasty bites and is being treated for rabies,’ [Elmsford Mayor Robert] Williams said Sunday night, before testing confirmed the cat had rabies. ‘You have to start the treatment right away while they are awaiting the results from the cat. He was released from the hospital later that day [Friday] and went home to rest. He returned to work the next day.’” [1]

No doubt TNR opponents will have a field day with this one. But how about a little perspective? Read more

Never Bet Against Irony

Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Darkone.

According to a recent story in The Charleston Gazette, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has, in recent years, made great strides in stopping the westward spread of the raccoon variant of the rabies virus. And a promising new vaccine, typically distributed in packets dropped from airplanes, may eliminate raccoon rabies altogether.

The news came via a presentation by Richard Chipman, Assistant National Rabies Management Coordinator for USDA’s Wildlife Services (yes, that Wildlife Services), and several of his colleagues at the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Conference in April. Read more

Downgrading ABC’s “Perfect Storm”

Once again, the American Bird Conservancy is using scare tactics to gain support for their long-standing witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, this time suggesting a connection between TNR and rabies exposure. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrate no such connection.

Maybe the folks at the American Bird Conservancy were simply feeling left out, what with all the attention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been getting for their participation in The Wildlife Society’s upcoming feral cat workshop.

You know, all dressed up (tired talking points in hand) and nowhere to go.

With just a day to spare, ABC announced that senior policy analyst Steve Holmer would be participating in the 2nd Annual World Rabies Day Webinar, apparently using the occasion—as is ABC’s habit—to trot out all the usual anti-TNR propaganda.

According to a media release from ABC, Managed Cat Colonies and Rabies was to be “one of 28 presentations being aired in over 70 countries.” I was unable to tune into Holmer’s presentation, but ABC’s announcement suggests I didn’t miss much: “Feral cat colonies bring together a series of high risk elements that result in a ‘perfect storm’ of rabies exposure.”

Put into context, though, the rabies threat posed by “feral cat colonies” is more of a tempest in a teacup.

“While cats make up a small percentage of rabies vectors,” argues Holmer, “they are responsible for a disproportionate number of human exposures.” As the media release explains:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people are exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals such as cats and dogs. Although dogs historically posed a greater rabies threat to humans, dog-related incidents have become less frequent in recent decades, dropping from 1,600 cases in 1958 to just 75 in 2008. Meanwhile, cases involving cats have increased over the same period with spikes of up to 300 cases in a single year.

Here, ABC is, once again, not telling us the whole story—beginning with their source. It turns out this paragraph—along with other portions of their release—were lifted verbatim from The Wildlife Society’s Rabies in Humans and Wildlife “fact sheet” (PDF). TWS attributes the figures to a 2009 report of CDC data published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (which includes the graph below).

“State health authorities have different requirements for submission of specimens for rabies testing,” note the authors, “therefore, intensity of surveillance varies.” [1]

“Because most animals submitted for testing are selected because of abnormal behavior or obvious signs of illness, percentages of tested animals with positive results in the present report are not representative of the incidence of rabies in the general population. Further, because of differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states, comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states is inappropriate.” [1, italics mine]

Comparing rabies cases in dogs and cats, as TWS—and, by extension, ABC—have done, misrepresents the actual threat posed by cats. Indeed, as “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2009” makes clear (see table below), no human case of rabies reported between 2000 and 2009 was linked to a cat.

As one of my colleagues astutely observed, “You are more likely to be executed by Rick Perry than die from rabies contracted from a cat.”

[Note: As I’ve demonstrated previously, TWS’s “fact sheets” aren’t any better than ABC’s media releases when it comes to, well, facts. In Rabies in Humans and Wildlife, TWS suggests that treatment for people exposed to rabies “can cost $7,000 or more; every year, the United States spends approximately $300 million on rabies prevention.” [2]

Among the sources cited by TWS is the CDC—which paints a very different economic picture, suggesting that “a course of rabies immune globulin and five doses of vaccine given over a 4-week period typically exceeds $1,000,” and pointing out that the annual expenditures for rabies prevention “include the vaccination of companion animals, animal control programs, maintenance of rabies laboratories, and medical costs, such as those incurred for rabies postexposure prophylaxis.”

If ABC isn’t going to do their own homework, then they should at least look for a trustworthy source.]

TNR: Barrier to Rabies Transmission
“Managed colonies teach feral cats to associate with humans,” says Holmer/TWS, “and while most people will not interact with wildlife, especially animals displaying erratic behavior, cats are perceived as domestic and approachable.”

