Do Feral Cats Have Rabies Risk?

Becky Robinson, founder of Alley Cat Allies, discusses TNR and rabies.

Q: I do trap-neuter-return in my neighborhood and one of my neighbors complained that it poses a risk for rabies.  I know her fears are false and outdated, but what facts can I provide to ease her concern?

A:  Your neighbor suffers from a very common misconception. Many people still misguidedly think of rabies as an imminent threat, when in fact, it is a public health victory.

You can start by telling her that there hasn’t been a confirmed case of cat to human rabies transmission for 35 years. Since the inception of a nationwide rabies eradication program in 1947, the number of human rabies cases in the U.S. has declined to just a few per year; from 2000 to 2008, there were only 27 confirmed cases, including just a single case in 2007. Compare that to 1,356 cases of West Nile virus in 2008 alone (44 of them fatal), and your neighbor may start to see rabies in perspective.

You can explain point-by-point how TNR does not increase the risk of rabies within your community — it actually decreases it:

  • Cats brought in for TNR are given rabies vaccinations, which protect them for several years.
  • Cats are spayed or neutered, preventing more unvaccinated cats from being born.
  • Managing a colony through TNR includes trapping any stray cats that may enter the area or neighborhood.
  • TNR programs educate residents about the importance of neutering and vaccinating their house cats.

Refute the outdated belief that dogs and cats are a common source of rabies — thanks to the rabies vaccine, that’s no longer true. Today, the primary source of rabies is wildlife, which was responsible for 93 percent of cases in 2008, mostly from raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes and coyotes. Note that most of these animals are much larger than cats’ preferred prey and that faced with any of these predators, a cat is far more likely to turn tail and run than fight and get bitten.

Cats also are not subject to a species-specific strain of rabies, so feral cat colonies cannot become a reservoir for the virus. For a cat to contract rabies, it must be the incidental victim of a rabid animal.

Once you’ve explained to your neighbor why feral cat colonies do not pose a rabies risk, it might help to bring her up to speed on the fact that scientific studies show that TNR is the most humane, effective way to manage feral cat populations. No more kittens — the population stabilizes and their lives are improved. Once neutered, cats stop caterwauling and fighting—both behaviors associated with mating. TNR also saves cats lives, since a trip to the shelter for a feral cat means certain death.

Rabies is no longer the menace it once was — unfortunately, not everyone seems to have gotten the message. Fear is a strong motivator, so make sure you are well informed and prepared to break down the hype when educating your neighbors about how TNR prevents the spread of rabies.

Visit Alley Cat Allies’ website for more information about rabies and rabies vaccine, and check out our Community Resource Center for more advice on how to talk to your neighbors about trap-neuter-return.

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Cats · Lifestyle