Communities across Maryland are grappling with a chronic issue: how to deal with feral cats.
Feral cats, different than domesticated animals, are wild and can’t be handled by humans.
On the streets, they form into packs or colonies, precipitating complaints to animal control officials about yowling, defecation on lawns and fighting, to name a few.
Some animal advocates are asking localities to consider alternatives to euthanizing animals that can't be adopted as pets: trapping, neutering and releasing them, a practice referred to as TNR.
“This is a real hot button issue,” said Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County. “There’s lots of emotion on every side of the fence and no easy answer.”
Advocates of TNR say the benefits are many: Neutered and spayed cats don’t display the wild behaviors of unfixed felines. Plus, it’s more humane than euthanizing, advocates say.
Also, rabies and distemper vaccines are typically given to feral cats as part of the practice of TNR, advocates said.
“Americans don’t want the cats to be killed,” said Alison Grasheim, a spokeswoman with Alley Cat Allies, a national organization based in Bethesda that trains communities in trap, neuter and release programs. “They don’t support that as a humane approach.“
Public health leaders in Maryland have concerns about TNR, which is not controlled through state mandates; rather counties and cities decide how to handle feral cats.
Maryland’s Public Health veterinarian Katherine Feldman said concerns at the state level center around feral cats and the spread of rabies.
Even if the cat is vaccinated when it’s trapped and neutered, cats need regular, frequent vaccinations to fend off the virus, she said.
“It’s an incredibly scary disease,” Feldman said. “In the U.S., we have very few cases of humans getting rabies. In the rest of the world, that’s not the case.”
One of the reasons the United States has been so successful in avoiding this disease is due to “our pet vaccination and stray animal control. We pick up our stray animals and vaccinate our pets," she said.
Grasheim said rabies vaccinations last at least seven years, so there is no need to recapture cats and vaccinate.
Animal Control officials in Montgomery, Carroll and Howard counties are among those who said they work with animal advocates so that some feral cats are neutered and released.
Similar programs, operated through animal control agencies, are also in place in Washington, D.C., Arlington and Baltimore, according to the Gazette.
Fairfax County in Virginia has also started a voluntary TNR program in October of 2008 funded by citizens that paid extra for license plates designated as “animal-friendly.”
Citizens can get training through the shelter on how to safely trap feral cats that then get free spay or neuter services, as well as a rabies and distemper vaccine and an ear tip, the surgical removal of the the top quarter inch of the left ear, which marks that a feral cat is spayed or neutered.
Then, they are released, said Michelle Hankins, community outreach program manager at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Virginia.
"You can see the impact; you take in fewer cats,” she said. “You only have to spay and neuter an animal once and they won’t procreate for life. Think of how many litters you’ve prevented.”
Baltimore County Department of Health spokeswoman Monique Lyle said feral cats are not neutered and released there, due to the rabies risk.
Even if a trapped animal gets a rabies shot and is released, it doesn’t eliminate the rabies risk, as those shots need to be updated yearly to be effective, she said.
“It means every year you have to capture the same cat to give it a shot, and how do you know you’ve got the same cat?” she said.