I spay and neuter cats for free. Well, actually, for less than free. We charge an amount that used to cover our supply costs ten or more years ago. Now that it’s 2007, the hospital probably pays out at least $25 in supplies on every spay and maybe $10 on every neuter.

We do this exclusively for an organization called The Cat Network. They trap, neuter, spay and rabies-vaccinate cats in feral colonies. They also control the territorial expansion of the individual colonies by feeding them daily in the same location.

The Cat Network definitely gets special treatment from us as a sort of reward for their much-appreciated efforts. Other clients who choose to spay and neuter strays are charged half of our regular price (this covers the cost of supplies), but The Cat Network is so cash strapped and we have such a longstanding relationship with them that we continue to offer them a sub-cost castration service.

Recently, however, I’ve become a little frustrated with our liaison. It seems to me that feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline AIDS (FIV) viruses should be a mandatory part of the feral cat intake process. Before undertaking the expense of the castration, ear tip and rabies shot (which we subsidize heftily), they should be tested and euthanized if they turn up positive (if placement is not an option).

The Cat Network argues that they keep close tabs on the colonies and that they know which ones are sick. I find that hard to believe considering my own inability to diagnose a virus from across a room. Testing is the only way I know of to determine whether a transmissible virus is living in a cat.

By the time cats get sick with these viruses, they’re really sick. Anyone who works with cats in a healthcare setting will testify to the amazing ability of cats to conceal their illness and bury their pain…until they reach an irrepressible threshold of discomfort, weakness and suffering. That’s the way of it with major kitty viruses. If you see one sick cat in a colony you can rest assure it’s only the tip of the illness iceberg.

Can you imagine being sick with AIDS or cancer while homeless? It’s probably not a stretch to compare feline and human suffering on this front. When you’re sick and shelterless, survival is all you seek, regardless of species. It’s not a pretty picture, is it?

Problem is, the caretakers of these colonies become attached to their charges. They seem to find it almost impossible to consider euthanasia for even one animal, unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that the cat is indeed suffering. In my experience, this convincing process can be a very difficult one for these highly dedicated (and emotionally involved) individuals, even when the cat is obviously too sick to be relegated to the ravages of an outdoor life.

Trying to convince them of testing and euthanizing positive cases even before illness sets in is not on their emotional radar screen. I would probably receive death threats were I to present my case at their open meeting, as I had planned to do this Saturday. (I was warned by a sensible client not to posit such an inflammatory issue in a public meeting.)

My primary reasoning for testing and "culling," as it is termed when speaking about wildlife (and the definition of the word feral sort of puts them in this category), is to prevent inevitable suffering in the individual as well as the spread of the virus among the healthy colonials. House cats wandering outdoors (where they should not be, IMHO) will also receive greater protection with this measure.

So how do you feel? Should I refuse to spay and neuter unless they test the cats first? (The Cat Network get the tests at cost from the manufacturer so the cost isn’t as huge an issue as it could be.) I want your honest opinions regardless of your stance. Thanks!