Stray cats can be a nuisance for residents, a challenge for municipalities and a health risk for people and their pets, but controlling free-roaming felines is no easy task because of a lack of regulations at local and state levels.
“It’s common for people to see a cute little kitten and they feed it and pick it up. But they live with other cats out in the wild and get into scuffles with wild animals,” said Christa Berthiaume, rabies coordinator for Washington County. “There’s no way of knowing what kind of exposure they’ve had.”
Now as local public health departments begin holding their annual rabies vaccination clinics, health officials are emphasizing that people should be cautious around stray and wild animals. When it comes to both rabies and stray populations, cats are different from dogs in several ways. Municipalities are required by law to have animal control officers, but they deal in large part with dogs and usually don’t pursue cat complaints.
Rabies vaccinations are also required for a dog to be licensed, so positive canine rabies cases are rare. But cats don’t require licenses, so rabies vaccinations are much more difficult to track in cats than dogs.
Cats are also more likely to roam and hunt, coming into contact with wild animals and increasing the chances of rabies exposure. The number of free-roaming cats has also increased over time, and an unspayed and unchecked stray cat can have many litters of kittens over its lifetime — up to three litters per year.
“Of course (feral cats) reproduce like crazy. We always suggest don’t feed them or take them in,” Berthiaume said. “That’s where we look for help from the towns but there’s no regulation there either — I think a lot of people don’t want to get into that.”
Once you start feeding a stray animal, according to state animal law, “it’s yours,” said Warren County rabies coordinator Pat Belden.
Even though cats don’t require licenses like dogs, state public health law states that cats must be vaccinated. Vaccinations are important even for indoor cats because rabies exposures are still possible. If a bat gets into the house, the cat’s instinct is to chase and kill it, Belden said.
“People are good about getting their dogs vaccinated, but there’s still a lot of people who don’t know they need to with cats,” she said.
Saratoga County Public Health Director Karen Levison said last year there were 591 animal bite cases in the county, and of the cases tested for rabies, there were 12 positive tests.
In both Warren and Washington counties last year, there were zero and five confirmed rabies cases respectively, which officials agree are relatively low numbers. In Washington County, four of the positive cases came from wildlife, and the fifth was a cat. The number of confirmed positive cases decreased from 20 in 2010, which were mostly wildlife, as well as one cat, one sheep and one horse.
But the decrease in cases between those two years doesn’t mean rabies is going away — it’s likely that other rabid specimens weren’t available to be sent in for testing, Berthiaume said.
It’s difficult for officials to identify rabies trends, because the only time they test for rabies is if human exposure is suspected. If someone reports that a raccoon in their yard is acting strangely, officials would advise them just to leave it alone, and that animal wouldn’t be tested.
So far this year in Washington County, a steer tested positive for rabies. Warren County has already had a confirmed rabid cat case this year, in Queensbury. The last confirmed rabid cat case in the county was in 2007, Belden said.
The three local counties hold regular rabies clinics where residents can take cats, dogs and ferrets to be vaccinated. Warren County’s clinics have been getting good turnout so far this year, and at Washington County’s first clinic of the year, held Saturday in Salem, about 150 animals were vaccinated, Berthiaume said.
The clinics are held in various locations throughout each county during the spring, summer and fall months. Rabies is not exclusive to a time of year, but more rabies investigations take place during warmer months because people and pets tend to spend more time outside and bats are out, including juvenile bats that are learning to fly and may bump into people in the process, Berthiaume said.
Aside from the mortal danger of rabies, stray cat populations can create nuisances for municipalities and residents. A recent Hudson Falls village newsletter said the village has been receiving complaints from residents about cats. The mailing reminded residents to keep their pet cats indoors or on their property, to respect their neighbors and reminded cat owners they can be fined up to $200 for cats that aren’t vaccinated for rabies.
Village resident Roger Wells has a problem with stray cats coming on his property and spraying, which unneutered male cats do to mark their territory. Wells burns wood to heat his home, and the cats spray on the wood in his shed, in his garage and on his porch. The cats usually come in the middle of the night and the spraying leaves a strong odor on his property, long after they leave. When the cats spray on the wood, the stench is so bad he can’t use the wood or bring it inside for weeks, Wells said.
“It’s just about every night, wherever they feel like it,” he said. “I have nothing against cats but when they start violating my property so I can’t use it — I can’t go out on the porch sometimes because it smells so bad.”
Wells approached the Village Board at a recent meeting about the issue, but Mayor John Barton said there’s no easy fix.
Frank Diamond, the animal control officer for the village and the town of Kingsbury, said he does get cat complaint calls, but his workload would be about five times its current size if he was also responsible for felines.
“Cats are more of a free-roaming type animal and can become feral, whereas dogs depend on people for food and contact,” Diamond said. “With cats, there would be a lot more work.”
Stray cats are pets that have been lost or abandoned, and feral cats are the offspring of stray or other feral cats, which aren’t used to people, and are often fearful of them. Diamond estimates about 90 percent of stray dogs he encounters are adoptable, but stray cats would be more likely to be skittish around people.
Cats are allowed to roam unless restricted by a local law, and Granville Dog Control Officer Ray Boyea said he isn’t aware of such a law anywhere in this area. The only time Boyea would usually deal with cats is if one were suspected to have rabies, or with the occasional animal cruelty case, he said.
If people call Boyea with complaints about cats, he tells them to take photos of any damage caused to property and take the cat’s owner to small claims court — but that’s about the only recourse, he said.
“If you call and say there are three cats running loose in my yard, there’s not much we can do about that,” Boyea said.