In an e-mail to me earlier this week, Merritt Clifton editor of Animal People, dismissed several of Holmer’s assertions, describing TNR as “a very useful tool in fighting rabies.”

“Neuter/return feral cat population control, including vaccination, is in truth a very effective rabies control measure, as I know firsthand, because I was personally involved in the introduction of neuter/return feral cat control to the U.S. in 1991–1992—and it was done as part of a rabies control program.”

“The idea,” says Clifton, “was to see whether neuter/return could turn the feral cat population into a vaccinated barrier between rabid raccoons and free-roaming pet cats.”

“As coordinator of a rabies information hotline for the preceding year, following the arrival in Connecticut of the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic, I became one of the three coordinators of an experiment which sterilized and vaccinated 330 feral cats at eight locations in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut.”

The experiment was, Clifton explains, a success. “The only rabid cat ever found near our eight working locations,” he says, “was an unvaccinated house cat who was not normally allowed outside, but escaped and fought with a raccoon before being captured by [a] Town of Monroe animal control officer.” Clifton and his colleagues were, he tells me, “honored by the Town of Monroe Police Department for our accomplishment in keeping rabies from spreading beyond raccoons. The certificate is above my desk right now.”

“To date,” Clifton continues, “there has never been even one case of rabies in the U.S. among cats who were part of a managed neuter/return program, coordinated with a humane society or animal control agency. Of the 32 instances of rabid cats in the U.S. reported by ProMed since 2005, 11 involved feral cats, and several others involved found kittens [and] cats of indeterminate status, but none were part of a neuter return/program.”

[Note: The apparent discrepancy between CDC and ProMed figures are, Clifton tells me, easily explained: “ProMed reports outbreaks, not individual cases.”]

For Holmer, incorporating the rabies vaccine into standard TNR protocol—as is done in many locations—is insufficient.

“Even when they are vaccinated when first trapped, re-trapping cats to revaccinate can be problematic as the cats become wary of the traps. There is also typically not the funding or infrastructure among the colony feeders to repeatedly re-trap cats to administer vaccines.”

In fact, boosters are probably unnecessary. Julie Levy, Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine—and one of this country’s foremost experts on feral cats—suggests, “Even a single dose of rabies vaccination provides years of protection against rabies infection.”

When it comes right down to it, initial vaccinations are probably unnecessary, too, in much of the country. As the authors of the 2009 rabies surveillance report—referring to the map shown below—point out, “Most (81.0 percent) of the 300 cases of rabies involving cats were reported from states where raccoon rabies is enzootic, with two states (Pennsylvania and Virginia) accounting for nearly a third of all rabid cats reported during 2009.” [3]

If ABC is truly concerned about the public health threat posed by “feral cat colonies,” why withhold such critical information? Because their “perfect storm” media release has nothing whatsoever to do public health. Or science, for that matter. It’s just another feeble attempt to gain support for their long-standing witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

And to add to the fear-mongering, ABC now suggests that TNR actually increases the number of stray, abandoned, and feral cats.

“Peer reviewed studies have shown that over time, cat colonies increase in size, the result of the inability to neuter or spay all the cats and the dumping of unwanted cats at the colony sites by callous pet owners. The result is a large number of unvaccinated cats.”

Just 10 months ago, though, ABC was telling a rather different story. Authors of The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation suggest, “few colonies managed under this system shrink.” [4] Either way, ABC is ignoring compelling evidence that TNR can indeed reduce colony size over time—in some cases 16–32 percent, [5] 36 percent, [6] and 66 percent. [7]

•     •     •

“The increase in the cases of human rabies exposure from feral cats,” argues Holmer, “should be a concern to city and other government officials.”

“This problem will only get worse as managed feral cat colonies grow in number because half truths about their impacts and implications on local communities and the environment is accepted by decision makers who mistakenly believe they are receiving full disclosure.”

If Holmer’s looking for half-truths and partial disclosures, he needn’t look any further than ABC’s most recent piece of propaganda—the most insidious element of which is merely implied. One might easily get the impression that ABC has a plan to reduce the population of stray, abandoned, and feral cats—a feasible alternative to TNR.

In fact, there is no such plan.

That’s ABC’s dirty little secret (one they share with TWS and USFWS). And that’s what should be a concern to city and other government officials.

Literature Cited
1. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689.

2. n.a., Problems with Trap-Neuter-Release. 2011, The Wildlife Society: Bethesda, MD.

