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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 Unfortunately, AVMA policy on this issue is outdated and not in keeping with current best practices in animal welfare — for example, supporting the roundup of “all free-roaming abandoned and feral cats that are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
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society