They live on our streets, in fields and barns, behind shopping centers and in our neighborhoods. They eat on back porches and in city parks, fed by dedicated cat lovers. They’re the felines now called “community cats,” and while many of them are feral, some are strays or abandoned former pets who have adapted to life outdoors.
Some estimates suggest there are as many unowned as owned felines in the United States, most of them unvaccinated and never spayed or neutered. Left free to reproduce, they’ll create the next generation of community cats, and the next, and the next.
Operation Catnip aims to change that, says founder Dr. Julie Levy, director of the shelter medicine program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. The trap-neuter-return (TNR) organization has been running free high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter clinics for community cats in Gainesville, Fla., since 1998. In 2014 alone, it helped 2,693 cats and prevented the births of an estimated 6,142 kittens in the first year following surgery.
Thanks to a PetSmart Charities grant, Operation Catnip is throwing open its operational model and training program to veterinarians, veterinary students and veterinary technicians from all over the country.
“Our vision is to train an army of veterinarians to spay and neuter America’s community cats,” said Levy. “This approach, along with vaccination, will allow us to reduce cat population, control infectious diseases and improve the lives of the cats.”
Operation Catnip clinics are run MASH-style, with each cat tended by volunteer veterinarians, technicians and veterinary students. Each cat receives a medical examination and, if healthy, is spayed or neutered, treated for fleas and other parasites, and returned to the same place she or he was trapped. It’s easy to tell if a cat has been treated at the clinic, because of the distinctive “ear tip” each one receives during their surgery.
This means those cats can easily be identified as having already been sterilized, so they won’t be trapped again, putting them through unnecessary stress and taking the place of cats who still need care.
One graduate of the program, Dr. Amy Karls, was so inspired by her training with the Operation Catnip program that she now volunteers her services with four different community cat organizations near her North Grafton, Massachusetts, home – all that on top of her full-time career as a veterinarian.
“I wasn’t taught the high-volume, high-quality surgical techniques now commonly used in TNR programs while I was in veterinary school,” she said. “We learned new surgical skills, colony management and trapping techniques, and feline medical and behavioral pearls.”
America is a nation of cat lovers. One 2007 study found that 81 percent of us would prefer to see cats left where they are rather than killed, if those were the only two choices. Programs like Operation Catnip offer something better than either: reduced population over time, vaccination to help prevent infectious disease, and a chance for healthy feral cats to return to their homes in our communities without adding to the feline population.
It also offers a chance for veterinarians to become better surgeons, and for all veterinary professionals to learn innovative strategies for managing community cats in their hometowns.
“I was able to bring everything I learned back to our local rescue and TNR groups,” said Karls. “It was truly wonderful to see so many people united for the common goal of improving the lives of the homeless cat population.”
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com. Dr. Becker can also be found at facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.