3. Blanton, J.D., Palmer, D., and Rupprecht, C.E., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2009.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2010. 237(6): p. 646–657.

4. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

5. Natoli, E., et al., “Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy).” Preventive Veterinary Medicine. 2006. 77(3-4): p. 180–185.

6. Nutter, F.B., Evaluation of a Trap-Neuter-Return Management Program for Feral Cat Colonies: Population Dynamics, Home Ranges, and Potentially Zoonotic Diseases, in Comparative Biomedical Department. 2005, North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC. p. 224.

7. Levy, J.K., Gale, D.W., and Gale, L.A., “Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(1): p. 42-46.

8. Yoshino, K. (2010, January 17). A catfight over neutering program. Los Angeles Times, from,0,1225635.story

On Invasion and Persuasion

Smithsonian magazine is, according to its website, “created for modern, well-rounded individuals with diverse interests” and “chronicles the arts, history, sciences and popular culture of the times.” Jess Righthand’s recent article, “The World’s Worst Invasive Mammals,” seems—despite its inclusion in the online edition’s “Science & Nature” section—better suited for the pop culture category.

Indeed, the story has more to do with sensationalism than science.

Feral Cat Population
Righthand’s claim that “there are an estimated 60 million feral cats in the United States alone” is conservative compared to some other estimates. David Jessup, for example, suggested in 2004 that there were 60–100 million [1], while, more recently, The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation puts the figure at 60–120 million [2] (neither cites a source).

Still, Merritt Clifton of Animal People, an independent newspaper dedicated to animal protection issues, makes a compelling argument that the population of feral cats in the U.S. is much smaller than is often reported, and may very well be on the decline. [3]

Clifton’s estimates are derived not from surveys of homeowners feeding stray and feral cats, but from “information about the typical numbers of cats found in common habitat types, gleaned from a national survey of cat rescuers… cross-compared with animal shelter intake data.” [4] In 2003, Clifton suggested that “the winter feral cat population may now be as low as 13 million and the summer peak is probably no more than 24 million.” [4]

Predation on Birds
Righthand puts the figure for annual bird deaths attributed to feral cats at “around 480 million.” Nowhere near the “one billion birds” proposed by Nico Dauphine and Robert Cooper, [5] of course, but more than enough to get the attention of Smithsonian readers.

But, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, even high rates of predation do not equate to population declines (though, clearly, it’s easy to suggest as much). Many researchers have disputed the kind of broad, overreaching claims to which Righthand alludes. Biologist C.J. Mead, for example, reviewing the deaths of “ringed” (banded) birds reported by the British public, suggests that cats may be responsible for 6.2–31.3 percent of bird deaths. “Overall,” writes Mead, “it is clear that cat predation is a significant cause of death for most of the species examined.” Nevertheless, Mead concludes:

“there is no clear evidence of cats threatening to harm the overall population level of any particular species… Indeed, cats have been kept as pets for many years and hundreds of generations of birds breeding in suburban and rural areas have had to contend with their predatory intentions.” [6]

Mike Fitzgerald and Dennis Turner come to essentially the same conclusion: “We consider that we do not have enough information yet to attempt to estimate on average how many birds a cat kills each year. And there are few, if any studies apart from island ones that actually demonstrate that cats have reduced bird populations.” [7]

Then, too, there’s the critical distinction between compensatory and additive predation—again, a point I’ve made numerous times. Two very interesting studies have generated compelling evidence that birds killed by cats are, on average, significantly less healthy than those killed through non-predatory events (e.g., collisions with buildings). [8, 9] In other words, these birds probably weren’t going to live long enough to contribute to the overall population numbers; predation was compensatory rather than additive.

Public Health Threats
“When house cats are allowed free range outdoors by their owners,” argues Righthand, “or simply don’t have owners, they not only wreak havoc as opportunistic hunters, they can also spread disease. In addition to carrying rabies, 62 to 82 percent of cats in a recent study tested positive for toxoplasmosis.” Here, Righthand seems to be cribbing off of Hildreth, Vantassel, and Hygnstrom, of “Feral Cats and Their Management” fame—hardly a reputable source.

Regarding rabies—a topic I’ll save for future posts—I think it’s important to put this into perspective. I happen to have data from Florida handy, and according to that state’s Department of Health, approximately 22,000 Florida residents have died of the flu or pneumonia since 2006 (actually, that figure accounts for only 24 of Florida’s 67 counties, so the total is surely much higher).

