The Community Cat PopulationNo one knows exactly how many free-roaming cats are out there. Estimates range from 32-90 million in the U.S. and 200-500 thousand in Chicago. Free-roaming cats are also called “community cats,” as they are part of most every community. Although the majority of community cats are feral, the community cat population consists of:
- Indoor/outdoor pets
- Barn cats
- Stray cats (friendly cats either abandoned or lost)
- Feral cats (wild animals not socialized to humans)
- Semi-feral/semi-friendly cats (often socialized to their caretaker only)
Feral Cats and HealthFeral cats do not create a health risk for humans. The majority of viruses affecting cats are only transferrable to other cats. One exception is rabies. Although rabies is a deadly disease, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports only 10 cases of human beings contracting rabies between 2009 and 2019, with none of these coming from cats. Cats that have been infected with rabies have contracted the disease through contact with wildlife. When feral cats are sterilized through the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) process, they are also vaccinated against rabies. Anti-TNR advocates have long claimed that feral cats are a risk to public health because they can spread toxoplasmosis to humans. Scientific evidence clearly indicates that the chances of a human being getting toxoplasmosis from a cat is extremely unlikely to near impossible. The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states: “Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a single-celled parasite called toxoplasma gondii. While the parasite is found throughout the world, more than 40 million people in the United States may be infected with the toxoplasma parasite. The toxoplasma parasite can persist for long periods of time in the bodies of humans (and other animals), possibly even for a lifetime. Of those who are infected however, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. People can contract toxoplasmosis in several ways:
- Eating undercooked, contaminated meat (especially pork, lamb, and venison) or shellfish (for example, oysters, clams or mussels).
- Accidental ingestion of undercooked, contaminated meat or shellfish after handling them and not washing hands thoroughly (Toxoplasma cannot be absorbed through intact skin).
- Eating food that was contaminated by knives, utensils, cutting boards and other foods that have had contact with raw, contaminated meat or shellfish.
- Drinking water contaminated with Toxoplasma gondii.
- Accidentally swallowing the parasite through contact with cat feces that contain Toxoplasma.”
Toxoplasma oocysts live in the muscles of an infected species. Felines are the only species who can shed oocysts in their feces. Once a cat is infected with toxoplasma, it can only shed oocysts one time in it’s life, for a period of 1-3 weeks. The oocysts will only become infectious between 1 and 5 days after being shed in feces. The chances of a person (1) encountering a cat with a toxoplasma infection, (2) coming into contact with the cat’s feces during this short window of time and then (3) transferring the infection from their hands to their mouth, is between slim and none. Promptly cleaning up cat feces and washing hands afterwards is effective in preventing toxoplasma infection from cats.