Pet cat becomes part of research project when accidentally trapped

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FAYETTE, Iowa (KWWL) – An undergraduate research project at Upper Iowa University resulted in an upset cat owner in Fayette.

The research project aims to track stray cats in the community.

“What we’re doing is putting radio trasmitting collars on them and we’re tracking their movements around town. They are collars that don’t affect the animal’s survival but they allow us to find them at different points and times throughout the day,” said Dr. Paul Skrade, assistant professor of wildlife biology at UIU.

Megan Williams’ cat Gizmo spends most of his time outside as a “free-ranging” pet. While not a stray, he wandered into one of Skrade’s traps.

Skrade said when cats are caught, he and the students do their best to determine whether a cat is stray or not. This involves looking for tags and a collar along with the general demeanor of the cat.

If the cat is determined to be a stray, a radio collar is put on for tracking purposes. If it’s a pet, they still put a collar on it that explains their cat has been roaming and was caught in the research project.

However in order to get the collars onto the cats, Skrade said they sedate the cats with Rompun, or zylazine. Once the collar is put back on, the cat is placed back in the trap where it was caught and allowed to be free. Side effects of the drug include lethargy, which was a concern for Williams and prompted her to take Gizmo to the veterinarian.

“I see something in the corner of my eye and I look and I almost didn’t even recognize him. He stumbled like three times and collapsed and laid there and wasn’t moving,” Williams said.

Williams is frustrated about the project and that her cat was trapped.

“You didn’t even give me a chance to notify anybody that my cat was gone. You just immediately did what you wanted to do to it,” she said.

Skrade made it very clear they are not experimenting on the cats they catch. They are only tracking them to see how feral cats live in town.

He said the project isn’t a secret. It’s being funded through a $1992 grant from the McElroy Trust and also some money from the Northeast Iowa Humane Society and the Helping Every Animal Rescue Team.

“The city is aware of what’s going on. We’ve been in touch with the police chief. We’ve been doing this project for over a year now,” he said.

He said while some people were aware of their work, he wants to make sure more people know to help prevent any future misunderstandings.

Skrade has paid for Williams’ vet bill. He added they try their best to identify which cats are strays and which ones are pets, based on their demeanor and if they have tags. Skrade said William’s cat did not have a collar or tags and Williams’ didn’t know if Gizmo had a collar on at the time he was caught.

Upper Iowa University issued a statement with a detailed explanation Thursday:

Dr. Skrade explained:

As has recently been in the news, bird populations in North America have been in a severe decline for several decades (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/science/bird-populations-america-canada.html ) and one of the main contributors is free-ranging cats (https://abcbirds.org/program/cats-indoors/cats-and-birds/ ).

Some communities attempt to limit cat population growth by capturing, sterilizing, and returning them to their capture site, a process known as Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR). Like many communities, the city of Fayette has a large population of free-ranging cats and there have been some attempts at TNR in town.

In 2018, an Upper Iowa University undergraduate student received a $1992 grant from the McElroy Foundation to examine survival and home ranges of intact and neutered free-ranging cats in town by live-trapping and attaching radio-transmitting collars to them. (We also placed trail cameras at locations around town to document individual cats and obtain a population estimate.) The student also received funding from the Humane Society of Northeast Iowa (HSNEI) and the Helping Every Animal Rescue Team (HEART) to assist with the costs of spaying and neutering. The research was conducted with Wildlife Ecologist Dr. Paul Skrade in the UIU Department of Biology & Chemistry and several additional students have helped with the continuation of the project. Dr. Skrade just presented a poster with the results from the first year of research at the Wildlife Society Meeting in Reno, NV, on September 30.

Research methodology: Live-traps baited with cat food are placed on University property and in private yards where permission has been granted. When a cat is captured the researchers first determine if the cat is someone’s free-ranging pet or if it is feral. This is usually obvious from the presence of a collar, its behavior towards the researcher (aggressive/fearful or generally friendly), and overall appearance (its fur condition or if it looks emaciated or ill). “Breakaway” pet collars are placed on the cat with Dr. Skrade’s contact information on it. This precaution is taken in case a pet is trapped and released, as the presence of a collar and contact information alerts the owner that their cat was roaming and captured. One element of the study is to alert pet owners about the negative impacts that wandering cats have on the environment, their increased chances of contracting diseases that can be harmful to other cats and even humans, and the risks to the cat’s survival from cars and other animals such as coyotes or raccoons.

If the cat doesn’t appear to be a pet because of its behavior and condition, it is either left intact or brought to a veterinarian to be spayed or neutered. If the cat is left intact it is sedated using Rompun (https://www.drugs.com/vet/rompun-20-mg-ml-injectable-can.html ) following the approved guidelines for administration. While the cat is under sedation the radio collar is applied and the cat is allowed to recover in the trap with the door open at the capture site. Neither the sedative or radio collar is harmful to the cat.

The cat in question was captured on Upper Iowa University’s campus on 10/9/2019 and did not have a collar. Due to its appearance and demeanor, it was determined to be a free-ranging feral cat. When the cat was discovered by the owner later it was still under the effects of sedation and that caused concern. The cat was brought to Valley Veterinary Clinic in Elgin, IA and examined by Dr. Ryan M. Buitenwerf, DVM. Dr. Buitenwerf contacted Dr. Skrade (whose contact information was on the radio collar) and discussed the situation. He confirmed that the cat had been given Rompun as a sedative and conducted a blood screening. Dr. Skrade paid for the veterinary expenses.

Efforts will be made to better inform community members about this study so as to avoid inadvertent capture of pets.

Collin Dorsey

Collin Dorsey

Weekend Anchor
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