By way of comparison: from 2005 through mid-May of this year, there were 11 reported cases of rabies in humans across the entire country (though, I believe there were a handful of reported cases this summer as well).

In terms of public health, then, I think we’re all better off focusing on frequent hand washing, sneezing into our sleeves, and the like—as opposed to, say, exterminating this country’s most popular companion animal by the millions.

Toxoplasma gondii (I)
While it’s true that cats are the definitive host of Toxoplasma gondii, it’s important to note that “wild game can be a source of T. gondii infection in humans, cats, and other carnivores. Serologic data show that a significant number of feral pigs, bears, and cervids are exposed to T. gondii. [10]

“Humans,” write Elmore et al., “usually become infected through ingestion of oocyst-contaminated soil and water, tissue cysts in undercooked meat, or congenitally. Because of their fastidious nature, the passing of non-infective oocysts, and the short duration of oocyst shedding, direct contact with cats is not thought to be a primary risk for human infection.” [11]

But to Righthand’s point: the rate of cats testing positive—or seroprevalence—is, in any event, not a useful measure of their ability to infect other animals or people.

According to Dubey and Jones, “most cats seroconvert after they have shed oocysts. Thus, it is a reasonable assumption that most seropositive cats have already shed oocysts.” [12] “Testing positive,” in this case, is nothing more than the detection of antibodies resulting from seroconversion (the same process, by the way, that takes place in humans after receiving a flu shot).

So, what exactly is Righthand’s point? Did she simply not do her homework here, or is the idea to portray these cats as a threat far, far beyond what the scientific evidence supports? Both, I suspect.

Toxoplasma gondii (II)
T. gondii
, Righthand continues, “has been shown to cause neurological damage to sea otters and other marine mammals that are exposed when heavy rainfall washes infected cat feces into the water.” Again, this is terrain I’ve covered previously. (Righthand, it seems, could do herself—and Smithsonian readers—a favor by subscribing to Vox Felina!)

Yes, T. gondii has been linked to the illness and death of marine life, primarily sea otters [13], prompting investigation into the possible role of free-roaming (both owned and feral) cats. [14, 15] It’s generally thought that oocysts (the mature, infective form of the parasite) are transferred from soil contaminated with infected feces to coastal waterways by way of freshwater run-off. [15]

However, one study found that 36 of 50 sea otters from coastal California were infected with the Type X strain of T. gondii [16], a type linked to wild felids (mountain lions and a bobcat, in this case), but not to domestic cats. [15] A recently published study from Germany seems to corroborate these findings. Herrmann et al. analyzed 18,259 fecal samples (all from pet cats) for T. gondii and found no Type X strain. (It’s interesting to note, too, that only 0.25% of the samples tested positive for T. gondii). [17]

Once again, we’re back to the question: What is Righthand trying to accomplish here?

Population Impacts
“Cats have,” writes Righthand, “also hurt populations of birds, reptiles and other creatures. The black stilt of New Zealand (a seabird), the Okinawa woodpecker and the Cayman Island ground iguana are just a few of the dozens of endangered species at risk due to the proliferation of feral cats.”

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, endangered species are—by definition—at risk due to the proliferation of all sorts of threats. That’s how they became endangered in the first place. To suggest, as Righthand does, that cats are the sole threat these animals face is both misleading and irresponsible.

Righthand (taking a cue, perhaps, from the authors of The ABC Guide?) also makes the common mistake of using island impacts (which are, themselves, more complex than often acknowledged) to imply impacts elsewhere (better yet: everywhere). Readers, it seems, are on their own in terms of doing any research on the topic.

Mission Failure
How much of the blame we can put on Righthand, I don’t know. According to Smithsonian’s website, she’s an intern with the magazine. Had the editors wanted a more thoroughly researched article, they could have demanded one. (This, some readers will recall, is not the first time I’ve been disappointed with the Smithsonian’s lack of rigor.)

According to its website, the mission of the Smithsonian is straightforward but ambitious: “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Righthand’s article—misleading at best—falls well short. It seems she’s still struggling with how to best express the organization’s proclaimed values—in this case, going overboard on the creativity at the expense of excellence and integrity.

Literature Cited
1. Jessup, D.A., “The welfare of feral cats and wildlife.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1377-1383.

2. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J., and Fenwick, G.H., The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. 2010, London: University of Chicago Press.

