Best Friends Blog

Endorsing a progressive AVMA community cat policy

From time to time, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) asks its member veterinarians to weigh in on organizational policies. Up for review right now is the AVMA policy on “Free Roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats.”

The AVMA is an important organization with a lot of influence. It represents 85,000 vets around the U.S. who work in just about every aspect of veterinary medicine. Unfortunately, AVMA policy on this issue is outdated and not in keeping with current best practices in animal welfare — for example, supporting the roundup of “all free-roaming abandoned and feral cats that are not in managed colonies.”

The likely result of such efforts — shelter killing — is both unnecessary and increasingly unpopular with taxpayers.

Dr. Michael Dix, our medical director, recently submitted his comments (we’ve pasted them below for you to read), encouraging the AVMA to revise its policy in ways that will benefit not only community cats, but also the communities in which they live.

Do you know a veterinarian? You can help by letting them know that this important issue is up for review, and that you’d like to see them weigh in.

From Dr. Michael Dix to the AVMA:

Best Friends Animal Society encourages the AVMA to adopt a policy that is pragmatic, rational and reflects both public opinion and the relevant science on the subject of free-roaming cats.

National surveys have demonstrated the public’s preference for saving the lives of stray, abandoned and feral cats, as well as their disdain for shelter euthanasia. It’s difficult to reconcile such findings with the AVMA’s current policy: “All free-roaming abandoned and feral cats that are not in managed colonies should be removed from their environment and treated in the same manner as other abandoned and stray animals in accord with local and state ordinances.” We know full well the fate that awaits the majority of these cats.

We’re also well aware that the lethal control methods in place for generations have proven costly and ineffective. To continue to suggest, however subtly, that communities can kill their way out of the so-called “feral cat problem” is disingenuous at best, and raises numerous ethical questions about our roles as veterinary professionals.

It’s time for a more progressive policy — one that better reflects reality.

The AVMA’s current policy is focused largely on managed colonies, yet as others have pointed out, managed colonies represent only one option. Another option being adopted by communities across the country is “return-to-field” programs, in which cats who would have been killed under “traditional” animal control practices are, instead, sterilized, vaccinated and returned to their “outdoor homes.” In many instances, no caregiver is identified. It’s clear, however, to anybody familiar with these programs, that the vast majority of these cats are healthy upon intake (indeed, cats who don’t meet program qualifications are not returned) and therefore, the expectation is that they are likely to thrive as “community cats.”

The lifesaving benefits of such programs are well documented, and growing support of them from the animal control/services community and the general public bodes well for both population management (via unprecedented sterilization efforts) and public health (via unprecedented vaccination efforts). If, as the current policy states, “managed colonies should be considered an interim solution to the problem of feral, free-roaming cats,” there’s no reason not to consider return-to-field programs as another interim solution.

As other commenters have pointed out, the AVMA’s current policy lacks the kind of clarity necessary to directly address this complex issue. While we recognize the challenges involved with, for example, balancing the welfare of free-roaming cats with public health considerations, the risks posed by these cats must be put into context. Again, a perspective that reflects real-world conditions is essential. Sterilized and vaccinated cats are surely better than the alternative.

Similarly, the risks to wildlife must be viewed in the larger context if the AVMA is to adopt an action-oriented policy. Although we are in favor of protecting environmentally sensitive areas and the native species that live there, we must also acknowledge that such concerns are all too often exaggerated and used to shape policy more broadly. Ironically, these policies are likely to hamper sterilization efforts, thereby undermining any benefit to population reduction.

Finally, as others have pointed out, the AVMA should be encouraging the adoption of state laws and local ordinances that reflect reality and promote the best interest of the public. If leash laws and feeding bans have proven even the least bit effective at curbing the population of free-roaming cats in a community, we are unaware of it. (And surely, we all would be aware of any such successes.)

On the contrary, such misguided policies merely drive cats (and the people who care for them) “underground,” thus creating additional barriers to resolving an issue already complex enough. Moreover, laws imputing ownership of abandoned, stray and free-roaming animals (who have no known owners), as is the case with most feeding bans, are irreconcilable and legally flawed. Such provisions, it seems clear, have no place in AVMA policy.

