Recent publicity about outdoor cats has understandably raised concerns among Indian River County residents. Some may wonder why this is such a big deal and public health concern.
Florida Department of Health in Indian River County (DOH-IR) regularly receives complaints on open feeding of cats, and cat exposures (bites or scratches), requiring a public health response. Feeding cats outdoors attracts native wildlife, like raccoons, that are at high risk for carrying rabies and fight with cats for food. Mixing of animals during outdoor feeding significantly increases rabies risk and public health hazards.
There are an estimated 55,000 outdoor cats, both owned and unowned (stray or feral) in the county. That’s a lot of cats.
It is only a matter of time before someone is unknowingly bitten or scratched by a rabid cat, does not report the exposure or seek medical care, and becomes infected with rabies. Rabies is a fatal disease once symptoms develop.
Several trends were identified by Indian River County Animal Control complaint data from 2010 to 2018. There are a significant number of cats near schools and childcares that are within previous rabies alert areas, and an explosion of cat numbers in our county’s most vulnerable, economically disadvantaged areas. The location and number of cats within already vulnerable communities raises serious environmental and social justice questions.
There have been 3 rabid cats identified in Florida in the first 15 days of 2020, and 12 rabid cats in 2019. There were 16 rabid cats statewide in 2018, the highest number since 2005. Positive rabies test results do not indicate the prevalence of rabies in the cat/animal population, as only cats/animals with human or pet contact are tested. In 2019, rabies post exposure prophylaxis was recommended for over 1000 people (average cost $5000 not including medical treatment) in Florida due to cat bites or scratches, where the cat was not able to be located for observation or testing.
When cats live outside, their feces contaminate the soil or sand and accumulate in places like gardens, sand boxes, playgrounds and beaches. With an estimated 55,000 outdoor cats, each producing 32 pounds of feces, it equals 880 tons of poop annually countywide. Cats’ feces can carry other diseases that are harmful to people, especially to children or people with weakened immune systems. These include hookworm (up to 75 percent of feral cats are infected), toxoplasmosis (approximately 20 percent of U.S. infected), and cat scratch disease, among others.
Existing Indian River County ordinances and state laws, enacted to protect public health and control rabies, require proper rabies vaccination, licensing and containment of all pets, including cats.
DOH-IR follows the Rabies Prevention and Control in Florida Compendium; the preeminent authority on the control of rabies in Florida.
The concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats (Felis catus) is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease. While the risk for disease transmission from cats to people is generally low when these animals are maintained indoors and routinely cared for, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concern to communities. Children are among those at highest risk for disease transmission from these cats, because they are more likely to approach and interact with them, and have environmental exposures to their feces in the soil and sand.
Outdoor cats create substantial public health challenges. These animals do not receive ongoing veterinary care, such as regular vaccination, parasite and flea control. One rabies vaccination does not ensure immunity.
Cats should be kept safe from harm. Cats should be in an enclosed area or indoors, safe from interaction with other high-risk animals like racoons, safe from man-made hazards like cars or trucks, and receive regular veterinary care. This is responsible pet ownership, and is key to reducing numbers of outdoor cats.
When a cat is protected, people are protected, and so is the public’s health.
Written by: Miranda C. Hawker, MPH
Health Officer / Florida Department of Health in Indian River County