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Who Benefits from TNR?

Guest blogger Jesse Oldham was recently reminded that we all benefit from a public health perspective, thanks to TNR programs with protocols for rabies vaccinations.

If someone asks me who benefits from a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program for free-roaming cats, I immediately think of the cats, of course! They’re no longer having kittens outdoors. The females are no longer in heat, attracting tom cats to them. The boys are no longer spraying and grappling over territory or mates. It improves the cats’ quality of life.

Sometimes I think of how the cats’ neighbors benefit. Folks who live in close range to feral cats have told me they appreciate TNR because it improves their quality of life. There are fewer cats around, the tom cat smell disappears and they hear less of the yowling that goes with mating and fighting. One of the highlights of doing TNR is hearing, “Thanks, Cat Lady!” from the cats’ neighbors after a TNR project. (Okay, I can take or leave the cat lady part.)

Recently I was reminded that the cats’ neighbors benefit from TNR in other ways – from a public health perspective. News broke recently that an 8-year-old girl from California had contracted rabies and miraculously survived it, despite not receiving rabies post-exposure prophylaxis or having been vaccinated against the virus. (By the time she was diagnosed with rabies she was too far along to receive the standard post-exposure injections. She instead underwent an experimental treatment called “the Milwaukee Protocol.”)

The rabid culprit? Most likely a feral cat outside her elementary school, according to the news outlets, including Good Morning America, who called the ASPCA to chat about feral cats and rabies.

Precious, the rabies survivor, had interacted with this cat and the animal scratched her. She said it looked just like any other cat. If this cat had been part of a TNR program with a rabies vaccination protocol, he or she would have received at least one rabies vaccination, and Precious may not have been fighting for her life in a hospital. TNR programs that provide rabies vaccinations as part of their standard protocol do their neighborhoods a great service by vaccinating a rabies vector animal who might come in contact with other rabies vector animals. From a community public health perspective, a high-volume spay/neuter program moonlights as a high-volume rabies vaccination program. (In fact, there are proponents of calling it TNVR instead, to spotlight the vaccination aspect.)

I checked in with the ASPCA’s Miranda Spindel, DVM, MS, Director of Veterinary Outreach, who explained that it is important for feral cat caretakers/TNR providers to understand that rabies vaccines must be administered to animals in compliance with state or local law. The laws vary state to state regarding frequency of administration, age at which vaccines can begin and who can provide vaccines (often only a veterinarian) – and some states actually do not require that cats receive rabies vaccines at all. There are some vaccines that are labeled to provide protection to an animal for one year based on efficacy studies, and others that are labeled for three-year protection after an initial vaccine has been administered. The actual duration of immunity (protection from natural infection or disease afforded by the vaccine) may be longer. The take-home message? Although an ideal rabies control program for cats consists of an initial vaccine followed by boosters 1 year later and every 3 years thereafter, even a single vaccine administered at the time of sterilization helps protect feral cats, and thus the community, against rabies, and is an important consideration for all TNR programs to include in their protocols.

We’re very glad Precious was able to fight off rabies and seems to be doing well after this unfortunate – but thankfully extremely rare – encounter with a feral cat who’d contracted rabies!

But. Wait…this 8-year-old girl was able to get near a feral cat? If you wondered that, you’re thinking what I was thinking when I first heard this story. When Good Morning America asked me to discuss this case – and just how likely it is to get rabies from a feral cat – I was floored. How did this little girl get anywhere near a feral cat? Typically feral cats do their best to avoid people at all costs. Rabies can change cats’ behavior, so it’s possible it was a feral cat who had radically changed behavior. But it’s also possible that it was any cat – a friendly owned cat, an abandoned housecat, a community cat.

People often call any cat that is outdoors "feral," even if it's indoors now! (Have any of you had conversations with adopters who are holding their purring cat in their lap while telling you, "Oh, my cat is feral! She was rescued from the street!"?) Precious said it was a cat who looked just like any other cat. All we know is that the cat was outdoors, and it had not been successfully vaccinated for rabies at that point in time.

Either way – did this cat ever have the opportunity to be vaccinated? If this cat were part of a TNR program with rabies vaccination as part of its protocol, the animal would have received at least one rabies vaccination. If this cat had a guardian who brought it to the vet regularly, he or she would have been up to date on vaccinations.

What does your community do to help facilitate cat vaccinations? Does your TNR program contain a protocol for rabies vaccinations? Is there an outreach effort to provide spay/neuter and vaccinations for bodega cats, store cats, barn cats, mousers, street cats? Is there an accessible and affordable option that will work with community cats, regardless of how friendly or owned they are?

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. Slope Street Cats focused on TNR education for the public and ensuring feral cat caretaker workshops were accessible in Brooklyn. Jesse remains active in the NYC TNR community by continuing to teach TNR certification workshops on behalf of the Feral Cat Initiative and continues to develop and facilitate feral cat education and information resources as needed within the community with the ASPCA and Feral Cat Initiative.

Related links:
ASPCAPro.org: Feral Cats section
Feral Cat Initiative
“Names Matter”
“It’s About Community…Community Cats, That Is”

Photo 2: veterinarypetcarenewsletter.com
Photo 3: Dennis W. Ho

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