Results of the two-year study showed that sterilizing feral cats in a region of historically high animal-control impoundments led to a steep decline in the number of cats that were admitted to and euthanized at the local shelter.
"We investigated whether we ever could neuter enough cats to slow their intake into animal control," said Julie Levy, D.V.M., Ph.D., the Maddie's professor of shelter medicine at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and principal investigator on the study, which was published recently in The Veterinary Journal.
"Neutering a few cats here and there wasn't making a big impact, so we wanted to pick a focused area and throw all our resources into it," she said.
The region selected for the study is in Alachua County adjacent to the UF campus and includes the downtown Gainesville business district, several residential neighborhoods, a mobile home park, two homeless shelters, industrial parks and a veterinary clinic. The zone has higher unemployment and poverty levels, as well as lower household income and rates of home ownership than the county as a whole.
The results were dramatic. During the study, 2,366 stray and feral community cats - approximately 54 percent of the estimated feral cat population in the targeted area - were trapped and neutered. Afterward, they were returned to their environment or adopted.
Levy and her team found that in the target area, Animal Control cat intake declined 70 percent from a baseline of 13 cats per 1,000 residents to four cats per 1,000 residents at the end of the study. In the non-target area - the rest of the county - cat intake declined only 13 percent from a baseline of 16 cats per 1,000 residents to 14 cats per 1,000 residents.
In the target area, euthanasia declined 95 percent from a baseline of eight cats per 1,000 residents to less than one per 1,000 residents at the end of the study. In the non-target area, cat euthanasia declined 30 percent from a baseline of 10 cats per 1,000 residents to seven cats per 1,000 residents.
"The figures were incredible as were the adoptions," Levy said. "Adoption wasn't part of the original plan, but it happened organically as residents offered to take in kittens and the friendlier adults."
Cats weren't the only ones to find new homes. While unclaimed cats were the focus of the study, surprisingly, the shelter intake rates of dogs also declined in the targeted area.
"That was just an extra win," she said. "As we went door-to-door, we talked to people about how to care for all their animals, including other resources available for their pets."
Funded through a $250,000 grant from Maddie's Fund, the study initially used direct advertising to promote the free spay/neuter surgery available through Operation Catnip, the trap-neuter-return program based at UF.
"But the cats didn't arrive in large numbers like we'd expected," Levy said. "They were out there, but this is a community that doesn't just take stray cats to a spay-neuter clinic." So Levy hired a neighborhood resident to knock on doors.
"It's not enough for an agency like ours to just make services available. You must get into a community and talk to people to find out what they need," she said. "If we go in with the right resources and attitudes, we can save animals from animal control and from being euthanized.
"The animal welfare community as a whole has realized that we can't be solely shelter-centric," Levy said. "The next step in our work is to connect with communities, find out their needs and how we can help."
However, the resources needed to complete the project were intensive.
"It's not realistic to provide this level of coverage throughout the community in an untargeted way. To expand what we did in the target area to the entire county would cost millions of dollars," she said. "But like all daunting problems, you bite off the greatest need and start there."
The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is supported through funding from UF Health and the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
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