Dogs and Cats

Dogs and cats

An overview of the issues related to the control of feral cats and dogs

Both the house cat (Felis catus) and the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) are regulated by the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, Division of Animal Industry. As a NWCO, you cannot handle cats or dogs. Your DEC license does not give you that authority. If you do get involved with cats, you’re acting as a private citizen, not as a NWCO. This section will give you a sense of the issues surrounding cat control.

House cats (Felis catus)

There are many cat situations that are quite straightforward for NWCOs. An elderly mother passes away and the daughter wants the frightened cat captured so she can take it to her home. This type of situation holds the same type of risks as any normal wildlife call. That’s not true once you’re confronted with a stray cat, a feral cat (a “house” cat that lives outdoors and acts like a wild animal), or a cat of mysterious origins.

There are several reasons why some NWCOs are tempted to handle feral cats. New York State law requires each town to have an animal control officer but cat control isn’t mandated. Some shelters have a “no-kill” policy, which limits their ability to accept more animals. NWCOs may sympathize with people who are experiencing problems and reason that they have the appropriate skills and tools to capture and handle nuisance cats in a safe and compassionate manner, while the average person probably doesn’t.

The problems are real. Farmers and restaurant owners may find themselves overrun with cats, because the cats have been abandoned there or they’re attracted by a food source, such as a dumpster. The noise, especially during the breeding season, can be extremely annoying. Feral and free-roaming cats may carry as many as a half-dozen diseases. People are more likely to approach and pet a cat, especially a kitten, than a wild animal, so their risk of being exposed is higher. Cats are predators and kill birds and other wildlife. Some people who feed birds want to protect them from cats, which they consider unnatural predators. Others feel guilty or sad when they see a malnourished cat outdoors, and feel motivated to address its suffering.

Legal risks

Cats are not wildlife, even if they were born in the wild and act like completely wild animals. The domestic cat, Felis catus, is an exotic species. It’s not covered by the Environmental Conservation Law. And when it comes to cats, neither are you—your NWCO license, and the DEC regulations that cover those activities, don’t provide you with any authority or right to handle cats.

Cats fall under the jurisdiction of the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, Division of Animal Industry. There are two regulations that you’d need to understand: Article 26, the Cruelty to animals law, and Article 7, which is mostly about dog licensing and control, but does mention cats. For instance, if you charge for cat adoption services, you qualify as a pet dealer, and would need a license. That’s addressed in Article 7.

Also, from a legal standpoint, cats are property. So the property laws apply, too. Private citizens have no legal authority to dispose of “found property” (and “finding” a stray cat without a collar is like finding a wallet without ID on the street). That means that if someone disputes your activity, you could be charged with both a criminal lawsuit (under the animal cruelty law) and a civil lawsuit (under the property laws). If that doesn’t make you queasy, here’s the kicker: the laws describing cat control are vague.

Here’s an example of how that could affect someone who’s handling feral cats. In New York, there’s no law requiring the licensing of cats. How do you decide if a particular cat is a free-roaming and beloved pet, a stray, or a feral cat, if it’s “owned” or “unowned”? Do you canvas the entire neighborhood before you set a trap? What if someone lies to you? Imagine someone hired you to capture and kill a colony of feral cats living in their barn. You do everything right, but then someone sues you, claiming that you killed their pet. How do you defend yourself? Without tags or licenses, there’s no way to prove whether or not a cat is a pet. Even cats that appear to be wild or feral may be owned (such cats are often eartipped, but not always).

It’s much easier to make a mistake with cats than with wildlife. A truly feral cat usually avoids human contact, but distinguishing between a free-roaming pet and a stray can be hard. It may not be easy to tell from their behavior or their appearance. What if a free-roaming cat wandered into an area at the wrong time, and was trapped along with the ferals?

If you become known as the neighborhood “cat guy,” new problems might arise. You wake up one morning and discover a box of kittens on your doorstep. They’re so young they’d require hand-feeding, and they’re sick. You don’t have the facilities or time to raise them and seek adoptive homes. You make your usual phone calls, but no luck. So you decide that the merciful and practical thing to do is euthanize them. The “owner” hears about this later, and is spitting mad. The public may be more upset with you for euthanizing them than with the owner for abandoning them. Now are you nervous?

Financial risks

With all this legal liability, people who handle cats must make a lot of money, right? Guess again. Many people don’t want to pay for these services. Some may think that the government takes care of it, which is true for dogs, but not always for cats. Some people may appreciate your skills and your right to make a living but they’re just tired of having to deal with—and pay for—someone else’s mistake.

Don’t think that all you’re offering is a bit of your time and expertise, and that once you’ve caught the cats you can drop them off at an animal shelter. Private shelters need to keep their euthanasia rates low because that’s what appeals to donors. They survive on donations. Even if they agree that euthanasia is the right choice, they might be unwilling or unable to do it. You may do better with a municipal shelter because public safety is part of their mission, so they’re concerned about reducing the disease risks associated with feral cats.

Veterinarians sometimes provide discounts, most commonly to nonprofits or if they have a well-established professional relationship with the customer. One person with a great deal of cat experience warns that if you become involved in actually arranging for the neutering of the cats or the adoption of kittens, the venture will not be profitable. It will turn into a community service rather than a business.

Risks to your personal reputation and NWCO business

Even though you’re acting as a private citizen when you work with cats, this could affect your NWCO business. Imagine that someone wrote a nasty letter to the newspaper. Maybe they cover the story, run your picture, and mention your business’ name. That’s not the kind of advertising you probably want.

Your feral cat work might jeporadize your NWCO business, but your NWCO work could also pose problems for your cat sideline. Some cat activists are against trapping and the NWCO industry. They may not trust you, yet they’re an important source of information and support. It would be best to keep both efforts separate. For example, don’t use equipment with your NWCO identification tags to trap cats.

Ethical questions

You’re used to considering many factors as you make decisions in your NWCO work. Here are a few new wrinkles.

If someone intends to maintain and feed a feral cat colony, and hires you to provide services that will help them do that, are you violating the ethical code you apply to your NWCO work? You know that by feeding the cats, they’ll also be feeding wildlife, such as raccoons. This could create problems for the neighbors. Feeding cats also attracts other cats to the site, so the size of the colony might increase. Would you be helping to create or worsen a nuisance animal situation? And what effects might this feral cat colony have on local wildlife populations and nearby natural areas?

And yet, some people form an even stronger bond with cats than they do with wildlife. Some people go to a great deal of trouble to help take care of feral cat colonies. They may receive strong psychological benefits from the companionship of the cats, from the chance to do something they consider meaningful, and from getting outside. It may reduce their isolation and prevent depression, and may be a source of joy. Some wildlife biologists believe that in certain areas, feral cat colonies don’t pose much of a threat to wildlife. How do you balance the potential harm and good caused by a particular colony?

Let’s face it, most of us feel a little differently about cats than we do about voles. The thought of a cat being killed may be a little harder to stomach. People who have problems with nuisance wildlife can seek professional help, but that may not be true with cats. So some desperate people may try to do it on their own, with horrifying results. You could provide badly needed expertise. How would you feel if you do (or if you don’t) offer your skills?

Ecological questions

What effects do free-roaming cats have on wildlife? You will hear many strong opinions, especially from birders, but it’s actually not been well-studied. It’s a hard question to answer scientifically. There are usually several factors that cause a population to decline. How much is due to habitat destruction and how much to predation? That can be hard to determine. Then you’d need to isolate the effects of cats from other predators, which is also not an easy task.

So far, we can say that free-roaming cats can definitely hurt wildlife populations on “islands.” From a conservationist’s point of view, the term “island” refers to three scenarios: a piece of land surrounded by water; an urban park, in which a habitat is surrounded by development; and a pocket of endangered or threatened species. In these islands, predation by cats may be a serious problem. For example, on some islands, prey have not been exposed to predators, so the introduction of any predator can be devastating. If the prey is an endangered species, losing even a few of them to a predator-any predator-could matter a great deal. In such fragile situations any additional stress could tip things the wrong way. (Yet on other islands, cats may help some vulnerable species by killing other more dangerous predators, such as rats.) Another complication to this island scenario is that when cats are fed, so are other predators such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and opposums, further increasing predation pressure.

