Point Pleasant Beach in New Jersey is currently experiencing an outbreak of rabies in their feral cat population. The rabies epidemic in this Jersey town is causing an uproar between those who want to protect the cats and those who want to cull all of the cats in the area. There is an estimated 300 cats living in the town. The cats caught the rabies virus from a rabid raccoon epidemic that has been present along the east coast since the 1970’s.
So far 2 children in the town have been attacked in separate incidents by cats in the town. One of the cats that attacked a 17 year old boy tested positive for rabies. The boy is currently undergoing treatment for rabies.
Rabies is a virus that affects the brain and nervous system and is almost always 100% fatal once the victim starts showing symptoms. Only 1-2 people die every year in the United States from rabies, but thousands of people die every year in other countries such as India and China where stray dogs run rampant and very few pets are vaccinated against rabies.
Feral cat colonies are something that has been getting more popular in the animal sheltering community over the past decade. Trap, neuter, release (TNR) is a program where a feral cat is captured, fixed, and then released back into the community. The positive to this is that the cat is not euthanized. A feral cat can’t be placed into a home because of their temperament. There are also a few negatives to TNR. First, feral cats usually have a devastating effect on wildlife in the community. Cats are excellent hunters and are capable of wiping out native bird populations and other small critters. They also compete for food with other predators in the community. Second, they frequently end up being killed by coyotes or other predators and they also frequently get hit and killed by cars. Another negative to feral cat colonies is the disease that they carry and the close contact that feral cats may have with their caretakers. While cats that go through a TNR program are vaccinated for rabies, that vaccine only lasts 1-3 years. There is no program that I am aware of where the cats are recaptured and vaccinated again. This poses a problem as is evident by what is going on in Point Pleasant Beach in New Jersey.
The issue of whether feral cat communities are good or harmful has split leaders in the animal welfare field. The topic of feral cats has been a very hot debate in animal control for a while now. Feral cat advocates appeared to have been getting an edge over the past couple of years, but this incident is going to make the topic more heated than ever.