Feral Cat Issue Divides Residents in Maryland
The debate: Should feral cats be euthanized?
Counties and cities across Maryland are grappling with a chronic issue: how to deal with feral cats.
Feral cats, different than domesticated animals, are wild and can’t be handled by humans.
On the streets, they form into packs or colonies, precipitating complaints to animal control officials about yowling, defecation on lawns and fighting, to name a few.
Some animal advocates are asking cities to consider an alternative to euthanizing animals that can't be adopted as pets: trapping, neutering and releasing them, a practice referred to as TNR.
Cats who are trapped, neutered and released often receive rabies and distemper vaccines, as well as an ear tip—the surgical removal of the the top quarter of an inch of the left ear, which marks that a feral cat is spayed or neutered.
In Montgomery County, a resident may humanely trap a feral cat and take it to an animal shelter where officials will work with cat rescue groups.
The feral cats that have an ear tip can be released to another location into a colony, said Capt. Michael Wahl, in the Montgomery County Police Department animal services division.
“It is difficult,” he said. “The main issue we run into with feral cats deals with rabies control. ... Often when they TNR, they do give it a rabies vaccination. It’s good for one year. Then, there’s no attempt to recapture every year.”
A few groups—including Alley Cat Allies and Metro Ferals—working in the Washington, DC, region have volunteers who trap feral cats and take them to a veterinarian for neutering or spaying and a rabies vaccination, he said.
And, Rock Creek Cats helps "unadoptable (feral/wild) cats through what's known as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR): humanely trapping them, getting them spayed/neutered and vaccinated, and returning them to their environment, while ensuring they have food and shelter, per guidelines of Alley Cat Allies and the Humane Society of the U.S.," according to the organization's website.
Advocates of TNR say the benefits are many: Neutered and spayed cats don’t display the wild behaviors of unfixed felines. Plus, it’s more humane than euthanizing, advocates say.
“Americans don’t want the cats to be killed,” said Alison Grasheim, a spokeswoman with Alley Cat Allies, a national organization based in Bethesda that trains communities in trap, neuter and release programs. “They don’t support that as a humane approach."
Public health leaders in Maryland have concerns about TNR, which is not controlled through state mandates. Instead, counties and cities decide how to handle feral cats.
Maryland’s Public Health Veterinarian Katherine Feldman said concerns at the state level center around feral cats and the spread of rabies.
Even if the cat is vaccinated when it’s trapped and neutered, cats need regular, frequent vaccinations to fend off the virus, she said.
“It’s an incredibly scary disease,” Feldman said. “In the U.S., we have very few cases of humans getting rabies. In the rest of the world, that’s not the case.”
She said “tens of thousands” of people die each year from rabies in Asia and Africa.
One of the reasons the United States has been so successful in avoiding this disease is due to “our pet vaccination and stray animal control. We pick up our stray animals and vaccinate our pets," she said.
Grasheim said rabies vaccinations last at least seven years, so there is no need to recapture cats and vaccinate.
Animal Control officials in Montgomery, Carroll and Howard counties are among those who said they work with animal advocates so that some feral cats are neutered and released.
Baltimore County said it doesn’t participate in those types of programs due to concern about rabies.
Similar programs, operated through animal control agencies, are also in place in Arlington, Baltimore and Washington, DC, according to the Gazette.
Editor's note: This post has been updated.