Pet Tales: Helping feral cats and those who care for them

It takes just one or two cats to start a "problem" that can pit neighbor against neighbor.

It starts with a cat that shows up and starts hanging around outside. The cat appears to be lost, alone and hungry, so some neighbors put out food and water. Maybe the cat had an owner who moved from the neighborhood and left it to fend for itself. Maybe it was transported from someplace else and dumped.

If the cat is an unspayed female or an intact male, sooner or later there will be kittens. The cat will breed with "indoor-outdoor" pets, or it will breed with other cats that are called by various names by various people and organizations: Feral. Wild. Unowned. Free-Roaming. Community Cats.

Because cats can give birth to as many as three litters each year, it doesn't take long for one or two cats to become dozens. Kittens born outside without the benefit of human ownership or veterinary care are feral cats in the minds of most people.

Some neighbors complain bitterly about the cats and want them killed. But if the kind-hearted neighbors who feed them and care about them fail to neuter and inoculate against rabies and other diseases, they are part of the problem.

For about 20 years now, individuals, rescue organizations and shelters have been working to trap, neuter and vaccinate them and release and return them to where they came from. It's the release and return part of TNR programs that makes some people unhappy. If enough cats are trapped, sooner or later the number of stray or feral cats will ultimately disappear -- unless irresponsible people keep dumping unneutered cats at sites where people are tending colonies of cats.

The Animal Rescue League Shelter in Larimer is working with students and faculty at nearby Carnegie Mellon University to come up with a solution to the feral cat problem. Two of the driving forces behind this intriguing partnership are Steffi Bruninghaus of Squirrel Hill and her husband, Vincent Aleven, a professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at CMU.

In 2007, a skinny cat ran into their house on a cold winter day. When Ms. Bruninghaus looked for the owners, neighbors said it was a stray that had been hanging around for quite a while. Ms. Bruninghaus and her husband kept the cat and named it Skinny Cat. She became very involved in TNR, and her husband became involved in the start-up of the Team Nala project.

Three CMU graduate students working on master's degrees make up the team: Lowell Reade, Lena Malkhasian and Nissa Nishiyama. Their instructor is Jenna Date, and Mr. Aleven taught one of their courses. Team Nala was a one-semester project, but other students and instructors have expressed an interest in continuing it.

The grad students met Tuesday with Animal Rescue League veterinarian Donna Hughes, shelter program director Janice Barnard and with TNR volunteers. Team Nala is working toward establishing a program and a website that could connect feral cat caregivers with the ARL. It would be for people who like cats and for people who don't like cats, Mr. Reade said. The site would teach new people how to trap cats so they could be neutered and inoculated and would help people in the community connect with volunteers who could assist them with cat problems.

"Cats are very smart, and they're not easy to trap," said Ms. Malkhasian, who said she's a "dog person" who has never owned a cat. "The existing trappers are spread pretty thin."

Mr. Reade has never owned a cat, but the project has taught him that he would like to adopt a cat or two, sooner or later. Ms. Nishiyama said she's owned cats all her life.

The students, staff and volunteers agreed that their goal is to reach people and educate them about TNR in the early stages when there are few feral cats in their neighborhood. They'd like to prevent more population explosions.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time ever that a team of elite students has applied advanced research methods to a shelter-related problem," Ms. Bruninghaus said. "This is a truly unique, ground-breaking project."

For more information, go to, the Web page of the national nonprofit Alley Cat Allies, or check out the Three Rivers Community Cats Facebook Page that Ms. Bruninghaus maintains.

Rabies warning

Free-roaming cats can spread a lot of nasty things, including fleas, ticks, diseases that are contagious to other cats and rabies, an incurable disease that kills mammals including people.

Feral cats in managed colonies have been inoculated against rabies.

A free-roaming cat in the North Side neighborhood of Spring Hill was not inoculated, and on May 9 it attacked and bit a woman and two children. A man trapped the cat under a car until Pittsburgh Animal Control could capture it.

Neighbors told Allegheny County Health Department officials that the cat had been around for a while, and that it used to be friendly until it recently became sick. The cat was euthanized and tested positive for rabies. The three bite victims are getting shots to prevent them from getting rabies. They are also getting antibiotics because wounds from cat bites can get badly infected, said Sharon Silvestri, chief of infectious disease programs for the county.

State and county health officials have interviewed Spring Hill residents to find out if they had contact with the cat, which was white with one green eye and one blue.

No other rabid animals have been found in that neighborhood.

In 2013, the Health Department identified 18 rabid animals in Allegheny County, including a cat in Oakdale. Everyone should avoid contact with wildlife, which make up most of the rabies cases, but people should not pet cats or other domestic animals if they don't know whether they have been vaccinated for rabies, Ms. Silvestri said.

Everyone should get rabies inoculations for pets, and perhaps people should be more tolerant of feral cat colony caregivers whose TNR programs include rabies shots.

Fundraising challenge

Isa and Bea were scared, dirty and sick kitties when they were rescued by Animal Friends from a hoarding situation in 2009. After many weeks of veterinary care and socialization, the cats were adopted by Jeffrey and Stefania Romoff. He's UPMC's president; she's on the Animal Friends board of directors.

To repay the Ohio Township shelter for saving the lives of the cats they love, the Romoffs are challenging animal lovers to help animals in need. The couple will contribute as much as $50,000 -- 50 cents for every dollar donated by others.

The challenge runs through June 4. Go to to donate online or call 412-847-7000.

Laughs help animals

Animal lovers come from all walks of life, including comedians and the people who pay to see them. The Pittsburgh Improv Comedy Club in Homestead recently raised more than $1,700 to benefit the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. The money was donated by members of the audience.

It was a "surprise" for the nonprofit shelter, said Ani Istanboulian of Los Angeles, who does public relations for Levity Entertainment Group, which includes the local Improv club. Comedian Tammy Pescatelli, the headliner on a March weekend, presented the check on stage to David Janusek, executive director at the North Side shelter.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson Fuoco on her Facebook page, or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic.