Maddie’s Outdoor Cat Project

Many shelters, including Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS), report that a substantial number of the cats euthanized in their facilities are not adoptable because they are feral. Feral cat sterilization projects like Operation Catnip are frequently promoted as a method for reducing the homeless cat population and the resulting burden on animal control facilities.

Operation Catnip volunteers can be very proud of their accomplishment of sterilizing more than 20,000 cats in Alachua County since 1998 and preventing the birth of more than 6,000 homeless kittens each year. That alone is a huge accomplishment for cat welfare. However, we suspect that since the effort is diluted over the entire county, the impact on cat overpopulation as reflected by the number of cat admissions to the animal shelter is minimal. Surprisingly, despite two decades of growth of trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, no information exists about the impact of TNR on shelter admission statistics.

To close this knowledge gap, we have been studying the effect of intensive TNR on an area with historically high cat admissions to the shelter. The research team researched shelter statistics with the intent of identifying an area with disproportionately high cat admissions relative to the area’s human population and land mass in which to perform the study. Statistics regarding the type and source of cats and dogs admitted to the shelter from the target area with the TNR program and the control area without the TNR program are being compared. Admissions of both cats and dogs to ACAS have been falling for more than a decade. If TNR is successful in preventing cats from entering the shelter, it would be expected that the negative slope of shelter admissions would be steeper for cats in the target area than for cats in the control area, and than for dogs in either area. Historic shelter statistics spanning five years prior to the initiation of Maddie’s® Outdoor Cat Project will undergo trend analysis.

Beginning in February 2006 and continuing for a two-year time frame, the team focused on controlling the stray cat population in a single zip code through increased TNR, adoption of friendly kittens, and complaint mediation. A goal was set to sterilize 55% of the stray cat population in the area, which was estimated to be 1,000 cats each year in addition to the average baseline of 113 cats that have been previously sterilized annually in this zip code. If successful, it was expected that the shelter would witness a decrease in complaints about cats and fewer cat admissions from the area, particularly of kittens.

In the two years of the project, more than 2,300 cats were handled though the project. Of these, the vast majority (95%), were sterilized, vaccinated, and microchipped. Approximately half of the cats (primarily kittens) were adopted directly from the project or were transferred to other rescue agencies for adoption. All of cats made available for adoption were spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and tested for FeLV and FIV prior to adoption. The adoption of friendly cats is one of the most tangible ways that TNR programs can quickly reduce the number of homeless cats in a community. Adoption also represents a considerable enhancement to the welfare of the cats involved, since adopted cats enjoy the comfort of a loving family and feral kittens are reported to suffer a mortality rate as high as 75% in the wild.

The study was conducted by Dr. Julie Levy and Dr. Natalie Isaza and ACAS directors Ray Sim and David Flagler and was funded by Maddie’s® Fund. The field work has been completed and the data are now being analyzed for publication.