Feral cat sterilizations were up 23% in seven years; what is happening now?
MOUNT RANIER, Maryland––Feral cat control by trap-neuter-return [TNR] was accomplishing more than ever before through 2019, including a 23% increase in the numbers of cats sterilized over the annual average in 2012, suggests newly released data from the Alley Cat Rescue Feral Cat TNR Survey 2019, analyzed by ANIMALS 24-7.
The analysis began with recalculating much of the percentage data reported by Survey Monkey into proportionately weighted whole numbers, which more visibly illustrate long-term trends.
The 45,000 feral cats cumulatively sterilized by 120 Alley Cat Rescue Feral Cat TNR Survey respondents in 2012 had become 56,800 feral cats cumulatively sterilized by 280 responding programs in 2019: comparable numbers by the largest agencies, with far more smaller organizations and individuals pitching in, or at least returning survey forms.
Post-COVID-19 data not yet available
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing many low-cost cat and dog sterilization clinics to close temporarily or curtail operations just ahead of the 2020 “kitten season,” the annual spring/summer peak of the feral kitten birth rate.
The full impact of COVID-19 on neuter/return programs, as on kitten and puppy birth rates in homes, will not be known until survey data from 2020 and 2021 becomes available.
What is clear from the Feral Cat TNR Survey 2019, meanwhile, is that as the present decade dawned, neuter/return demonstrably had the momentum of three decades of success behind it.
Cumulatively, the 280 responding programs continued a multi-decade trend toward increasing efficiency, professionalization, and marked reduction of the numbers of cats at large.
Fifth national survey since 1992
The Alley Cat Rescue Feral Cat TNR Survey 2019 was the fifth national survey of cat rescuers, mostly neuter/return practitioners, done since 1992.
ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton conducted the first two cat rescuer surveys.
The initial survey was done in 1992, soon after Alley Cat Rescue founder Louise Holton, Alley Cat Allies founder Becky Robinson, and others introduced the neuter/return technique to the U.S. on a large scale––although, as author Gavin Ehringer detailed in Leaving The Wild (2017), entertainment entrepreneur Walt Disney covertly established a mega-sized neuter/return feral cat colony at the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California as early as 1955.
The second ANIMALS 24-7 survey, done in 1996, collected data from 44 of the 190 respondents to the first survey, to see what difference their work had made in the intervening years.
Alley Cat Rescue did similar but larger surveys in 2012 and 2017.
77% reduction in kitten births
Together, the five national surveys, tabulating nearly 30 years of neuter/return practitioner experience, document a 48% decline in kitten births in monitored neuter/return colonies during the first years that neuter/return was practiced, followed by a long plateau, during which the kitten birth rate edged down only 4% more in the next 16 years, probably due to limited resources.
Sheltering cats, trying to adopt them out, yet often having to kill a considerable unadoptable surplus, as of 2012 remained the approach to feral cat control practiced by most humane societies and animal control agencies.
By 2017, however, neuter/return had gained at least equal favor, through the combination of economic reality with political pressure from increasingly mobilized and militant advocates of no-kill sheltering.
The 2017 Alley Cat Rescue survey showed that the 52% drop in kitten births in monitored feral cat colonies as of 2012 had become a 72% drop.
The 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey found a 77% drop, meaning that neuter/return practitioners were continuing to improve their ability to respond quickly enough to the arrival of female cats to prevent births.
63% of feral cats in largest colonies in 1992
This reflects greater fundraising success, more cooperation from animal control agencies and humane societies, increased access to affordable spay/neuter service, and more able-bodied volunteers capable of finding and trapping cats in hard-to-access locations.
The most marked indication of neuter/return success over the years may be in the gradual reduction of cat colony sizes.
As of 1992, only 6% of known cat colonies had more than 20 cats, but these tended to be mega-colonies, many of 50 cats or more. Colonies of more than 100 cats were not unusual.
Altogether, 63% of the outdoor cat population surveyed in 1992 were in the biggest 16% of cat colonies.
These tended to be the colonies where neuter/return had the most immediate and most dramatic effect.
55% of feral cats in smallest colonies by 2019
The 2017 Alley Cat Rescue survey found that only 9% of the outdoor cat population were in colonies of 30-plus, and only 30% (including the 9%) were in colonies of 20-plus.
Larger mega-colonies appeared to have dwindled toward the vanishing point.
The 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey found that fewer than half as many cats were in large colonies: 4% in colonies of 30-plus, 13% (including the 4%) in colonies of 20-plus.
Fifty-five percent of the outdoor cats reported by the 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey were in colonies of 10 cats or fewer, almost a complete reversal of the 1992 data.
There were, in short, vastly fewer cats at large in 2019: 32 million fewer, according to the best available data from colony size, roadkill, and predation studies based on actual field work.
84% of exterminated cat colony habitats re-occupied within six months
Cat-killing by animal control agencies, the predominant approach taken throughout the 20th century, continued as of 2019, but with declining momentum and enthusiasm, as the futility of catch-and-kill is increasingly evident.
2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey respondents reported that 40% of the animal control agencies serving their respective areas had exterminated entire feral cat colonies.
Of those colony areas, however, 39% were re-occupied by feral cats within less than a month; 71% within three months; 80% within five months; and 84% within six months.
