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Cat Problem Finds MSU Volunteer Help
By Suzanne Berry
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The overpopulation of domestic cats gone wild can cause health problems for humans and their pets, but with help from Mississippi State University's veterinary students, Tunica area residents can rest a little easier.
Non-sterilized domestic cats that have been abandoned by their owners produce wild offspring that likely never will have human contact. These wild offspring are referred to as feral cats.
Dr. Mark Stickney, assistant clinical professor at MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, said feral cats present a variety of health problems that can affect humans and any pets that may come in contact with them. The most feared and deadly disease they can carry is rabies.
"Rabies can be transmitted between different species of mammals through the infected animal's saliva, usually as a result of a bite," Stickney said. "This means that rabies can be passed from infected wildlife or feral cats to domestic pets and even humans."
Many volunteer programs around the country trap, spay or neuter, vaccinate and release feral cats back into the area where the colony lives. This prevents a new colony of unsterilized cats from moving into the area.
A concerned citizen began a grass roots effort to address this problem in May 1998 in Tunica County. With the help of many volunteers, donated supplies and equipment, and a temporary clinic in which to operate, the group sterilized more than 375 cats from the region on five separate occasions. They notched the tip of the left ear during surgery to mark animals that have been sterilized and vaccinated.
"Veterinarians who volunteer their time and surgical expertise come from areas surrounding Tunica County, including one from Memphis," said the Tunica County effort organizer. "Veterinary technicians, nurses and others with and without medical experience who are concerned about the welfare of these homeless cats also participate."
Tunica County has no practicing veterinarians. In May 1999, students from MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine became involved in the effort to help control the feral cat population in this county.
"Being able to participate in something like this is a super experience because we get to perform surgeries all day long, and repetition is a great way to learn," said Lee Payne, one of the MSU students who has volunteered twice. "The whole process of each team being able to perform 15 to 20 surgeries in a day works like a fine-tuned machine."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 5 million cats and dogs are abandoned each year and that between 36 and 60 percent of unsterilized pet cats end up wild within three years. Feral cats live in colonies which can be found behind shopping areas and restaurants, and in alleys, parks, abandoned buildings and even rural areas. Rabies is a real threat to these animals.
Mississippi state law requires rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats to protect them from contracting this potentially deadly disease.
"The best way to prevent your domestic cat from contracting communicable viral diseases is to make sure you have it vaccinated," Stickney said. "The two most common diseases are feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus. Both are potentially fatal, especially feline leukemia. Cats that live outside should be tested yearly for these diseases, just in case they come in contact with a feral cat that has not been vaccinated."
Tony Roper Jr., a MSU veterinary student who participated last fall with the Tunica County feral cat sterilizations, encouraged people to help with this problem any way they can.
"Whether you work with your local humane society or somewhere else, it really makes a difference," Roper said.
Contact: Dr. Mark Stickney, (662) 325-3432