By Grant Sizemore
Domestic cat legislation is probably not the top of most people’s legislative priorities. How much cat legislation could even exist, right?
It turns out that recent years, 2017 included, have seen a flurry of introduced bills pertaining to cats –bills that could drastically affect pet owners and non-pet owners alike. These bills have implications for public health and wildlife conservation that are often overlooked and, if the past is any indication, will soon be debated in a state legislature near you. It’s time to start paying attention.
Some background: The U.S. is currently suffering a cat overpopulation problem. There are simply too many cats for the number of homes that want a pet, and we humans are not always the most responsible guardians even when we do accept these animals into our homes. Too frequently, cats end up lost or abandoned and revert to a feral lifestyle in order to survive. Animal shelters suffer under the weight of high demand for services and too few resources, and the result is a burgeoning population of unowned cats that urgently require attention and effective management.
What few people realize, however, is that these free-roaming cats are a public health risk. Cats are the top source of rabies among domestic animals and, according to a study led by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are disproportionately more likely to expose people to the disease than wildlife. A person is far more likely to attempt to interact with an unknown cat than, say, a skunk. But mention rabies to someone today and they are more likely to think about dogs, despite rabid cats consistently outnumbering rabid dogs by approximately three to one.
The public health risk from cats, however, does not actually rely on a cat scratching or biting anyone. Felines – both domestic and wild – are the critical host for the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. The parasite only sexually reproduces in the feline gut and is then spread into the environment in cat feces. A single cat can excrete hundreds of millions of tiny, infectious eggs called oocysts, which persist in the environment for years and can infect any warm-blooded species that might accidentally ingest or inhale it, including humans.
Most people have only heard of toxoplasmosis if a doctor has advised against a pregnant woman cleaning cat litter. Although pregnant women and their fetuses are certainly at risk, they and the immune-compromised are not the only ones. Research has shown that, in addition to maladies such as blindness, miscarriage, organ failure, and death, the symptoms of infection may also be subtle, including behavioral changes. Free-roaming cats, which are more likely to host and transmit the parasite by defecating in parks, gardens, sandboxes, or other locations frequented by people, unnecessarily increase the risk of human infection with toxoplasmosis.
As efficient and opportunistic predators, the free-roaming cat population also threatens wildlife communities. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species worldwide and are the top source of direct, human-caused mortality to birds in both the United States and Canada. Cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals annually in the United States alone. For many species, this added source of mortality is simply unsustainable and is a contributing factor to the documented declines of over one-third of all migratory bird species in the U.S.
Despite these risks and the abundance of free-roaming cats, many of the bills introduced in recent years would only have added to the problem if passed. Legislative proposals have included exempting certain people from prohibitions against abandoning cats, treating homeless cats with less care and respect than homeless dogs, and commandeering public funding to purposely maintain colonies of feral cats roaming unrestricted outdoors. These bills would do more harm than good and ignore mountains of science, including the warnings of public health and wildlife conservation professionals. Rather than resolve the crisis, such bills only facilitate the problems that already exist without addressing the root issues, resulting in the needless suffering of cats, wildlife, and people.
What do we need instead? Legislation that takes a more focused and evidence-based approach to reduce the numbers of unowned cats and their impacts. To combat the problems caused by the cat overpopulation crisis, we as a society need to acknowledge the value of cats and raise the level of care and responsibility for these domestic animals to the same level now enjoyed by dogs. We do not permit hordes of feral dogs to run amok, and it should be similarly unacceptable for feral cats. Instead, we should encourage responsible pet ownership, including efforts like microchipping, sterilization, vaccinations, and containment, and support animal shelters, especially those whose doors are always open.
For more information on cat legislation based on sound science and public policy protecting human health please see American Bird Conservancy’s model companion animal ordinance.
Grant Sizemore is Director of American Bird Conservancy’s Invasive Species Program.