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The ongoing debate over outdoor cats: A call for respectful engagement

An article just published in the peer-reviewed journal Conservation Biology challenges some of the many claims of wildlife and public health impacts associated with free-roaming (aka stray and feral) cats and calls for a more ethical approach to their management. This is coming from outside the animal welfare community, too, from a diverse group of researchers representing the fields of ethics, public health, conservation and anthropology.

Simply put, this is a big deal!

Misconceptions about risks posed by free-roaming cats

In the article, titled “A Moral Panic Over Cats,” William Lynn and his co-authors challenge the common misconception that outdoor cats pose a risk to biodiversity and public health, putting these risks into proper perspective. Moreover, they defend the kind of healthy skepticism that Best Friends and others have expressed about the flawed science being used to target outdoor cats and undermine trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs: “The harming of sentient, sapient, and social individuals, such as cats … requires strict ethical and scientific scrutiny.”

Some common sense is in order as well. Undermining efforts to sterilize and vaccinate community cats is obviously counterproductive to the most basic goals established by conservationists and public health officials.

Trap-neuter-return program benefits

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of targeted TNR over the inefficient and inhumane approach that’s been used for generations in the U.S. (i.e., complaint-driven impoundment, often followed by lethal injection). In March, for example, the results of Best Friends’ first six community cat programs were published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Our community cat programs (CCPs) are unique in that they combine two different types of TNR. Cats brought to the shelter as strays are given a basic examination and are then sterilized, vaccinated and returned to where they were trapped; this is called return-to-field (RTF). Best Friends staff then follow up in the neighborhoods where these strays were found — looking for additional cats, speaking with people who’ve been feeding the cats, and working with residents who might be frustrated by the cats. This strategy allows us to target TNR efforts for maximum benefit.

We’ve known for some time now that integrating these two components works, and now we have the data. 

Saving cats from being killed in shelters

Among the study’s highlights: An average of 27% fewer cats ended up in our partner shelters (any shelter can be a very stressful place for cats) and 78% fewer cats were killed. Put another way: By the end of the three-year CCP, these shelters were saving an additional 2,500 cats each year compared to pre-CCP rates.

This, too, is a big deal, since such programs are critical to our goal of leading the country to no-kill by 2025. 

We also observed an average reduction of nearly 20% in the intake of kittens under eight weeks of age across the four participating shelters that tracked such data. This is compelling evidence that targeted sterilization efforts like CCPs can reduce free-roaming cat populations at a community level.

For some in the conservation community, though, such evidence is dismissed out of hand. Rather than engage in a healthy debate about the most appropriate public policy, those who hold this position are attempting to change the terms of the debate so that the rest of us are left out entirely.

But as Lynn and his co-authors point out, skepticism about claims that cats are an immediate threat to biodiversity and public health “is not the result of science denialism or a campaign by ‘merchants of doubt’ to mislead the public and policy makers. It speaks instead to an earnest dispute about both the facts and values, that is, the scientific and ethical dimensions of the debate swirling around cats.”

Recognizing our common goals

I agree completely, and echo the authors’ appeal for “respectful engagement” as our “best opportunity to resolving the complex issues surrounding free-ranging cats.” Indeed, even before we get to any kind of resolution, a respectful engagement with one another can help us step back and recognize some important common ground shared by the animal welfare and conservation communities: We’re all interested in reducing the number of unowned, free-roaming cats, and we’re all interested in protecting wildlife and public health.

Peter Wolf, Research and policy analyst, Best Friends Animal Society Peter Wolf
Research and policy analyst
Best Friends Animal Society