People ask: are feral cats a health hazard? I can answer the question in two ways. I can take a scientific approach which I do later on in this article but initially I will simply comment generally on the question.
I have read thousands of pages on the Internet and in books about cats including feral cats. I have read hundreds of studies about cats and feral cats. I have never seen concrete, scientific evidence which confirms that feral cats are a general health hazard to the citizens of America or the UK or any other country for that matter.
It would seem that the lawmakers of America agree with me. It does not matter whether you are referring to federal laws or county laws or city laws, there are none which specifically state that because the feral cat presents a health hazard to the citizens of America or anywhere in America that they must be dealt with in a certain way such as be eliminated or removed from the environment.
By and large they are left alone. Some local authorities allow volunteers to operate TNR programs. You occasionally get local authority legislation which attempts to forbid the feeding of feral cats. The justification for this is the health aspect of their presence. But when feeding is accompanied by neutering and vaccinating then very few people complain about it. Yes, there are discussions by councillors as to whether TNR is effective or should be employed but the so-called health hazard aspects of the feral cat are never such that legislation is created which makes it legal to eliminate the feral cat from the environment.
That is not to say that some people shoot and kill feral cats. In my opinion this is illegal in America but they get away with it because there is low levels of enforcement of animal welfare laws and it was impossible to protect stray cats from abuse through lack of evidence.
The crux of the matter is this: if feral cats were a hazard then the people in authority charged with the welfare of the citizens of America would do something about it at a federal level. They have not.
The Alley Cat Allies website presents some excellent scientific evidence as to why feral cats are safe members of the communities in America.
They say that public health policies all over the country reflect the scientific evidence namely that feral cats live healthy lives outdoors and don’t spread disease to people. This, using different words, reflects what I have stated earlier on in this article.
They say that there is no evidence to back up claims that feral cats represent a threat to public health. They confirm what I have noticed which is that more and more local authorities are adopting TNR programs. In so doing local authorities are stating, indirectly, that feral cats do not present a health hazard because TNR works on a long-term basis. If there were an urgent and pressing need with respect to the health of the citizens of America then they would not adopt long-term programmes.
For example, a gentleman whose name is Ron Cash (Director of the Atlantic City Department Of Health and Human Services) says:
“But I believe the complaints and hysteria about disease as result of feral cats are overblown.”
Most diseases that cats carry are not zoonotic which means they cannot be spread from cat to person. The fact is that the person is far more likely to catch an infectious disease from another person. Are we to eliminate all other people standing in a grocery queue?
Diseases which can be spread from cats to humans occur via direct contact with the cat or its faeces. Feral cats avoid humans.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) present statistics which show that cats are rarely the source of disease. They say it is unlikely for any person to become sick from touching or owning a cat. They confirm that feral cats have limited human contact and therefore are even less of a risk than domestic cats. Any contact between feral cat and person is usually initiated by the person.
Deborah L Ackerman PhD, an associate Prof of epidemiology at the UCLA School Of Public Health states that the risk of catching an internal parasite from cats has been vastly overhyped. She makes the point that some studies suggest that is more likely that cats can get these parasites from humans than the other way around.
As for rabies, it is said that people interested in kill programmes always raise this topic in support of their arguments. The Alley Cats Allies website states that the last confirmed transmission of rabies from cat to human occurred in 1975! They state that the risk of a feral cat giving a person rabies is almost non-existent. And we know that cats are way down the list of animals as a hazard with respect to rabies compared to wild animals such as bats and skunks.
TNR programs incorporate vaccination for rabies. Yes, there appear to be no follow-up boosters but the vaccination ensures that the cats in managed colonies do not spread rabies.
Feral cats cannot spread rabies to people without biting them. As already mentioned feral cats avoid humans. As also mentioned humans initiate contact with feral cats. An analysis of cat bites in 1998 tells us that around 90% were provoked (I presume by people). In addition nearly all cat bites are from domestic cats.
The risk of getting rabies from feral cat colonies is negligible. Studies indicate that feral cats are healthy. Feral cats are not reservoirs for rabies. There’s not been a case of a person contracting rabies from a cat in the past 40 years in America.
Rabies has been dealt with very effectively by the authorities. Only 31 confirmed cases of rabies in humans in the USA have been recorded between 2003 and 2013 (June). None came from cats.
Julie Levy, DVM, PhD at the University of Florida in Gainesville states that:
“In many communities, such as Gainesville, the feral cat TNR programs are the largest provider of rabies vaccines in the community.”
She states that cats have never developed their own strain of rabies and that all rabid cats are “incidental victims and acquire their rabies infection from wildlife”. Rarely do cats spread rabies. It is unvaccinated wild animals which do so.
As for flea-born typhus, the chances of being infected from a feral cat is extremely low. Ackerman said:
“Flea-born typhus is rare even in areas such as southern California, where the disease is endemic.”
In 2009, Orange County, California reported 12 cases. The chances of being infected were just one in 250,000 which remarkably is about the same risk as being hit by an asteroid!
Fleas spread the disease not cats. Therefore removing cats would not halt the spread of flea-born typhus. Cats are the host to fleas. If you eliminate cats fleas would find another host. Texas has focused on controlling fleas rather than their hosts.
As for toxoplasmosis, I have discussed that numerous times. Studies demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of toxoplasmosis cases result from eating undercooked meat. I have said that many times as well! Toxoplasmosis is the third leading cause of food-borne illness-related deaths in the US according to CDC.
Cats are not the only carriers of toxoplasmosis. Other pets would be dogs, birds and other mammals. It is rare to catch toxoplasmosis from a domestic cat and even rarer, negligibly rare, to get it from a feral cat with whom people have no contact.
Let’s remind ourselves that the cat infected with toxoplasma only sheds the disease spreading oocysts for a few weeks. A person has to be in direct contact with infected faeces. You would need to touch feral cat faeces and then put your hand in your mouth and ingest some of those faeces in order to get toxoplasmosis from a feral cat.
There are many volunteers across America who deal with feral cats on a day-to-day basis. There is no evidence whatsoever that these people are sicker than people who do not deal with feral cats. If feral cats transmitted disease to people you would expect feral cat colony caregivers to be gravely ill!
The vaccination element of TNR programs ensures that feral cats are protected against disease. These programs stabilise population sizes. The programs also allow people to monitor the health of cats. Simply killing them does not have this benefit.
There’s much more information on the Alley Cat Allies website so please visit it and I’m very grateful for the information that I found there.