A Management Program and Study of the Population
Characteristics and Dynamics of Feral Cats on the Texas A&M
University Campus: Year 1 Project Summary (August 1998 to
- Dr. Margaret Slater, Dr. Kathy Hughes, Dawn Fradkin -
Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Public Health
- Dr. Clark Adams and Sara Ash - Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences
- Drs. Lisa Howe, Alice Wolf and Deb Zoran - Department of Small
Animal Medicine and Surgery
During the past year we completed the first year of a two year
pilot program to begin to stabilize the feral cat population at
Texas A&M University and better understand their ecology. A
total of 126 cats were trapped and managed by the project.
Twenty-one of these cats were adopted out and placed into homes.
Seventeen cats were euthanized due to testing positive for either
feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus. The rest were
returned to the site of capture and have been managed through
feeding stations set up around campus. Our study was organized
around four interrelated components:
- The development of a formal management program of the campus
cats including Trap, Test, Vaccinate, Alter and Release (TTVAR)
with continual care by volunteers.
- A study of feral cat population characteristics and group
dynamics including an understanding of their population numbers,
lifestyle and intraspecific spatial dynamics.
- The development of an educational outreach program emphasizing
responsible pet ownership and thus decreasing one source of these
- Support of new and ongoing faculty projects and student
We have been able to take advantage of a fairly common
phenomenon to learn invaluable information about feral cats. This
first year of information can be used to help others make sound
decisions about feral cat management. Furthermore, the research
team can build on what we have learned and utilize alternative
research approaches that will extend our knowledge about feral cat
management and population ecology and needed public education
At Texas A&M University (TAMU), there have been known
colonies of feral or unowned cats residing on campus property for
several years. While the exact numbers are not known, the
population was originally estimated at 300 to 500 cats. It is
believed that many of the feral cats at Texas A&M were
originally pets of students and neighbors of the university. Other
cats were the unwilling victims of negligent owner abandonment, or
dumping due to behavioral problems resulting from a lack of care
and attention. Still other cats have resulted from generations of
interbreeding among the existing feral cats. The birth rates, death
rates, and life expectancies of the feral cat population can only
be estimated but cats in warm climates could be expected to have 2
to 3 litters per year.
No one had evaluated these feral cats to better delineate the
origins, population dynamics, impacts on other wildlife on and near
campus and/or their general health status. We did not know the
extent of interactions between campus feral cats and staff,
students and faculty. Nor had any organized program for managing
these cats been implemented. This reflects the general lack of
knowledge about urban cat ecology in the United States. Actual
densities of cats in urban environments are unknown but estimated
to be higher than rural environments. Furthermore, the impact of
cats on local wildlife is not well understood.
Throughout this study, our working definition of a feral cat was
as follows: any cat too unsocialized to be handled and placed into
a typical home. Kittens under approximately 12 weeks were given 3
weeks to become tame enough to adopt.
Preliminary Results and Impact: Management Program
Since most feral cats are not socialized, they cannot be placed
in homes; they are too wild for close contact with humans. Our
management program was based on that of the Stanford University
program and information provided by Alley Cat Allies. Through the
Aggie Feral Cat Alliance of Texas (AFCAT, a group of volunteers
consisting of faculty, staff and students) a feral cat management
program was implemented on the TAMU campus in August 1998.
AFCAT developed protocols for trapping cats and handling them in
a surgical setting, and handouts and visual aids were created to
aid students in the surgical laboratories. Our new feline medicine
service at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital is strongly committed
to regularly supporting the AFCAT laboratories as a valuable part
of the students' educational experiences. Students from the
Community Practice rotation are also encouraged to help in the
surgery laboratory by drawing blood, performing the virus testing
and physical examinations, microchipping, and giving vaccinations.
Students on the General Surgery rotation perform spay and
castration surgeries. Through these activities, all of the students
gain additional hands-on clinical experience, and learn about feral
cats and their management.
