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Originally published Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Push to get feral cats sterilized

Animal groups target feral cats for sterilization.

Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES — Cat owners have done a good job spaying and neutering their pets. The big issue now when it comes to felines is population control of feral cats, and that's led to a movement by animal welfare groups to trap colonies of these wild cats for sterilization.

A study conducted for Alley Cat Allies in 2007 and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2009 showed Americans owned about 82 million cats and 80 percent of them had been spayed or neutered.

But there may be just as many feral cats in the country and fewer than 3 percent of them are sterilized, said Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies in Bethesda, Md.

Feral cats are born on the streets. They struggle to survive and end up too wild to be handled. They often form colonies or communities, feed on rodents and garbage, and breed without restraint. It's almost impossible to tame an adult feral cat and most shelters won't accept them except to euthanize them.

Stray cats — cats that run away from home or get dumped or lost — may be tame and comfortable around people, but they often fall in with feral colonies.

Feral cats tend to mate and reproduce in warmer weather. Millions of feral kittens will be born over the next few months and taken to animal shelters across the country. "Unfortunately, few of these kittens find adoptive homes. Many, if not most, are killed in shelters," Robinson said.

More cats than dogs enter shelters, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and 70 percent of shelter cats end up euthanized, compared to just half of shelter dogs.

Feral cats are one of the reasons World Spay Day exists. The Humane Society of the United States started Spay Day USA in 1995. It's now held the last Tuesday of every February and observed in 46 countries. Hundreds of events are scheduled, and many of them offer free or low-cost sterilization for pets as well as for street cats and dogs.

PetSmart Charities Inc. has awarded $26.3 million in grants since 2007 to subsidize nearly 1 million spay and neuter surgeries in the United States. A new $1 million grant will help sterilize thousands of cats in February. There is also a program for pit bulls. Nationwide, 65 nonprofit clinics will get grant money, said executive director Susana Della Maddalena.

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