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First Year Report

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 1999)

Investigators

  • 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 Department
  • Drs. Lisa Howe, Alice Wolf and Deb Zoran - Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery

Summary

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 cats.
  • Support of new and ongoing faculty projects and student education.

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 programs.

Background

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 Program

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 leaders.

  • 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 science center.
  • Presentations on feral cats and their management were made to a class in Urban Wildlife in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences
  • 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 in 1999.
  • 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 it.
  • 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 communities.

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 1999.
  • 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 1999.
  • 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 Initiatives

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 and teaching.
  • 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 infectious diseases.
  • 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 ferals.
  • 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 data.
  • The Oncology service, Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, utilizes euthanized cats for teaching bone marrow aspiration, urinary catheterization, and other important clinical skills.

Financial Support

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.

Future Directions

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 university.


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