Untouchable Bond

2003 by Brenda Griffin, DVM

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

In the summer of 1999, I completed my residency in small animal internal medicine at Auburn University and accepted a position at the Scott Ritchey Research Center at the College of Veterinary Medicine. It was at about this time that I became aware of a group of cats that had taken up residence around the research buildings. Although literally untouchable, these cats taught me a great deal about the human animal bond and led us at the College of Veterinary Medicine to carefully consider how best to address our responsibilities to these creatures and their human caregivers. As they say, the rest is history...

Operation Cat Nap: Auburn University's Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Return Program

Operation Cat Nap began in January 2000 after numerous feral cats and litters of kittens were noted on the College of Veterinary Medicine campus. After thoughtful consideration, the College of Veterinary Medicine implemented a trap-neuter-return program (called Operation Cat Nap) to non-lethally control these cats.

Under the direction of Dr. Brenda Griffin, four humane traps were purchased and used to capture 17 cats residing on the College of Veterinary Medicine campus. A dedicated group of veterinary students assisted with trapping and care of these cats. This approach to humane care and control of the cats was successful and exceeded the College's expectations in terms of benefits to the cats, positive public relations and student education.

By 2001, news of this success spread, and numerous requests for assistance with cats were received from faculty, staff and students on main campus. Dr. Griffin sought permission and approval from the University Provost, the Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Director of Safety and Environmental Health to extend Operation Cat Nap trap-neuter-return efforts to main campus. Extramural support was obtained from animal welfare organizations and additional traps and surgical equipment were purchased for this purpose. Requests for assistance were also received from the community. In the fall of 2002, Operation Cat Nap received permission from the Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine to conduct TNR of cats residing off campus.

During the first year of the Program, cats were trapped a few at the time, and surgeries were performed on weekends by Dr. Griffin with the help of several dedicated veterinary students. As the Program grew, Operation Cat Nap organized and began conducting large scale trapping and surgery events in order to accommodate large numbers of cats and increase efficiency. Through the collaborative efforts of many faculty, staff and students at these clinics, cats receive veterinary care and are spayed/neutered in a highly organized, highly structured assembly line. Thus far, the largest clinic conducted by Operation Cat Nap cared for approximately 100 cats in 4 hours. OCN surgery clinics are filled with a sense of excitement and team spirit. Volunteers agree that the reward of collaborating to help cats and people is priceless.

To date, approximately 150 cats have been identified at approximately 20 locations on the AU campus. Nearly all of these cats have been humanely trapped, surgically sterilized, vaccinated and tested for disease. The tip of the left ear is removed to mark and identify cats as graduates of the Program. Sick cats have been humanely euthanized. Healthy cats have been released at the sites where they are captured. The vaccinated, sterilized cats form small stable populations that do not breed, spray or fight and do not represent public health threats.

As a part of this Program, campus cats are fed by volunteer caretakers on a regular basis. After they become accustomed to a feeding routine, the cats can be easily captured with a baited trap. Continued feeding ensures proper welfare of the animals and serves to raise awareness regarding the needs of cats and the responsibilities of their human caretakers.

Operation Cat Nap provides volunteer caretakers with donated cat food and box-style feeding stations for their cats. Ongoing surveillance of campus cat colonies is provided and is essential to ensure humane control and welfare.

Since the start of the Program, the AU campus cat population has been successfully controlled. Currently, approximately 75 cats reside on campus, and they are sterilized and well-cared for at no cost to the University. The University Safety Committee reports a dramatic decrease in cat-related concerns and complaints. Whereas kitten births and sick/dying kittens under buildings on campus used to be commonly reported, such reports are currently rare. Approximately 350 Auburn students, faculty and staff have participated in this Program through their volunteer efforts. The entire campus at large has benefited from the results. The impact of the educational experiences and outreach services of Operation Cat Nap can not be quantified, but they have had a profound impact.

Goals of the Cat Nap Program

  1. To humanely control and care for the campus population of cats and to offer community outreach and support for the same,
  2. To raise awareness regarding the importance of responsible cat ownership and spay/neuter,
  3. To contribute scientific information to the existing knowledge of feral cats and humane population control,
  4. To provide veterinary students and veterinarians with the knowledge required to implement successful TNR programs in practice.

Funding, Staffing, Research and Educational Efforts

Operation Cat Nap is supported by intramural and extramural funds and has supported veterinary student summer research fellows for the past four years. In Fall 2001, Kim Byrd Subacz, a graduate student from the University's Wildlife Department began working with Operation Cat Nap to more closely examine the effects of the Program on the campus cat population. Results of the campus project were published at a recent scientific meeting, and a larger investigation is ongoing. This investigation is currently receiving national attention and may be used as a model for additional studies at other Universities.

