2008-04-16 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets . .

by Joanne Anderson


"To test, or not to test- that is the question." Now that more Towns on Long Island are launching programs to help feral cat caretakers do the N in TNR (Trap/Neuter/Return), it's time to clarify a controversial component- whether or not to test ferals for feline leukemia (FeLV) and/or (FIV) feline immune deficiency disease.


On first glance this seems like a no brainer, but alas, the decision is compliqued. The points here apply to blood testing asymptomatic ferals that will be returned to their colony, not owned cats or tame cats pulled into an adoption program. Since there is no right answer that fits every feral situation, here's the argument from both sides:

•Yes, Test: In this scenario, most times when a feral tests positive, the cat is put down. Feral cat overpopulation is a huge problem. Although no cat census exists for LI, Maddie's Fund estimates nationally there's between 30 to 60 million feral cats. Tough decisions are made about which cats to save because the numbers are so high. The mindset is that positive cats will eventually get sick themselves while spreading the viruses throughout the colony.

Cats who were nabbed once in a humane trap for TNR, avoid traps like the plague (pardon the pun). It's very hard to medicate ferals. Once these cats become ill, caretakers do not want to see them suffer. It becomes difficult or nearly impossible to recapture them to take to the vet. Moreover, sick cats usually have no appetite, so bait, even smelly sardines, won't tempt them. Unless the guardian is skilled with a net, the cat will perish after a lingering illness.

•Don't Ask; Don't Tell: Large advocacy groups like Neighborhood Cats and Alley Cat Allies who are practicing "crowd control" do not test healthy looking ferals for a variety of reasons. First they feel testing is an inefficient use of limited resources. Studies show that the percentage of positive cats in the feral and pet population is about the same- 4 percent have FeLV and 2 percent have FIV. That would be 6 positive cats out of 100.

Pricing at a low cost clinic nearby shows a spay/neuter surgery at $40 and a combo test at $32. To curb population, the testing money could be better spent neutering more ferals than identifying and removing the few positive cats. Also neutering is a form of disease control. The influx of more kittens, the most virus vulnerable group, is prevented. Castration eliminates mating behavior, a major transmission route of feline leukemia, and stops males from fighting, also important because much of FIV is spread through bite wounds.

The "Snap" test done in house within minutes is not reliable enough for a life or death decision. A positive test does not necessarily mean a cat is infected. Without getting into the nitty gritty of false positives, antibodies passed through mother's milk, or cats who fight off exposure, suffice to say that when a domestic cat tests positive, a waiting period and additional testing sent out to a lab are usually the next steps.

Being FIV positive is not a death sentence. FIV cats have been known to live many (even 10) years, especially with proper care and nutrition to compensate for a weakened immune system. In contrast, FeLV cats usually live 2-3 years, but often remain symptom free until near the end.

Euthanizing positive cats is ineffective colony management. The cats in the colony have already been exposed. Negative tests are not a sure bet either. Colonies with many sick cats are often ones without proper colony management, ones with poor nutrition, inadequate shelter and an unaltered population. The best way to prevent disease from spreading is to improve the quality of life in the colony.

Granted these opinions are contradictory. TNR voucher procedures begun in both Oyster Bay and Babylon Towns give the feral guardian a choice about FeLV/FIV testing. Friends of ferals are a compassionate breed of humans who need not feel guilty about the informed decision they make. Unfortunately animal care, like so many facets of life, does not come equipped with a crystal ball to see what the future will bring.

The Poster Cat this week comes from Oyster Bay Town Shelter (677-5784) Miller Pl. Syosset. "Spanky" #129 shown here is a silly gray tabby. Other fabulous felines include "Spackle" and "Randy" in the lobby; "Socks" #1129 and "Marbles" #402 in the cat room.

Meanwhile "Julie" the Poster Dog is one of the canine crew at the Last Hope Dog Center (516-220-6695) adjoining Basic Pet Care, 642 Rt. 109, Lindenhurst. Julie a young Shepherd/Cattle Dog deserves a break. She's been in shelters- first Babylon and now last Hope- for over 6 months.

•Special Thanks to Sue Carmody of Cozy Pet N. Babylon who closed her store to host the Last Hope, Inc. low cost vaccine clinic on Sunday. Thanks also to Dr. Lauren Entes and vet techs Lisa from Basic Pet Care and Robin from Wantagh Animal Hospital for all their hard work.

•Reminder: Pit Bull Predicament Conference at Suffolk Community College Brentwood on 5/3. See "Pets" 4/9 online or www.lasthopeanimalrescue.org.

Readers can reach Joanne Anderson C/O Beacon at 65 Deer Park Ave., Babylon NY 11702 or via email at acjnews@rcn.com

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