Officials say campus cats not a threat

They scurry along the sidewalks and hide beneath cars or bushes. They dash away as a human approaches ? always cautious of the people who share the campus with them. But with two recent occurrences of rabid cats attacking humans in Hillsborough County, some may be wary about the university?s feral or stray cat community.

But university community should not worry about contracting the disease from the campus felines, said Sharon Smith, director for USF Cats, the independent group that cares for the stray cats. Smith said the animals on campus are monitored and all health precautions are taken for the health of the cats and humans.

On July 16, a Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation employee was bitten by a kitten, which tested positive for rabies, while transferring trapped kittens to a cage. And on August 21, a woman and her dog were attacked and bitten by a stray cat in a community park. Because of these events, Smith said she is concerned there will be a backlash of misinformation about the program and the cats that live on campus.

?My fear has been that people will immediately assume the animals are a threat,? Smith said. ?People will think all stray carts have rabies and that makes me sad.?

Manned by volunteers, USF Cats, humanely trap stray cats on campus and has them spayed or neutered and vaccinated for diseases, including receiving a 3-year rabies shot. The animals are also tested for feline leukemia and feline AIDS.

Smith said most animals test negative for the diseases, but the ones that do have a disease are put to sleep.

If a veterinarian says the cat is healthy, it is either returned to its home at the university or put up for adoption.

But kittens are not returned to the campus. When kittens are found, they are either put up for adoption or placed into a foster home to be socialized so they can be adopted later.

Smith said kittens must be caught when they are young, because it is more difficult to socialize an animal after eight or nine weeks of age.

?If a kitten is wild, hissy or spitty, it is more difficult, but not impossible to adopt out,? Smith said. ?It takes a special foster home so the kitten can adjust.?

Smith said the reason not all the strays are put up for adoption is that many stray cats cannot be socialized. These vaccinated and sterilized cats are returned to campus and can be identified by a notch in one of their ears.

?We do not put collars or tags on them,? Smith said. ?However, we do square one ear tip so the cats are easy to spot.?

The USF Cats trap and release program is one of the alternatives to combat feral cat populations and the consequences that accompany a stray cat community. But it may not be the most effective measure in respect to human health and safety, said Bill Armstrong, director for Hillsborough County Animal Services.

Armstrong said all free roaming cats or outdoor cats must be sterilized, have current vaccinations and registered with the county. The cat must also have some type of identification ? either collar with tag, tattoo or microchip.

Armstrong said the microchip is the best solution for identifying a cat because cats generally dislike wearing a collar, and tattoos can be difficult to read. The microchip, which is a tiny rivet with a number, can quickly and accurately provide the animal?s vaccination history, which can be vital if a person has been bitten or scratched by a cat suspected of carrying rabies, Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he does not support a trap and release program because the method of ear notching to identify a vaccinated cat does not provide sufficient information.

?Ear notching does nothing for me from a public safety standpoint,? Armstrong said. ?It is best for the cat to have an ID with a documented record.?

Although Armstrong does not support a trap and release program, such as the one on campus, he said people involved with these programs are a step in controlling the stray cat population.

?I am not condemning the program ? in a perfect world we should not have feral cats,? Armstrong said. ?I?d rather have the animals vaccinated and sterilized than not.?

The USF Cats program has looked into replacing the ear notching method with implanting the feral cats with microchips, Smith said. Smith said she agrees with Armstrong that microchips are the ideal solution for identifying cats, but due to lack of funding, the USF Cats program has been unable to provide microchips for the cats they help.

?It is a constant battle with funds just to keep doing what we are doing,? Smith said. ?But they are here and we need to help them ? in an ideal world, all cats would have home.?

Smith said the volunteers monitor the cats for any signs of illness and immediately trap any animal they suspect may be sick.

While the last two rabies incidents in the county involved felines, Armstrong said that the majority of animals in the state that test positive for rabies are not cats or dogs, but raccoons.

?Statistically, raccoons outnumber animals tested in Florida,? he said. ?But may that be the vector ? feral cats interacting with the raccoons.?

Since stray cats are nocturnal and often are in the same areas as raccoons, such as garbage dumpsters, there is a chance the cats could contract the disease from interacting with the raccoons, Armstrong said.

But Armstrong said another concern is children approaching cats or kittens. While the animal may look harmless, feral cats can be vicious, he said.

Armstrong also said if a cat has rabies at the stage where it can transmit it to humans, a scratch from an infected animal can be as dangerous as a bite.

Armstrong said the virus can be transferred from the cat?s saliva, and since cats clean themselves with their paws, using their saliva, a scratch from an infected cat can be as dangerous as a bite.

?What scares me is that if one of these rabid cats bites or scratches a child and the child doesn?t take care of it, doesn?t think the injury is serious and cat is not caught ? that can be fatal, ?Armstrong said.

Smith said there have been no cases of rabies on campus in the six years she has been associated with the USF Cats program. And in the 26 years she has been at the university, the only account of aggressive behavior by a cat occurred when someone tried to pick up the animal.

?Don?t corner the cats,? Smith said. ?No matter how well intentioned, don?t pick up a cat ? they?re scared.?

Although some cats are returned to the campus, Smith said the university feral cat population is decreasing.

?The numbers are way down from five years ago and continue to dwindle,? Smith said. ?The whole idea is to reduce the population by attrition.?

But to prevent the population from growing, Smith has suggestions for the university community.

First, Smith said it is important that no one feed the stray cats. Smith said USF Cats volunteers feed the cats and can monitor the health of the animals or detect if a new animal enters the community.

?Feeding a cat that is not spayed and neutered is disastrous,? Smith said.

?We don?t want kittens starving ? we will come and take care of them on a consistent basis.?

Smith also said any information about a feral cat community should be relayed to USF Cats so the group can continue to observe the health of the cat population.

And last, Smith said it is important for students not to abandon their cats. She said many cats are left from the spring semester when students return home for the summer because they are not allowed to bring their pet home.

?One of the messages I want to convey is that we need to educate people and also prosecute people who abandon animals,? Smith said. ?At least four of the kittens we took possession of this summer were not feral cats but kittens that were dumped and left to starve to death.?

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