Rabies: Some Much-Needed Perspective

Seven minutes and 35 seconds. That’s how long Robert Siegel, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke with Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy about their new book, Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.

Cats weren’t mentioned even once.

Was this a massive oversight? A coup perpetrated by the Powerful Cat Lobby, perhaps?

Hardly. “Veterinarians spend a lot of time thinking about rabies, even though in this country, we hardly ever see it,” explained Murphy, a veterinarian. (Wasik, her husband, is a journalist.)

The scaremongerers over at the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society must be downright distraught at the thought of the American public being better informed on the subject. Indeed, an excerpt from Rabid describes some of the underlying myths and cultural baggage these folks routinely attempt to leverage in their witch-hunt against free-roaming cats.

“As the lone visible instance of animal-to-human infection, rabies has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities. Even during the twentieth century, after Pasteur’s invention of a rabies vaccine provided a near-foolproof means of preventing its fatality in humans, our dark fascination with rabies seemed only to swell. The vaccine itself became as mythologized as the bug, such that even today many Americans believe that treatment requires some twenty (or is it thirty?) shots, delivered with a foot-long syringe into the stomach. (In fact, today’s vaccine entails four shots, and not particularly deep in the arm.)

It’s almost as if the very anachronism of rabies, to the Western mind, has rendered it even more intriguing to us. Like the vampire, rabies carries with it the musty whiff of a centuries-old terror—even as it still terrifies us in the present day.”

Not exactly your typical summertime reading, maybe, but this one’s going on my list. I wonder if I can get signed copies for ABC’s Darin Schroeder and TWS’s Michael Hutchins

Oregon Man Diagnosed with Plague

According to last Friday’s USA Today, “Health officials have confirmed that an Oregon man has the plague after he was bitten while trying to take a dead rodent from the mouth of a stray cat.”

“State public health veterinarian Dr. Emilio DeBess said the man was infected when he was bitten by the stray his family befriended. The cat died and its body is being sent to the CDC for testing.”

Other news reports suggest that the source of the bacteria—which might have been the rodent—remains uncertain. (Indeed, the fact that the cat’s body was submitted for testing suggests, that there is some question about this. The cat’s death—also unexplained—raises additional questions.)

“Humans usually get plague,” explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website, “after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague.” Read more

Game On!

Be prepared for the next news story, media release, position statement, local ordinance, House or Senate bill, or government report that (intentionally or not) misrepresents free-roaming cats’ impact on wildlife and the environment, public health threat, etc. with Feral Cat Witch-hunt Bingo!

Downloadable PDF includes four bingo cards and 120 chips.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Vox Felina logo: one-year anniversary

…though I am certainly in the “pro-cat” camp, I am not at all “anti-wildlife.” I’m far more interested in finding common ground than I am in further polarizing the parties involved. That said, I will not stand idly by while opponents of feral/free-roaming cats—and TNR in particular—mishandle, misconstrue, and misrepresent the research for PR purposes.

…effective public policy… is needed more urgently than ever. But to get there—to really tackle this incredibly complex issue—we first need to untangle some of what’s being said. This is precisely what I intend to do with Vox Felina. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it so eloquently, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

I wrote those words a year ago today, thus launching Vox Felina.

A year into this project, the vision and mission remain unchanged. As does my commitment to “illuminate” the bogus claims made by those who continue to promote the shameless witch hunt against free-roaming cats.

This commitment, I now realize, will keep me busy for a very long time. (Imagine: at one time, I actually worried about running out of material!)

Over the past twelve months, I’ve accumulated hundreds of academic papers, theses and dissertations, book chapters, reports of all kinds, and newspaper articles. (Despite the cumbersome nature of the process, I still believe in reading what I cite; this, I’ve learned, is not to be taken for granted.)

Posts frequently exceed 4,000—even 5,000 words. (At 348 words, that inaugural post was easily one of the “leanest.”) And still, the to-do list continues to grow.

But, so does the audience.

Vox Felina has attracted the attention of the San Francisco Chronicle, Best Friends Animal Society, and Animal Wise Radio, among others.

At last check, the blog has 157 subscribers and 621 “Likes” on the Vox Felina Facebook page.

Best of all—and much to my surprise and delight—the blog has attracted a team of die-hard supporters who go out of their way to provide me with news items, background information and material, and invaluable feedback. To these bright, ambitious, and generous souls—many of whom I’ve yet to meet—I am immensely grateful and deeply indebted.

As I say, the task at hand is greater than I anticipated—but so is the collective will to accomplish the task. So, a moment of celebration (e.g., a slice of cake, a toast, etc.), and then it’s back to work.

