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What to Know When People Say Community Cats Are a Public Health Risk

Looking for resources and information to help you provide accurate information to your communities about public health issues and free-roaming cats? Guest blogger Jesse Oldham has compiled them for you.

When I first started doing TNR in my community, there were many things I needed to learn that I would have never expected. Approaching my NYC neighbors to talk about TNR. Insulating materials for winter shelters. And I learned that I have to think about the community these community cats are in.

One of the great surprises for me in more recent years is how many times public health issues come up in the same breath as free-roaming cats. Surprised because I've been participating in TNR for almost a decade, alongside others who've been actively involved for many years, and we are all suspiciously healthy—and yet we have the most exposure to free-roaming cats.

I suspect many of you are in the same boat when you hear these public health issues on the news. You hear the buzz about toxo. Or rabies. Or the plague (I'm not kidding). And you need to learn more about these issues and community cats, but you struggle to find the resources—or you struggle to find the time to start finding the resources.

This post will try to do some of that work for you—I've compiled information and resources specific to the public health scares you hear about most frequently: rabies and toxoplasmosis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rabies is a viral disease of mammals that affects the central nervous system and is most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. Rabies in the US has changed within the last 100 years—while before 1960 the majority of all animal rabies cases were domestic animals, now more than 90% of all animal cases reported to the CDC occur in wildlife. This shift is often attributed to rabies vaccination programs for domestic animals.

Important notes:
- As I've mentioned before, TNR moonlights as a rabies vaccination program for cats who would not otherwise be vaccinated against rabies.
- Since the majority of reported rabid animals are wildlife, we can reduce human and feline rabies exposure by treating wildlife with oral rabies vaccinations.
- The Rabies Challenge Fund was founded in 2005 to determine the immunity that rabies vaccinations provide in the hopes of proving that rabies vaccinations do not need to be administered as frequently as some states require. There’s been a strong desire in the TNR community to know what kind of immunity those rabies vaccinations actually give our cats, since folks are often concerned that a 1-year rabies vaccination isn’t enough (even though it’s better than nothing!)

Additional reading on rabies:
Alley Cat Allies – “Rabies: A Public Health Victory”

Vox Felina
- “Westchester County Rabies Case” discusses the probability of humans being exposed to rabies via cats.
- “Never Bet Against Irony” discusses the rabies relationship between raccoons and felines.
- Find all Vox Felina posts discussing rabies here.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the toxoplasma gondii parasite.  Causes of infection are most commonly: eating undercooked meat, accidental ingestion of undercooked meat after handling and not washing hands appropriately, and contaminated drinking water. Toxo can also be contracted by accidental ingestion through contact with contaminated cat feces. Cats are thought to only spread toxo in their feces for a few weeks following infection.

Important notes:
- As many rescue groups and shelters already know, some doctors still steer pregnant women away from having cats due to risks of toxo. But the CDC says that yes, you can keep your cat if you're pregnant or immunocompromised, and advises some pretty basic preventative measures for keeping transmission at bay.
- From the CDC's Toxo FAQ: “In an otherwise healthy person who is not pregnant, treatment is usually not needed.  If symptoms occur, they typically go away within a few weeks to months. For pregnant women or persons who have weakened immune systems, medications are available to treat toxoplasmosis."

Additional reading on toxoplasmosis:
Vox Felina:
- “Parasite Lost
The strain of toxo found in sea otters may not be related to the strain carried by domestic (feral) cats.
- “Close Enough?
Discusses the possibility of toxo being spread through non-cat avenues like congenital transmission and scavenging (the possibility of wildlife being a source of toxo infection is also cited in Adult Supervision Required II).
- Find all Vox Felina posts discussing toxoplasmosis here.


**Free Webinar presented by Jesse Oldham: Starting a TNR Program in Your Community
Wednesday, October 17, 3-4pm ET

Alley Cat Allies: “Feral Cats and the Public – A Healthy Relationship” covers rabies, toxo, flea-borne typhus, cryptosporidium and giardia.

Stray Cat Alliance: From Drs. Ackerman's and Metropole's presentation, “Community Cats, Public Health and Compassionate Coexistence,” at 2012’s HSUS Expo, this handout includes info on rabies, toxo, flea-borne typhus, cryptosporidium and giardia.

When speaking to the community about public health issues and free-roaming cats, it's a good idea to cite sources like the CDC. However, it can sometimes be difficult to get to the heart of the data without a little assistance if you don't have a strong science background. Some of the cat-biased groups can "translate" for you, but note that if you cite these and only these sources, they can be considered biased—so it's always a good idea to read the source studies as well.

Are there any resources on public health issues and free-roaming cats that you've found helpful? Please share them in the comment box.

Jesse Oldham, Senior Administrative Director for Community Outreach at the ASPCA, founded and directed Slope Street Cats, a Brooklyn-based non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to promoting and facilitating TNR for feral cats from 2004 until its phase-out in 2009. Jesse remains active in the NYC TNR community by continuing to teach TNR certification workshops on behalf of the Feral Cat Initiative and to develop and facilitate feral cat education and information resources.

Related links:
“Who Benefits from TNR?”
Trap-Neuter-Return on
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Toxoplasmosis FAQ