3. Clifton, M. (2003) Roadkills of cats fall 90% in 10 years—are feral cats on their way out? Accessed May 23, 2010.

4. Clifton, M. Where cats belong—and where they don’t. Animal People 2003 [cited 2009 December 24].

5. Dauphiné, N. and Cooper, R.J., Impacts of Free-ranging Domestic Cats (Felis catus) on birds in the United States: A review of recent research with conservation and management recommendations, in Fourth International Partners in Flight Conference: Tundra to Tropics. 2009. p. 205–219.

6. Mead, C.J., “Ringed birds killed by cats.” Mammal Review. 1982. 12(4): p. 183-186.

7. Fitzgerald, B.M. and Turner, D.C., Hunting Behaviour of domestic cats and their impact on prey populations, in The Domestic Cat: The biology of its behaviour, D.C. Turner and P.P.G. Bateson, Editors. 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K.; New York. p. 151–175.

8. Baker, P.J., et al., “Cats about town: is predation by free-ranging pet cats Felis catus likely to affect urban bird populations? Ibis. 2008. 150: p. 86-99.

9. Møller, A.P. and Erritzøe, J., “Predation against birds with low immunocompetence.” Oecologia. 2000. 122(4): p. 500-504.

10. Hill, D.E., Chirukandoth, S., and Dubey, J.P., “Biology and epidemiology of Toxoplasma gondii in man and animals.” Animal Health Research Reviews. 2005. 6(01): p. 41-61.

11. Elmore, S.A., et al., “Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects, and prevention.” Trends in Parasitology. 26(4): p. 190-196.

12. Dubey, J.P. and Jones, J.L., “Toxoplasma gondii infection in humans and animals in the United States.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1257-1278.

13. Jones, J.L. and Dubey, J.P., “Waterborne toxoplasmosis – Recent developments.” Experimental Parasitology. 124(1): p. 10-25.

14. Dabritz, H.A., et al., “Outdoor fecal deposition by free-roaming cats and attitudes of cat owners and nonowners toward stray pets, wildlife, and water pollution.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2006. 229(1): p. 74-81.

15. Miller, M.A., et al., “Type X Toxoplasma gondii in a wild mussel and terrestrial carnivores from coastal California: New linkages between terrestrial mammals, runoff and toxoplasmosis of sea otters.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2008. 38(11): p. 1319-1328.

16. Conrad, P.A., et al., “Transmission of Toxoplasma: Clues from the study of sea otters as sentinels of Toxoplasma gondii flow into the marine environment.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2005. 35(11-12): p. 1155-1168.

17. Herrmann, D.C., et al., “Atypical Toxoplasma gondii genotypes identified in oocysts shed by cats in Germany.” International Journal for Parasitology. 2010. 40(3): p. 285–292.

Feeding Bans: Policy Hungry for Science

A recent news item from Alley Cat Allies reports “a disturbing and increasing trend of feeding ban proposals as a way to ‘eradicate’ cats from their outdoor homes.” Among the reasons cited for opposing such bans:

  • Cats don’t magically disappear when you stop feeding them—there’s an abundance of garbage available (from households, restaurants, supermarkets, etc.) as an alternative food source. Wherever you find people—and their trash—you’ll also find cats.
  • TNR requires regular feeding schedules. No feeding means no TNR—and no sterilization means more cats, not fewer.
  • Punishing concerned citizens is bad policy, and bad for communities.

I’d like to add one more: The concerns that prompt such proposals are, more than likely, based on erroneous, exaggerated, and/or misleading claims—all made in the name of science.

I’ll bet if I contacted officials in Brookhaven, NY, Wheaton, IL, and Benzie County, MI (communities listed in the Alley Cat Allies story), they’d tell me all about the numerous “threats” posed by free-roaming cats—wildlife killed and injured, rabies, toxoplasmosis, etc. And if pressed, they would almost certainly produce the Travis Longcore/Urban Wildlands Group article from Conservation Biology, some reference to the Wisconsin Study, a clipping of the L.A. Times story from January, or some comparable (read: dubious) bit of “evidence.”

Which is precisely what Longcore et al. are pushing for:

Conservation scientists and advocates must properly identify the environmental implications of feral cat management and actively engage this issue to bring scientific information to the attention of policy makers. [1]

I’ve got nothing against scientists getting involved with policy making—on the contrary, I think we need more of it. But from what I’ve seen, too many scientists involved in feral cat/TNR research are putting the cart before the horse. They’re shaping public policy before properly identifying any environmental implications. Too much interest in active engagement, not enough interest in active science.

1. Longcore, T., Rich, C., and Sullivan, L.M., “Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return.” Conservation Biology. 2009. 23(4): p. 887–894.