My personal journey with community cats began in 1995—back then they were most often called feral cats—with the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Forum on the Welfare of Cats. I can clearly recall Joan Miller, Cat Fanciers’ Association judge-emeritus and cat expert, talking about the touch barrier separating feral from socialized cats, and TNR pioneer and veterinarian Jenny Remfry discussing TNR and feral cats in the United Kingdom. At that time, this sort of work had been going on a lot longer in the UK than in the United States.
I have quite a history with feral cats
That led to my participation on a panel discussion about free-roaming cats in 1996, sponsored by the American Humane Society and the Cat Fanciers' Association, in which we identified what our knowledge gaps were. I then spent a year-long sabbatical studying free-roaming cats, TNR and the connections between animal welfare, communities and cats around the United States. In 2002, my book on the subject was published, and in 2003 feral cats really went mainstream in the veterinary community with the AVMA Animal Welfare Forum on the Management of Abandoned and Feral Cats. By then I had quite a history with feral cats!
When I joined the ASPCA in 2008, my first project was to determine how to tell if a cat in a shelter was feral (unaccustomed to being around people) or just frightened. You may have read about that project, known as “Is That Cat Feral?,” which blossomed into three published articles about our research learnings and a tool called the Feline Spectrum Assessment.
I’ve seen first-hand how it takes time for the field to work through the shifts in philosophy and knowledge surrounding this population of cats. Here at the ASPCA, we needed to work through these shifts before creating our recently released Position Statement on Community Cats and Community Cat Programs. More data had become available about TNR, animal shelters and community cats, which helped us become more comfortable with the considerations concerning community cats. For us at the ASPCA, I believe that our work on keeping pets in their homes (that includes, where appropriate, keeping community cats outside!) and Position Statements on the Responsibilities of Animal Shelters and Keeping Pets and People Together also helped guide us to a place where our views and values could align around community cats.
“For the ASPCA, crafting a comprehensive statement on community cats meant being able to incorporate nuanced and sometimes grey ideas and recommendations so we could do justice to the complicated reality we face.”
Community cats pose real challenges to understand and develop policies around for a number of reasons:
- First, the solutions are multifaceted. We need to have a full range of support services and resources available to cats and cat owners to make an impact.
- Second, the resources needed are quite varied from location to location, as are the impact and concerns. This means that each location needs to develop a plan that addresses local issues, cat numbers and resource availability. There isn’t one single blueprint.
- Third are the legal considerations about cats. Definitions about ownership, domestic and wild animals, returning cats and abandonment all vary from place to place and make some of the necessary components to humanely decrease the numbers of cats difficult to do without making some changes in local or state laws.
- Finally, and perhaps most challenging, is the variety of human perceptions of cats. From vermin to child, from companion to wild animal, from demon to deity—I would argue the variety is even wider than it is for dogs. This leads to often emotional conflicts, rather than rational and effective conversations where compromise and practicality rule.
For the ASPCA, crafting a comprehensive statement meant being able to incorporate nuanced and sometimes grey ideas and recommendations so we could do justice to the complicated reality we face. I am so pleased with the statement, and I view it as a successful culmination of a long journey to understand community cats, their lives and needs, using data and humaneness as our guides.
What do you think? Are there other key events or programs that profoundly influenced your views about community cats?
Margaret Slater, DVM, PhD
ASPCA Senior Director, Veterinary Epidemiology
In her current role, Dr. Slater focuses much of her work on free-roaming cats. Prior to joining the ASPCA in 2008, Dr. Slater taught epidemiology at Texas A & M's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and today her emphasis is on research, including assessing fee-waived cat programs and the impact of spay/neuter on shelter intake.
What’s Your Sign?
Heather Mohan-Gibbons shares some tips for signage that creates an inviting space and results in the behavior change you’re seeking.
Rising From the Pit
Dr. Emily Weiss takes her annual dig into shelter data and shares the top 5 breeds with the greatest intake and outcome rates.
Decoding Spay/Neuter Research, Part 2
Dr. Spain shares 3 questions to ask if you see a new study claiming to find health risks or benefits of neutering in dogs