Fixing local cat population, euthanasia rate
Visalia Animal Services will begin trapping, spay/neutering cats and then returning them where they were found to reduce feral cat population, euthanasia rates
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – The only way to reduce the number of feral cats in a community is to stop killing them and put them back where you found them.
That was the message delivered by Dr. Cynthia Karsten, DVM to the Visalia City Council on Aug. 5 as part of amending its ordinance on the regulation of animals. Cats make up more than half of all animals picked up or dropped off at the Animal Care Center and Karsten said euthanizing healthy cats due to overcrowding at the shelter will only result in more cats.
“When you think bringing a cat in is removing the problem, but removing cats without a plan actually makes it worse,” said Karsten, a shelter medicine practitioner with the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program.
The problem with “removing” a cat from the equation is that it doesn’t make a large enough dent in the population, not to mention it makes those working at the shelter feel worse about their jobs, especially when it has the opposite effect on the overall population. Once a cat is in heat, it will remain in heat until it mates. Understanding this, Karsten said, leads to the inevitable conclusion that the only way to prevent cats from making more cats is to spay and neuter them. Once a feral cat has been altered, it goes back into the population where it can’t breed but will continue to mate with unaltered male cats. Over the course of its lifetime, the altered cat will not deliver litters of babies that would have been born if that cat was never fixed.
Reducing litters of kittens also reduces the number of dead cats found in a community. Most of the inhumane suffering of cats occurs in kittens, which have just a 25% survival rate compared with 90% of adult cats. Sterilizing and vaccinating adult cats further reduces the risk of having sickly kittens who are more likely to be euthanized at the shelter or die out in the community.
Karsten used the example of a raccoon tipping over and emptying a trash can. If you kill the raccoon, another will take its place and resume strewing trash across your yard. But if you put a lid on the trash, the raccoon, and all other raccoons, will eventually stop turning your driveway into a drive-in. In the instance of cats, the lid is a philosophy called trap, neuter/spay and return (TNR).
Karsten advocated for Visalia to begin a TNR program with the understanding that cats should be returned to the community near where they were found. Traditional sheltering programs rely on finding a good home for feral cats, but non domesticated cats “are not ones you want to be on your coach.” These cats prefer living on the streets where they can help curb bird and rodent populations that can be a nuisance if left unchecked.
“It is not abandonment when the cat was already there,” Karsten said. “This is actually where they want to be.”
A study conducted by the National Pet Alliance in San Jose showed that switching to a TNR system reduced the number of dead cats picked up by animal control by 20%, lowered the number of cats taken in by the shelter by 29% and euthanasia of cats by 75% over a four-year period.
“TNR, I’m not a big fan of it, but now I love it,” said Councilmember Phil Cox.
In addition to TNR, Karsten said there are things residents can do to help reduce the feral cat population as well. She said people can start by not feeding their own animals outside, which attracts unwanted animals, and by making their yards unattractive to cats.
Deputy City Manager Mario Cifuentes said he is hopeful that Animal Services can transition to a full TNR program for cats. The first step was having the council approve an amendment to its animal control ordinance to allow for a community cat control program or TNR. The amendment also requires every healthy dog or cat over the age of four months to be spayed or neutered and that every lost dog or cat must be microchipped before being returned to the owner. The latter is to keep the city in line with a bill that is working its way through the legislature.
“This program is a relatively new concept in the Central Valley but is a vital component of the shelter operation and the goal of reducing the feral cat population in our community,” Ruiz wrote in her report. “It is the humane approach to addressing the feral/community cat population.”
TNR is already working to reduce the number of cats entering the shelter and the number of cats euthanized. From July 2018 to June 2019, 1,572 cats entered the shelter as strays. A little more than a third of them have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated and released back to their respective areas.
Ivy Ruiz, animal services superintendent for the City of Visalia, said the city’s Animal Care Center returned, adopted, transferred or released more than 2,900 animals in fiscal year 2018-19, more than half of the 5,600 animals taken in by the facility. Ruiz said Visalia Animal Services save rate is 73%, nearly double its rate from 2013-14 and higher than other agencies: City of Tulare Animal Services at 70%; Bakersfield Animal Services at 62%; Central California SPCA at 41.3%.
“Despite complaints you may or may not receive, please know that it takes great dedication, patience, compassion and tolerance to do the job these folks do on a daily basis,” Ruiz said.
About two-thirds of the animals saved were transferred out to one of the more than 200 rescue groups Visalia works with.
“Sometimes we have to throw in a really nice border collie to get them to take 11 chihuahuas we’ve had for two weeks,” Cifuentes said. “It’s kind of like ‘What do we have to do today to get you home with this chihuahua?’ is one of the tactics our staff takes and it works for us.”
These efforts have decreased the number of animals euthanized by 1% from the previous years. Only 1% of animals are euthanized for overcrowding. Ruiz said the staff’s goal is to prevent all euthanizing of healthy, adoptable animals by 2025 and only euthanize animals for sickness or injury beyond that point.
“The no kill shelter is a myth,” Cifuentes said. “For the humane care of animals that are sick or injured you will have to euthanize. You do not want to euthanize a healthy animal that is adoptable or can be returned.”
Councilmember Brian Poochigian asked if the city invited any liability for accidentally trapping a domesticated cat and had them altered and then dropped back off. Karsten said it is rare for someone to own an unaltered cat and Cifuentes said he can’t remember a time when it happened and the owner was upset.
“Only one person has ever come to the shelter to recover their cat, and ended up bringing it back because the real cat returned home,” Cifuentes said. “We require cats to be licensed and we offer an altered and an unaltered rate. We don’t have a single incidence of having an unaltered cat license.”
Ruiz said cats can only be trapped by property owners on their own property. The traps can be rented for $15 per week with a $40 deposit in case it is never returned to Animal Services. She said animal control officers will come and trap for someone on their property if they are physically unable to do so themselves.
The amendment to the ordinance passed unanimously. Other revisions passed by the council included changes to kenneling, animal noise and vicious dogs. After January 1, 2020 kennel permits will not be issued to locations that have not been issued a kennel permit within the prior three years. Animal Services now has the authority to suspend fines for excessive barking if the owner of the animal agrees to take steps to reduce the noise. Visalia will no longer accept animals declared vicious or dangerous in other jurisdictions. Animal control officers will also have more discretion in declaring a vicious animal if they deem the animal was provoked. The changes also allow for a hardship waiver for those who cannot afford to appeal a ruling that their animal is vicious.