Monday, January 17, 2011

How do communities address 'dangerous' pets?

In the summer of 2010, there were a rash of reports in Jackson county of quite outrageous dog attacks. Community leaders are, legitimately, concerned about this. The owners of the dogs are, legally, responsible for their pets' behavior. That too is right.

A typical feral cat response when confronted with a human being.
Photo Credit: Yanjing Lu: Wikimedia Commons.
However, there is another type of pet I became well aware of while I worked in Jackson county and it is one which I have had to deal with at my own home in Lansing. Stray and feral cats. By their very definition, these felines are not "owned" by anyone. To clarify, a stray cat is one which will accept limited human touch and interaction. A feral cat is one which is wild and thus unwilling to accept human touch. The closest to human interaction a true feral will have is watching from a distance.

In Jackson, as well as Lansing and all over the state, people build elaborate structures for these cats to shelter in, and provide food and water for them. Usually these shelters are built on private property, usually empty city lots and usually without the permission of the property owner.

As a result of Jackson's rash of dog attacks, County Commissioners are considering amendments to the county Animal Control Ordinance which will force owners of pets deemed vicious or dangerous to carry a minimum $100,000 liability insurance policy on the animal.

The changes in the ordinance would include institution of nine levels of classification for dangerous or potentially dangerous "with the least severe being an animal that continuously runs loose and most severe being an animal that kills or seriously injures a person or another domestic animal," reports the Jackson Citizen Patriot. 

Now I get the idea -- and even the respect the plan -- on many levels. I do, however, express some significant concerns that this plan will ignore a class of animals which are incredibly dangerous to people and pets. Because the ordinance would require the owner of an animal with three or more incidents of "running loose, exhibiting aggressive behavior, damaging property, or has indirectly injured a person or animal, or bitten or scratched a person in a less than a dangerous manner," the liability insurance purchase would kick in. 

The problem with stray and feral cats is that no one has ownership for those animals. That is the first part of a definition for them. Yet, cats are the number one domestic animal in Michigan to have rabies. Stray and ferals cats are much more likely than domesticated cats to be infected with Feline Leukemia or FIV, or both. Those viruses destroy the cat's immune system (much like HIV does to human beings), and expose them to a host of infections which have the potential to be spread to people. 

Here is just a sample listing:

Coccidiosis: This is a protozoan infection common in both dogs and cats. It is spread through feces and it can be spread from cats to dogs and dogs to cats. It can also be spread to people for either animal. 

Rabies: This is a virus which infections the central nervous system of mammals. Animals infected with this virus can display vicious behavior, or severe lethargy. The virus is spread through bites and saliva specifically. In infected animals there is no treatment. In people, doctors use a series of painful injections. Dogs in Michigan are required to be immunized against rabies, while cats are not. 

Toxoplasmosis: This is another protozoan infection common in cats. When it infects women, it can cause pregnant women to lose their babies. 

Worms: Cats are often infected with both round worms and tapes worms. Again, these can be spread to people can cause significant neurological symptoms, particularly in young children who get exposed to the eggs of the parasitic worms in sand boxes. 

None of these zoonotic diseases is pleasant. And those of us with compromised immune systems -- from HIV, chemotherapy or autoimmune diseases -- are at significantly more risk for contracting these parasites. Some of them can even kill us. 

So, is the person who feeds, waters and shelters stray and feral cats, creating a danger to the community? I would argue that many of them are. But some are responsible about the cats. They not only provide the base essentials of food, water and shelter, but they also -- often at their own expense -- have the animals vaccination and altered. An area will only support so many stray/feral cats, so when there is an over population of these animals, they like any other over populated animal, suffer disease, infections from wounds and starvation. Spay/neuter programs are an effect way to prevent these animals from over producing.

Interesting piece of information: Stanford University reports [this is a pdf file] that one unspayed female and her male partner can produce two litters per year, with an average survival rate per litter of 2.8 cats will ultimately create 11,606, 077 cats in nine years.

A significant part of the problem with cat overpopulations is that animal control entities generally do not have the funds, nor statutory authority, to address cats. The Jackson County Commission would be wise in this situation to create a sub-class in this ordinance which creates legal responsibility for the feral/stray cat populations in Jackson county for the person who is providing food, shelter and water to the cats. That person would then be legally responsible to provide basic medical care for these animals which would be defined as: altering surgery, annual or multi-year rabies vaccinations, FIV and FeTV testing and vaccinations for those not infected, euthanasia for those testing positive for either virus, and annual de-worming. 

This is an incredibly emotional subject for many people. These are, in my experience, good people who care deeply about felines in their community. The problem is that they are only contributing to the problems of these animals by half-heartedly taking care of the animals. Just like responsible pet owners have an obligation to provide basic medical care for their home animals, they have the same responsibilities if they take the responsibility to care for stray/feral colonies. Failure to do so is as much, and often more so, a risk the health, safety and welfare of the community as vicious dogs. 

Ultimately, this issue is going to have to be addressed by the legislature by amending the state's dog law to expand to include cats. Only then will we see animal control agencies treating the danger of poorly cared for stray/feral cat populations as a real threat to the community. And that will ultimately lead to healthier, safer stray/feral cat colonies in our communities. 

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