The University of Guelph and City of Guelph are joining forces to look at how to deal with the city's feral cats.

About 1,000 cats are brought to the Guelph Humane Society (GHS) each year; about eight per cent of those cats are lost and will be reunited with their owners — a much lower rate than the 44 per cent of lost dogs that were returned to their rightful owners in 2014. While GHS staff work hard to find new families for the rest of the cats, some are euthanized simply because there aren’t enough adoptive homes.

Shane Bateman, a clinical studies professor and chair of the board of GHS, says this is a national issue that was highlighted in a 2012 report by the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.

“It was pretty shocking to read about the large number of cats presented to animal shelters each year,” he says. “Shelters are often criticized for their euthanasia rates but the real problem is that we treat cats differently than dogs. We let them roam, we are less likely to have them neutered or spayed and we are less likely to have some kind of identification on cats.”

As a result, many cities, including Guelph, now have significant populations of what Bateman calls “community cats,” which include strays, owned cats that roam and feral cats.

The search for a community solution to this problem has brought together local organizations, including several departments at U of G, to form the Guelph Cat Population Task Force.

“There are different ideas about the best solutions to dealing with these feral cats,” says Bateman. “We have spent a lot of time discussing the issues, and the reality is that there are many unknown factors.”

Some answers may be available soon. Postdoc Tyler Flockhart, working under the supervision of Prof. Jason Coe, Department of Population Medicine, is studying cat behaviours in the hopes of clarifying some of those factors. Flockhart has put radio collars on four female cats in Toronto; two have been spayed and two have not. By tracking where they go and how they hunt, he can observe whether sterilization changes their behaviours. He hopes to expand the study to include cats from a newly discovered colony of feral cats in Guelph later this year.

“Tyler’s data will help us answer some important questions about how many free-roaming cats are out in the community, and which approaches are likely to be effective in reducing the numbers,” says Coe. “With that information, the task force can make better decisions.”

Bateman points out that other communities with similar feral cat problems are not likely to have access to a veterinary college such as Guelph’s. “We hope to provide a model for decision-making that other communities across Canada can use.”

The task force has created a website and posted a survey that Guelph residents are encouraged to complete. The survey is anonymous, and will help the team learn more about the community cats in the city and strategies supported by community members.