GIRARD - Local nonprofits and veterinarians are combining their efforts to combat overpopulation and disease in stray and feral cats in Trumbull County.
Dr. Susanne Wilcox of the Steel Valley Neuter Clinic in Girard is one of several veterinarians who offer low-cost spay and neuter and vaccinations to area residents and organizations such as TNR of Warren in an attempt to tackle the problem of overpopulation of stray and feral cat colonies and prevent the spread of disease.
"People just keep dumping animals out there, and they're not spayed and neutered, and they just keep overpopulating. People feel that you can throw a cat outside, it'll fend for itself, it'll hunt mice. Because they don't bark, they're kind of invisible," she said.
"This time of year is absolutely the best time of year to get your cats fixed, because they're not pregnant, they're not in heat. It happens, but for the most part, they're waiting till spring. You notice in the winter time you don't see as many cats out and about," she said.
But spaying and neutering is only half the battle. Three cases of human exposure to rabies in Trumbull County were reported in November, all of which occurred when feral cats with rabies bit or scratched residents. In all three cases, the residents received a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment, or a series of injections that provides antibodies against the rabies virus.
Since then, there have been no new cases. But those exposures could have been prevented with the cost of a vaccine.
"Rabies vaccine is required by Trumbull County law for all animals 3 months and up. For the cost of a vaccine, it's a cheap insurance policy for the cats' and dogs' health and wellbeing," Wilcox said.
TNR is one of several organizations that utilizes Wilcox's clinic to keep stray and feral cats down to a minimum.
Corky Stiles, treasurer, said the 501(c)3 nonprofit monitors dozens of colonies in Trumbull County, with a concentration in Warren parks and neighborhoods. Volunteers have spayed and neutered more than 3,000 felines since the summer of 2008.
Every cat the organization traps is tested for disease, vaccinated, sterilized and returned to its respective colony. Kittens and friendly cats are relocated to foster homes or adopted out.
By preventing repopulation, the monitored colonies will disappear as the remaining cats naturally die off, she said. It won't help to simply remove all of the cats from an area because it would create what she calls a vacuum effect.
"All the cats around the area will pull to that area because there isn't any competition from that cats that were there. Cats are going to go where there's less competition for food, shelter and all of that," she said.
Stiles said volunteers keep close watch over each site and as soon as a new cat is identified, they step in and remove it for testing.
"We've managed to get it down through attrition. The outside life is a hard struggle for them. We don't have any friendly cats there; it's strictly feral cats that are not adoptable," she said.
Trumbull County Health Department nursing director Sandra Swann said she is familiar with trap-neuter-release programs.
"It's a very humane and good thing that they're doing, but it still doesn't solve the problem because you have your domestic cats roaming with the wild animals," she said.
She also said the rabies vaccine requires multiple doses, which poses a challenge when it comes time for them to receive subsequent vaccinations when they're roaming in the wild.
Swann said the key to fighting diseases such as rabies is prevention, and the health department seeks to do that through education.
"Oftentimes it's young children who are outside and they don't understand," she said.
That's why they decided to design a kid-friendly handout to take complex facts about rabies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and simplify them for children.
Swann said the handout is easy to understand and teaches children why they should avoid strange animals and the dangers of rabies. They are distributing the handout at immunization clinics and other agencies.
"People say, 'My cat never goes outside.' Sometimes accidents happen. A raccoon, a possum, you never know. Stuff like that can happen. If you have kids and you're not vaccinating your animal, you're an idiot. For the safety and well-being of your family and your pets, get your animals vaccinated. In the two minutes that it's outside, a lot can happen," Wilcox said.