Neuter/return colony areas also experience re-occupation, as gradually declining numbers of resident cats leaves food sources and habitat accessible to immigrant cats.
Immigration replaces only 10% of cats in TNR colonies
But immigration replaced only 769 (10%) of the 7,810 cats and kittens who were either removed from colonies for adoption by 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey respondents, or who died within the year.
Accordingly, 81% of the 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey respondents reported enjoying the cooperation of their local animal control agencies, while 37.5% reported receiving animal control agency help.
Fewer than half of 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey respondents reported receiving the cooperation of wildlife agencies and conservation advocacy groups, but about as many also reported that wildlife agencies and conservation advocacy groups were not actively interfering in their efforts, a marked change from the early years of neuter/return activism.
TNR handles 15 times more cats than sheltering
Birders, in particular, often argue that the money put into neuter/return should be put into quality long-term indoor cat housing instead.
The Alley Cat Rescue Feral Cat TNR Survey 2019 clearly demonstrates the economic impracticality of that notion.
A third of the survey respondents––92 programs––do operate physical shelters, in which they house cats and kittens offered for adoption, and cats who for whatever reason cannot be returned to the habitat where they were trapped.
Those programs appear to have an average holding capacity of about 40 cats, approximately the norm for U.S. animal shelters of all sorts, with a cumulative holding capacity of about 3,750 cats.
Among them, the survey respondents in 2019 sterilized and released approximately 56,800 cats, at an average cost per surgery of about $100 per cat––less for males, more for females.
TNR produces 20 times more cat population reduction than sheltering per dollar spent
Even if every cent of that expenditure was put into sheltering cats instead, at an average cost of $3.33 per cat per day for food and veterinary care, with volunteers providing all of the routine cat care and no overhead costs for fundraising, insurance, mortgage payments, and other normal shelter operating expenses, the total cat housing capacity of the responding programs could be boosted only to 8,418.
By comparison, sterilizing 56,800 cats prevented the births of about 113,600 kittens within six months.
In reality, shelters rarely manage to provide quality care for either cats or dogs at an average cost of less than $10 per day per animal for total operating expense, even with considerable volunteer help.
At an average cost per day of $10 per cat, the sum the survey respondents put into neuter/return surgeries could have increased their cat housing capacity to 5,306.
The bottom line is that per dollar spent, neuter/return is easily 20 times more efficient at reducing the numbers of cats at large than sheltering.
Falling vaccination rate
One alarming note in the Alley Cat Rescue Feral Cat TNR Survey 2019 is a declining anti-rabies vaccination rate, coinciding with declining concern about rabies among individual pet keepers. This in turn reflects the rarity of rabies among U.S. dogs and cats.
According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, cases of rabies in dogs increased from 62 in 2017 to 63 in 2018; rabies cases in cats fell from 276 to 241.
The 86% rabies vaccination rate among cats in neuter/return programs in 2019 remains about 30% higher than the rabies vaccination rate for U.S. pet dogs and cats, but is down from the 96% rabies vaccination rate among cats in neuter/return programs found and confirmed by the 1992, 1996, 2012, and 2017 surveys.
Most or all of the cats left unvaccinated in 1992, 1996, 2012, and 2017 were apparently under six months of age, meaning too young to vaccinate successfully, because those cats’ immune systems had not yet matured.
This might still have been the case in 2019, but there is room for concern that anti-vaccination advocacy, growing among vegans in particular, may be infecting neuter/return programs as well.
More cats treated for other health conditions
In other respects, neuter/return practitioners as of 2019 reported doing more to improve cat health than ever before. Previous surveys found that about two-thirds of the cats caught for neuter/return also received vaccinations against distemper, deworming, and flea prevention treatment.
Alley Cat Rescue Feral Cat TNR Survey 2019 respondents reported that 71% of the cats they handled were vaccinated against distemper, 73% were dewormed, and 77% received flea prevention treatment.
Ages of feral cats
The age structure of cats in feral colonies has trended upward since 1992, but almost entirely because far fewer kittens are born. First-year mortality––as among kittens born in homes––remains around 50%.
The 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey found that 72% of the cats in outdoor colonies had lived from two to six years, 20% had lived from six to 10 years, and 2% were older.
All of these numbers were within four percentage points of the data found in 1996, 2012, and 2017.
Little change in causes of outdoor cat death
Causes of death among outdoor cats also appear to have changed very little.
The 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey collected information about 3,254 known cat deaths
Before 1991-1992, nearly half of known outdoor cat mortality, as estimated from 2,638 documented cat deaths, was due to animal control and “nuisance wildlife” trapping activity.
The advent of neuter/return in 1991-1992 cut these causes of death to about 25% of known mortality among cats in monitored colonies.
Animal control and “nuisance wildlife” trapping activity, as of 2019, continued to account for about 23% of known mortality among cats in monitored colonies.
“Natural causes,” chiefly disease, accounted for 31% of deaths in monitored colonies in 1992, 30% in 2017, and 30% in 2019.
What the Alley Cat Rescue surveys term “suspicious” deaths, including predation by wildlife, accounted for 15% of mortality in 1992, but 23% in 2012, 22% in 2017, and 23% in 2019.
Roadkill mortality declined from 29% of known outdoor cat deaths in 1992 to 22%, 23%, and 24% in the Alley Cat Rescue surveys of 2012, 2017, and 2019.