Mr. Bill Shepard, Texas A&M's Physical Plant - Pest Control
supervisor, reports that his office received significantly fewer
cat-related calls this year. In fact, he feels that overall cat
sightings on campus are down. This may be due to readily available
food supplies at AFCAT feeders, reduced roaming due to spay/neuter
surgery, or population stabilization. Mr. Shepard indicated that he
was pleased with the program results, and that he receives positive
feedback from Texas A&M staff, faculty, and students.
Preliminary Results and Impact: Population Characteristics and
Group Dynamics Study
We had the opportunity to do one of the most comprehensive
studies on the lifestyle, feeding habits and social interactions of
any group of feral cats and the only study on campus cats. In this
part of the study we: (1) determined feral cat colony
characteristics of age and sex distribution, distribution on
campus, den sites, and food habits; (2) used radiotelemetry to
establish the home ranges of up to 25 cats from several different
colonies; and (3) measured the degree of spatial overlap and
association between individuals in several colonies.
The population has been found to have approximately a 1:1 male
to female ratio. Cats were found to utilize several types of den
sites, including buildings and open fields. Cats have been seen to
feed from dumpsters, hunt some wildlife including insects and bird,
but most feeding has been observed at the AFCAT feeding stations.
Home ranges were established for males and females, with the male
ranges being larger than the females, although this difference was
not found to be significant. In general, the cats in this
population have not been observed to interact much with each other,
except at a few sites where two or three cats will feed together.
This finding is in contrast to other studies where cats in a colony
are found to interact with each other to a great extent. It is
hypothesized that genetic relatedness may play a part in social
interactions. Since it is believed that many of the cats on the
A&M campus are the result of stray pets or owner abandonment,
this population may not have a very high degree of relatedness,
thus possibly explaining the difference in social behavior as
compared to other populations.
Preliminary Results and Impact: Educational Outreach
What has presented itself as a problem to the University has
become an unique educational tool for Texas A&M veterinary and
wildlife sciences students. Knowledge of and experience with feral
cats will increase student awareness of animal population problems,
and hopefully have a far-reaching effect on them as future
veterinary practitioners, wildlife managers and community
- Senior veterinary students get additional clinical experience
through performing physical exams, drawing blood, vaccinating,
placing catheters, and performing spays and castrations, while at
the same time learning more about feral cats and their management,
as well as pet overpopulation in general.
- Volunteers have included students majoring in BIMS,
horticulture, and pre-law, as well as staff at the cyclotron,
George Bush Library, the Medical Sciences Library and the poultry
- Presentations on feral cats and their management were made to a
class in Urban Wildlife in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
- AFCAT provides an educational speaker during new student
orientations at Texas A&M University.
- A mailing to all dormitory rooms in August 1998, included
brochures on the AFCAT program and on responsible pet ownership
from the Brazos Animal Shelter. AFCAT conducted a similar mailing
- Information plaques at AFCAT feeding stations encourage
volunteers to help care for the cats and to ask questions about
feral cat issues.
- AFCAT brochures displayed in the Dean's office reception and
the Small Animal Clinic waiting area provide information on pet
overpopulation and responsible ownership.
- An educational web site link is underway.
- AFCAT features an informational display in the educational mall
by Critical Care Café where hundreds of students and visitors see
- An educational booth for AFCAT was included in the College's
Open House, which was attended by thousands of people.
- An informational display was presented at the March 1999 Feline
Medicine Conference at Texas A&M, and greater than 1/3 of the
attendees responded to our feral cat survey.
A variety of other contacts with students, staff, faculty and
the public were made, providing information and statistics on the
responsibilities and ramifications of pet ownership, as well as a
briefing on the local pet overpopulation problem. These efforts
have generated numerous inquiries, ranging from concerned citizens
to representatives of major universities such as UT Galveston and
Eastfield College (Dallas County Community College District),
wanting to start up or improve similar programs in their
To evaluate response to participation in the feral cat surgery
labs, as well as assess knowledge and attitudes concerning feral
cats and their management, members of the 1999 veterinary class of
the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine were given a
self-administered questionnaire. Many of the students participating
had no previous knowledge of TTVAR programs, and of these students,
the majority found the experience very beneficial. With regard to
management, the majority believed that TTVAR programs were the best
method for managing feral cats. Most felt that feral cats posed
some public health risk, and that feral and owned cats did, to a
certain extent, have a significant impact on wildlife populations.
