By Maura McAndrew
The Humane Society estimates that there are around 30 to 40 million community cats (a combination of feral and stray cats) living in the United States today. That’s a huge number, particularly considering that feral cats are not socialized to humans, and therefore unlikely to be rescued and adopted. Luckily, in the past 25 years or so, support systems for these cats have grown exponentially. While euthanasia was previously the preferred method for controlling feral cat populations, today Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs are becoming the norm, with PBS News citing more than 400 participating cities across the country.
As defined by the national advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies, which has been implementing TNR programs since 1990, TNR involves humanely trapping feral cats, taking them to a vet for spaying, neutering, vaccinations, and “ear tipping” (to indicate they’ve gone through the process), and then returning them to their “colony”—the family-like communities feral cats inhabit. The goal of organizations like Alley Cat Allies is to improve the quality of cats' lives. These groups rely on community members to help feral cats as well, and unofficial caretakers often provide food, water, and shelter.
Fleas and Ticks: A Problem in Feral Cats?
While TNR programs typically cover both spaying/neutering and basic vaccinations for feral cats, caretakers may be concerned about one of the biggest issues affecting any kind of cat: fleas and ticks. Because these cats live on the streets, odds are they’re not getting the regular medications we give our pet kitties, and some community members may fear infestation spreading from colonies to their homes. So we asked some experts: are fleas and ticks an issue with feral cats? What’s being done to address it, and what can the average community cat caretaker do to help?
First of all, “Fleas’ impact on feral cat colonies can be easily misunderstood and overstated,” says Alice Burton, associate director of animal shelter and animal control engagement with Alley Cat Allies. (Burton notes that she has rarely encountered any issues with ticks.) “Sometimes communities mistakenly try to link flea-borne diseases to feral cats to justify killing the cats,” she says, “[but] in fact, flea-borne diseases are spread by fleas, not cats, and fleas can find many hosts.”
Susan Richmond, executive director of Neighborhood Cats in New York City, agrees that fleas are not a very big threat to feral cats and communities, but rather a manageable part of life. “Fleas are present in just about every outdoor environment,” she says. “Inevitably, cats who spend all their time outside are going to encounter them, and it's normal for healthy cats to have some fleas.”
But infestations can happen, Richmond acknowledges, usually when the cats in the colony are malnourished or in an otherwise weakened state. “What isn't normal are excessive numbers of the pests,” she says. “A heavy infestation is a sign of some underlying problem, such as malnutrition or a compromised immune system. So when fleas multiply to levels that negatively impact the cats' health, it's imperative to figure out why they're vulnerable in the first place.” She notes that in these rare cases, kittens are most at risk, as they can become anemic or even die due to blood loss. And if an infestation is particularly extreme, Richmond says, it may “encroach on the cats’ human neighbors,” by getting into homes or workplaces, and also attract other parasites, such as tapeworms. But human contact with these fleas is unlikely, Burton notes, stressing that “feral cats avoid people by nature and are therefore not a major threat for transmission of flea-borne disease to humans.”
How Trap-Neuter-Return Programs Help Feral Cats
If you’re a feral cat caretaker or curious community member who notices an infestation of fleas, TNR programs can help, simply by doing what they do. “Ferals living in managed colonies—that is, with caretakers who have the cats spayed and neutered, then provide their furry charges with regular meals and adequate shelter—are far less likely to suffer from flea infestations,” Richmond says. She also explains that cats who are continually reproducing will often be weaker and more vulnerable to parasites, so calling a local organization that practices TNR is a great first step toward protecting the cats and ridding the area of fleas.
Richmond explains that it is difficult for TNR programs to specifically treat feral cats for fleas and ticks, since medications need to be given monthly, and TNR is a one-time encounter. But serious cases will usually be tackled to the best of an organization’s ability. “We do provide flea treatment when indicated, such as for friendly kittens and cats being placed for adoption, or for those cats who are severely infested and urgently need relief,” she says. “In those cases, as noted, there is often an underlying cause allowing the flea load to become excessive, so we will also work to determine what the problem might be, and take steps to resolve it.”
Burton agrees that some TNR organizations, while they cannot regularly treat feral cats for fleas, will take small measures during the TNR process. “In areas where fleas and ticks are common, it is not unusual for the cats to be treated at the time that they are spayed or neutered,” she says, noting that because feral cats cannot be handled, tmedications are administered under anesthesia during the spaying or neutering process.
Flea and Tick Prevention in Feral Cat Colonies
While TNR programs do their best to care for community cats—including minimizing the risk of infestation and occasionally applying a treatment—they rely on feral cat caretakers to help make sure these felines are in good shape. So how can you minimize the risk of fleas and ticks in your local colony? The first thing to do, says Richmond, is simple: if you’re not already doing so, start putting some food and water out for the cats. “Good nutrition can go a long way to keeping cats strong and immune systems robust,” she says. “It is a good idea [for caretakers] to purchase the highest-quality cat food they can afford, to avoid the fillers and artificial ingredients added to lesser-quality brands.” But try not to leave food lying around, Burton warns. “We suggest not overfeeding your cats and limiting the feeding to 30 minutes at a time, she says. “This will prevent leftover food from attracting wildlife, who are notorious flea carriers.”
Another thing to address is the environment. “All-natural insecticides can also help manage fleas in outdoor settings,” Richmond says, suggesting diatomaceous earth (use the “food grade” variety only—it’s the safest) and beneficial nematodes as two possible options. “Diatomaceous earth is a fine powder made from the fossilized remains of tiny, hard-shelled algae called diatoms,” she says. “It will kill fleas on contact…and it can be sprinkled in cats' shelters or other places where they spend time.” Beneficial nematodes, she explains, are microscopic worms that eat flea larvae. They will not harm cats, and can be sprayed on the lawn. In addition to these options, Burton recommends Insect Growth Regulator (IGR), which stops the cycle of breeding in fleas. This solution needs to be diluted and allowed to dry before cats come around; it’s best applied in areas where cats sleep.
Additionally, if caretakers want to go the extra mile, it is possible to treat feral cats with the same types of flea medicine as a house cat—just bear in mind that feral cats cannot usually be handled. Burton recommends oral flea medications that can be mixed into the cat’s food and don’t require a prescription. For a more natural option, she suggests “supplementing the cat’s food with about a teaspoon of unprocessed brewer's yeast daily to help repel [but not kill] fleas.”
If opting to provide your local ferals with flea treatment, Richmond notes, just make sure to consult other neighborhood cat lovers. “Someone else may be treating that same friendly cat,” she says. “So check with others to make sure the kitty isn't getting multiple doses of medication.” And as in any health-related situation, Burton says, “It is always recommended that you consult your veterinarian, so they can help with your flea prevention plan.”
On the strength of the efforts of advocacy/TNR groups and kitty-loving citizens, feral cats should continue to lead better and better lives. Even though they’re not our “pets” in the same way as our house cats, feral felines are a part of our communities—and they’re not going away. So why not reach out to them? After all, with feral cats, as with humans, a little compassion goes a long way.