Dr. Michael Dix
Medical Director
Best Friends Animal Society

Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Diane Decker

    Diane Decker with Operation Catnip here. Everyone who volunteers with us to run our TNR clinic probably wishes we could rescue them all. But, we’re not flush with funds or support, and we’re the organization (locally) who offers this service. Every spay and neuter rescues unborn kittens, and for now, that keeps us doing what we do. We work with lots of caregivers who are grateful for what we do, and a feral colony getting smaller through natural attrition is easier to care for…

  • As someone who has done hands-on TNR for the past 11 years, I’m a bit concerned about engaging in “return to field” when no caregiver is identified. I believe efforts to find the caregiver (e.g. looking for food bowls, knocking on doors) should be undertaken before returning a cat. While a trapped cat may seem healthy, there is no guarantee that this cat will have a steady food source in the future or have access to a cat shelter and emergency vet care. In fact, the person who brought the cat to animal control could have been the cat’s caregiver who decided, for whatever reason (e.g. moving, neighbor complaints), to stop being the caregiver.

    • johnbachman

      I agree 100%. In this city under the community cat program kittens as young as 8 weeks have been “returned to field” with little or no attempt to determine there is a care giver. Also older cats who are “healthy upon intake” This may well be because they were just dumped or as Guest says the person turning them in may be the caregiver or owner. Surrender by owner has to pay a fee. Turning in a “stray” does not. The guidelines must be enforced that all kittens and all tame cats must be rescued and for all others a care giver must be identified before returning.

      • Raven Dupres

        The statement “return to the field” brings up the image of cats being tossed out into a corn field or somewhere remote. Most community cats live in a community. Many live in apartment complexes and are the result of very bad management protocol – not requiring people to have their pets spayed and neutered as part of the ability to lease an apartment at the property. I agree that cats should not just be neutered and tossed out the car window into some area or other. The term “managed” colony really stands for a group of cats who have someone to feed them and notice if they are ill. It can be one person or a group of people living in the area. In most communities, cats have their route to the food sites, whether it’s one feeding station run by a compassionate person or whether it’s several backyards where the home owner is cat friendly and leaves food and water out for the animals.

        The idea of rounding up all cats who are not in “managed” colonies is ludicrous in light of how completely that method has not worked. As the saying goes, if something does not work and you keep doing it over and over again, it is a form of insanity. If you tried to get the wrong size shoe on your foot, it did not fit and you kept trying, your sanity would definitely come into question. Why then, if you keep killing cats and the population keeps growing would you keep killing cats as a method of population control?

        Communities can never round up all the outside cats. Nor can they ever adopt them all to loving homes. It would be like trying to round up all the pigeons at the park and put them in bird cages, or rid the city of all the urban wildlife. It would be terrifyingly expensive from a taxpayers’ point of view and result in an exhausting failure. Better to neuter as many community cats as possible, locate compassionate people who are feeding them and encourage this practice and then learn to live with nature and the reality of cats around us.

        • johnbachman

          We seem to agree. The important thing is insuring that when returned there is someone or a number of someone’s (a community) who are there to help the cat survive and that kittens too young to fend for themselves and abandoned pet cats unused to living in the wild are not just dumped. Just because a cat looks healthy it should not be assumed that they are being cared for by someone or a “community”. In a rush to reach goals or achieve “no kill” the lives of any cats should not be jeopardized in the interest if expediency. That said then we must educate people to as you say, “learn to live with nature and the reality of cats around us”. I would add-not just live with but enjoy!

  • Reia Barber

    Shouldn’t the focus be on rescuing them? I am very much against TNR if it means releasing them to fend for themselves. And it has never occurred to me that the alternative to feral colonies was euthanasia. These cats need to be rescued. If the time, effort, and money that is used on maintaining and growing feral colonies was used to rescue and find homes for these animals, there would be no need for them. And it would also send an entirely different message to the public regarding the value of these cats’ lives. As it stands, the message that it is acceptable to build huts and throw food at these cats is saying to the world that they aren’t worth more than that. And they are. I say no to feral communities. TNR should stand for Trap, Neuter, and Rescue.

    • Heather Demyan Duberson

      Reia, i live on a small island that has a huge feral population. myself and others have been making sure they are fed and have water and shelter. however, the numbers were growing. I supported the local TNR group because they can prevent the population from increasing while still keeping the community together. Of course the TNR group will rescue cats that are able to be re-homed (like kittens and people friendly strays). But there is a time in a feral cat’s life, that no matter how hard you try, they just can not be socialized to people. These are the cats that are nuetered and released because in a shelter they will most definately be killed. And these animals rarely fend for themselves. There are always good citizens that will feed and watch over them. Besides, these cats are usually well equipped for living outside and keep rodent populations under control. I have been rescuing animals for as long as i can remember, and you do an animal a disservice if you force it to live in an environment that is not in it’s nature.