However, the majority of respondents did not think that TTVAR
programs encouraged irresponsible pet ownership by providing care
for feral and free-roaming cats. The results of this study suggest
that programs like AFCAT could be integrated into veterinary
curriculums to educate students on issues involving feral cats and
the need and methods for management of these populations.
At Texas A&M, we are in the unique position of having a
highly respected and widely recognized College of Veterinary
Medicine and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences in the
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. During the first contract
year, this interdisciplinary study attracted international,
national and statewide attention.
- Discovery Channel of Canada produced a 20-minute documentary on
all aspects of this study. This documentary was aired in March
- CNN Headline News local affiliate station aired a Homefront
segment on the Wildlife researchers' feral cat radio telemetry
study in July 1999.
- A paper on feral cat population characteristics and group
dynamics was submitted and presented at the 4th International
Symposium on Urban Wildlife Conservation in Tucson, AZ in May
- Several newspaper articles (e.g., Houston Chronicle, Dallas
Morning News, The Eagle, The Battalion) on the study have been
written over the first year of this project.
- AFCAT has been approached to provide an informational display
and speaker at the next TVMA conference.
- Dr. Kathy Hughes has submitted an AFCAT abstract to the
Conference for Research Workers in Animal Diseases.
Preliminary Results and Impact: Faculty Research
The AFCAT program has supported other related research and
education projects by providing access to blood samples or gonads
and, for cats euthanized for health problems, body tissues.
- Dr. Duane Kraemer, Department of Veterinary Physiology and
Pharmacology, is harvesting gonads after the surgeries for research
- Dr. David Williams, Department of Small Animal Medicine and
Surgery, is collecting pancreatic tissue for research on
gastrointestinal disease and diagnosis.
- Drs. Alice Wolf, Department of Small Animal Medicine and
Surgery, and Ellen Collisson, Department of Veterinary
Pathobiology, are working on FIV research; one goal is the
isolation of the Texas virus strain.
- Dr. Pete Teele and his graduate student, Department of
Entomology, are studying external parasites on the cats and their
relationship to FeLV and FIV status.
- Dr. John Edwards, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology,
utilizes euthanized AFCAT feral cats for teaching and research in
the necropsy lab. Also, detailed necropsy reports are prepared for
each cat that is euthanized because of health reasons. Collective
analysis of these reports may reveal valuable information about the
challenges faced by feral/stray cats as well as the effects of
- Dr. Harry Boothe, Department of Small Animal Medicine and
Surgery, is researching the impact of castration versus vasectomy
surgery on feral cat behavior and population management.
- Dr. Amie Koenig, Department of Small Animal Medicine and
Surgery, is conducting her internal medicine residency research
project on feline corona virus with fecal samples from AFCAT
- Dr. Kathy Hughes, Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Public
Health, tests AFCAT ferals for feline odontoclastic resorptive
lesions, and will base her epidemiology Master's project on AFCAT
- The Oncology service, Department of Small Animal Medicine and
Surgery, utilizes euthanized cats for teaching bone marrow
aspiration, urinary catheterization, and other important clinical
Financial support has been provided by a grant from The
Summerlee Foundation. Donations of food and supplies have been
provided by Ralston Purina Company, Idexx Laboratories, Inc., AVID
and the Heska Corporation.
We have considered extending the program to provide feral cat
caretakers access to the surgical sterilization services at the
current AFCAT cost. This program would be done on the same day as
the campus cats to augment numbers of surgeries for the students,
to sustain the AFCAT program, and to provide a community service.
We have had initial conversations with the local animal shelter
about the logistics of such a program but its success will depend
on funding sources for the community cats. Also, AFCAT has been
approached by the Austin Humane Society to possibly support a feral
cat TTVAR program in conjunction with a community wide
multi-million dollar grant for which they are applying.
Texas A&M prides itself on leadership, and the
groundbreaking AFCAT program has demonstrated its far-reaching
effects and benefits. No other program provides such valuable
teaching, research, and public education opportunities that
encompass students, faculty, and staff throughout the
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