Faculty, staff and students voluntarily staff Operation Cat Nap. In particular, two student groups take leadership in these efforts (both of whom Dr. Griffin advises): the student chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Action Committee (AWAC) and the Pre-Veterinary Medical Association (pre-vet club). Educational campaigns are conducted by these student groups in efforts to raise awareness among students, faculty and staff regarding the importance of responsible cat ownership and spay/neuter. 

A video entitled "Working with Feral Cats in Practice" was produced by veterinary student Whitney Lemarr and Dr. Brenda Griffin. The purpose of this video is to provide veterinary practitioners with the information and techniques required to assist clients with management of feral cats. This video was distributed to veterinary colleges nation-wide and is being made available to veterinary practitioners through Auburn University's Office of Continuing Education. The video is part of the curriculum for Auburn University veterinary students.

Other educational outreach efforts include maintenance of a dedicated Operation Cat Nap phone line and call back service to provide information about cat care and control and to answer questions. Operation Cat Nap also conducts humane education campaigns through campus postings and advertisements in the campus newspaper.

As a way of recognizing volunteers and building team spirit, Operation Cat Nap gives free-shirts to clinic volunteers. The shirts bear the Operation Cat Nap logo and slogan that reads "Respect for Life." These shirts serve to further spread the educational message and to identify members of Auburn University's Cat Nap volunteer family. Operation Cat Nap has been invited to participate in the first National Campus Cats Conference to be held in Texas in September 2004.

Community Outreach

Recently, a group of private citizens formed Cat Nappers, Inc. for the purpose of coordinating humane capture of cats for participation in Operation Cat Nap surgery clinics. Partners in community service, Operation Cat Nap and Cat Nappers, Inc. share the common goal of helping people and cats by providing services for sterilization of feral cats that would not otherwise receive veterinary care.

The combination of hands-on experience at Operation Cat Nap surgery clinics and models of collaboration exemplified by Cat Nappers, Inc. have proved to be powerful instruments for student teaching at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Lessons Learned

There are an estimated 71 million owned cats in American homes. (Americans own more pet cats than dogs.) The proportions of pet cats reported to be sterilized vary among communities across the country, ranging from 30-90%. Many owned females are allowed to have one or more litters before they are spayed. In addition to the owned cat population, there are an estimated 30-60 million homeless cats: free-roaming, stray and feral cats. More exact estimates of the numbers of these cats do not exist, however public surveys and shelter statistics suggest that they comprise nearly half of the total cat population in a given area. These cats can become public nuisances, and they comprise a large portion of the cats euthanized at animal shelters each year.

Free-roaming and feral cats are fed by millions of Americans, some of whom own other pets and some of whom do not. The human animal bond and our empathy for animals lead us to care for these animals. Feral cats are not wildlife, but are the result of pet owners' allowing cats to breed uncontrolled. Except in areas where aggressive efforts have been made to sterilize free-roaming and feral cats, the proportions of these cats that are sterilized are dismally low. Thus, free-roaming and feral cats are both a cause and effect of feline overpopulation. In order to be successful, efforts to reduce feline overpopulation should include provisions for sterilizing this population of cats.

Studies have demonstrated that TNR is a successful method of controlling carefully monitored colonies by preventing growth due to reproduction. Epidemiologic study of populations of cats in communities across the United States indicates that TNR can be an effective method of control. When performed on a large scale, the success of such programs is felt at animal shelters, where fewer cats are admitted for euthanasia. In addition, TNR has been shown to be more cost-effective than trapping and euthanizing feral cats since most states require impoundment and holding prior to euthanasia and since private individuals frequently volunteer to trap cats for sterilization, but not for euthanasia.

The AVMA supports the use of TNR to control carefully supervised colonies of cats. The goal of TNR is to control the free-roaming cat population. It is important to recognize that TNR programs alone cannot solve the problem of free-roaming cats in the face of continuous emigration from the owned cat population. They do, however, hold great merit as a legitimate response to existing colonies of cats with caretakers and raise public awareness of the welfare issues facing cats in this country. TNR programs emphasize to communities that cats require and deserve responsible care, including sterilization, vaccination, identification, and regular feeding, watering and shelter.

Clearly, the bulk of the effort in combating feline overpopulation and feral cats must focus on prevention. First and foremost, responsible cat ownership and the cat-human bond must be promoted, emphasizing the importance of sterilization, identification, preventative health care and keeping cats safe at home. Practitioners must educate owners regarding the reproductive capabilities of cats and the value of sterilization.

Many people perceive that cats are not worthy of or do not require significant care and attention. By promoting the value of cats as companion animals and by educating owners regarding their needs, animal care and control officers, humane organizations and veterinary practitioners can raise the standard of care for cats to that of dogs. This will serve to enhance the welfare of the feline species.

This article was reprinted courtesy of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians (AAHABV). The Association is open to members who are not veterinarians. Visit their website at www.aahabv.org.


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