Most free-roaming cats don’t live on islands or near endangered species. Unfortunately, some people have established feral cat colonies near natural areas that do support threatened wildlife, sometimes on public land.

To learn more about how cats might affect wildlife, read “Free-roaming and feral cats-their impact on wildlife and human beings” by Dr. Gary J. Patronek, a special report published in the January 15, 1998 issue of JAVMA (Journal of American Veterinary Medicine Assn.), vol. 212, no. 2, pgs. 218-226, and “Domestic cat colonies in natural areas: A growing exotic species threat” by Alice L. Clarke and Teresa Pacin, published in 2002 in the Natural Areas Journal, vol. 22, pages 154-159.

Hard science about feral cats is hard to find

If you’re interested in this subject and want to learn more, evaluate your information sources carefully. It’s hard to find unbiased information about feral cats. When you consider the ratio of bad information to good information, it’s probably worse for cats than it is for most of the wildlife species you handle. There haven’t been many studies of free-roaming cats, and some of them were seriously flawed. There are a handful of really important questions about free-roaming cats that no one can answer in a fair, scientific fashion, such as: how many free-roaming cats are there in the United States? What do they eat?

So what should you tell people who call with cat problems?

It’s best to avoid any situation involving cats of unknown origin. Suggest the callers contact a local shelter or their municipality. At this time, there is no written guidance in law for regions with no shelters, or for regions where shelters are full.

For more information:

  • If you’re interested in working with cats, read the applicable laws carefully.
  • For an excellent overview of the subject, read “Community approaches to feral cats: Problems, alternatives, and recommendations” by Dr. Margaret R. Slater. This 2001 handbook is available from the Humane Society Press in both print and online versions. It’s one of the more comprehensive, unbiased, and well-researched reports on feral cats.
  • Free-roaming and feral cats—their impact on wildlife and human beings” by Dr. Gary J. Patronek, a special report published in the January 15, 1998 issue of JAVMA (Journal of American Veterinary Medicine Assn.), vol. 212, no. 2, pgs. 218–226.
  • Domestic cat colonies in natural areas: a growing exotic species threat” by Alice L. Clarke and Teresa Pacin. 2002. Natural Areas Journal 22: 154–159.
  • Alley Cat Allies – Frequently Asked Questions offers information about traps.
  • Feral Cat Coalition also offers useful articles. 9528 Miramar Road, PMB 160, San Diego, CA 92126.
  • The San Francisco SPCA offers several fact sheets, including one for addressing conflicts between neighbors. 2500-16th Street, San Francisco, CA, 94103-4213. (415) 554-3000.

Domestic dogs (Canis f. familiaris)

What if someone calls you with a complaint about a dog? This is a much simpler situation. Every town and city in New York is required to have a dog control officer. In most cases, you can refer people to their local dog control officer or the local police, who’ll deal with the problem. Article 7 of the Agriculture and Markets Law spells out the rules for dog licensing and control.

You may wish to read section 121 of this law, which talks about dangerous dogs. If you witness a dog attacking a person who is “peaceably conducting himself in any place where he may lawfully be,” you may intervene either during the attack, or if the dog pursues the person. The person being attacked, and anyone witnessing the attack, is authorized by this law to kill the dog, “and no liability in damages or otherwise shall be incurred on account of such destruction.” (section 121.1) If a dog is attacking, chasing, or worrying a domestic animal “in a place where it [the domestic animal] may lawfully be,” you may intervene as well. (121.2).

There may be times when a dangerous situation develops with a nearby dog when you’re on a job. If it’s not a life-threatening emergency, capture and restrain the dog, then call the dog control officer and the police, and let them take over. Even though the laws about dog control are specific, situations can still become emotional. Some of the same risks involved in cat control apply to dogs. You wouldn’t want to be known as “that guy who killed Joe’s dog.”

If you’re interested in becoming a dog control officer, contact your local municipality and the Department of Agriculture and Markets for more information.