As public health officials raise awareness about rabies on World Rabies Day this Wednesday, a hot debate has emerged in public health and environmental circles over the best way to control the spread of rabies from feral cat colonies around the U.S.
On one side are advocates of Trap-Neuter-Return programs, which are considered by many a more humane form of feral cat population control and are becoming popular around the U.S. Endorsed by organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the programs involve trapping feral cats, neutering -- oftentimes also vaccinating them against rabies -- and returning them to their cat colony. A "colony caretaker" also provides food, shelter and monitors the cats' health under the initiatives.
But some say these programs are contributing to a potential public health menace.
"Feral cat colonies only strengthen the chain of rabies transmission," Steve Holmer, senior policy analyst at American Bird Conservancy, said in a release. "Managed feral cat colonies bring together all the elements necessary to create a perfect storm of risk: concentrated numbers of unvaccinated cats, wildlife vector species attracted to food sources provided for the cats, proximity to humans and contact among all three of these groups."
Holmer told The Huffington Post that TNR programs are teaching feral cats to associate with humans and said studies show TNR programs don't reduce populations, because you cannot catch them all. "It has been shown that just to stabilize the population, you have to have 70 percent cats neutered at all times," he said. "This is difficult because you have an influx of owners who dump them, and when they have kittens, you have to make sure you neuter them all."
And Holmer said it can be difficult to re-catch feral cats once their initial rabies vaccination, which come in one and three year doses, has expired.
Other organizations that are against TNR, including the Wildlife Society, say the majority of TNR cats are not vaccinated. In a press release, Wildlife further argued that though TNR is often said to be the cheapest form of feral cat control, in a case study it cost significantly more than the alternative method: trapping feral cats, finding households for as many cats as possible and euthanizing the rest.
But some organizations are defending TNR, including the Alley Cat Allies. a national cat advocacy organization that recently published a press release condemning the American Bird Conservancy's stance towards feral cats.
"The American Bird Conservancy persists in spreading fiction about feral cats, and its efforts to promote terrible inaccuracies about feral cats and rabies is only the latest example. Such a stunt could lead to panic and the needless deaths of cats, and should be condemned," Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies, said.
"Rabies vaccination and prevention efforts in America are a true public health victory, and Trap-Neuter-Return only helps to boost these successes, because vaccination is part of the standard protocol of TNR," she told The Huffington Post.
Alison Grasheim of Alley Cat Allies said the main reason her organization supports TNR is because the alternative method, which does not work as it creates a "vacuum effect" where cat populations rebound after they are removed, creating a "cruel, costly cycle."
She said research into the rabies vaccines has found the vaccines actually last up to seven years, and the average life expectancy of feral and house cats is also seven years.
For Holmer, tougher policies, like those used to tackle the rabies virus in dogs, are needed to prevent the risk of rabies. "If you were to dump a licensed dog, you would face criminal charges," he said.
"We're looking for responsible pet ownership, to keep them indoors and keep up with vaccinations. Then we would need to remove cats from the outdoors by trapping them, adopting out as many as possible and any that are left would be euthanized," Holmer said.
Jesse Blanton, an epidemiologist from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told HuffPost that in addition to the TNR program, "We would always recommend a rabies vaccination be included. But, at the end of the day, they are still going to be unowned cats with no vaccination history."
He said the last definite case of a human contracting rabies from a cat was in 1975, and most rabies cases found in humans are associated with bats.
The CDC website suggests the best way to protect pets and yourself from rabies is to stay away from wild animals and make sure pet vaccinations are up to date.