Year 2 begins…

Inside Job

Results from the American Pet Products Association’s 2009­­–2010 National Pet Owners Survey suggest that cats in this country are spending more time indoors than ever before. Although the proportion of owners keeping their cats inside at night has remained relatively steady since 1998 (at approximately 66%), their has been a 14% increase in daytime confinement (from 56% to 64%) over the same period. [1]

Indoor&Outdoor Access-APPA

It must be noted that owners were asked where they usually kept their cat(s), thereby raising some doubts about the accuracy of their responses. (There are actually two issues here: first is the level of truthfulness—did owners, intentionally or not, provide accurate information? But there is also the obvious ambiguity surrounding the term usually.) Nevertheless, these results correspond reasonably well with those of two earlier surveys: one commissioned by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) in 1997, [2] the other conducted by Clancy et al. in 2001 [3] (the only other surveys I’ve found that investigated this issue specifically).

The ABC’s study (in which 250 cat owners participated in a telephone survey) indicated that “35% keep their cats indoors all of the time,” while “31% keep them indoors mostly with some outside access.” [2]

The 2001 survey included 168 cat owners, each of whom was part of the Feline Health Study, conducted at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University. Sixty percent of these cats were “strictly indoor cats,” while 40% “had some level of outdoor access.” [3] Probing further, Clancy et al. discovered that nearly half of the cats with outdoor access were outside for two or fewer hours a day. And 29% of them were outdoors for less than an hour each day. [3]

Considering the differences in sampling (most notably the fact that participants in the 2001 survey were all clients of a veterinary hospital, whereas APPA survey results for 2000 indicate that 27% of cat owners did not visit the vet in the previous 12 months), and the inherent uncertainty surrounding the terms mostly, usually, and some, the results of these three surveys are remarkably similar.

Counting Cats
Such findings are critical for developing accurate estimates of the number of birds killed by cats (assuming a reasonable level of accuracy is achievable, given the complexity of the issue). Simply put, cats that don’t go outside can’t kill birds.

Recognizing this, some researchers have inflated their figures for cats allowed outdoors. [4–6]

Dauphiné and Cooper, [6] for instance, cite the APPA’s 2007–2008 survey when referring to the number of owned cats in the U.S., but either ignored or overlooked its findings about confinement: 63% of owners reported that they kept their cat(s) indoors during the day, 70% during the night. (It’s also possible that the authors consulted only the APPA’s online summary, which probably didn’t include this information.)

By contrast, Dauphiné and Cooper claim that 65% of pet cats “are free-ranging outdoor cats for at least some portion of the day,” [6] citing not the APPA survey, but Linda Winter’s 2004 paper, “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts” (which can be downloaded here). Indeed, Winter, the former director of the ABC’s Cats Indoors! campaign, had suggested as much—misrepresenting the findings of a study commissioned by her own organization:

“A 1997 nationwide random telephone survey indicated that 66% of cat owners let their cats outdoors some or all of the time.” [7]

Double the proportion of cats allowed outdoors, and—just like that—the number of birds killed by pet cats doubles too. (Dauphiné and Cooper actually go much further, employing some grossly inflated predation rates as well.)

Counting Birds
Of course, such estimates do not necessarily relate directly to population impacts. The predation may be largely compensatory, for example; and there are source-sink dynamics to be considered as well.

Nevertheless, researchers persist—more often, it seems, in pursuit of staggering, media-friendly figures than a better understanding of what’s actually going on (e.g., Dauphiné and Cooper’s bumper-sticker-worthy “one billion birds”). As a result, the scientific literature is plagued with some rather spectacular failures where predation numbers are concerned (e.g., The Wisconsin Study, Christopher Lepczyk’s dissertation, Carol Fiore’s thesis, etc.).

*     *     *

The surprising level of agreement among the three “outdoor access” studies provides researchers a rare opportunity to agree among themselves. Which, in turn, could move us closer to an honest debate of the larger issues—arguing about which action is most appropriate, for instance, rather than about whose numbers are most valid.

Despite how results of these surveys have been—as recently as last year—overlooked, ignored, and misrepresented, I remain cautiously optimistic. As Patronek has suggested, “predation of songbirds tends to be noticed because it takes place during the day.” [8] It’s time predation research received the same kind of visibility. Sunlight, after all, is said to be the best of disinfectants.

Note: There is a an amendment to this post here.

Literature Cited
1. APPA, 2009–2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey. 2009, American Pet Products Association: Greenwich, CT.

2. ABC, Human Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Cats. 1997, American Bird Conservancy: Washington, DC. http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/cats/materials/attitudes.pdf

3. Clancy, E.A., Moore, A.S., and Bertone, E.R., “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2003. 222(11): p. 1541-1545.

4. Coleman, J.S. and Temple, S.A., On the Prowl, in Wisconsin Natural Resources. 1996, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Madison, WI. p. 4–8. http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/html/stories/1996/dec96/cats.htm

5. Lepczyk, C.A., Mertig, A.G., and Liu, J., “Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes.” Biological Conservation. 2003. 115(2): p. 191-201.

6. 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.

7. Winter, L., “Trap-neuter-release programs: the reality and the impacts.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2004. 225(9): p. 1369-1376.

8. Patronek, G.J., “Free-roaming and feral cats—their impact on wildlife and human beings.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 1998. 212(2): p. 218–226.