JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The waste that feral cats leave behind is creating a public health problem, according to an article released by Trends in Parasitology.
The review, released Tuesday, says the one percent of the country's 25 - 60 million feral cats are spreading an infectious parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which has recently caused a disease called toxoplasmosis in otherwise healthy people. Research has linked T. gondii to schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, and brain cancer.
Action News found there are people working to prevent the spread of all disease among Jacksonville's estimated 160,000 feral cats, like Jeff Sweeney.
Sweeney spends nearly two hours each day, seven days a week, feeding hundreds of feral cats on the north and westsides.
"I probably on average spend about $100 to $125 a week on cat food."
But that's not all. When Sweeney, a veterinary technician, first got involved, he noticed many of the cats were sick.
"I would see a lot of snotty noses, runny eyes, and fighting."
Left untreated, diseases can spread among feral cats and sometimes to humans. According to the article, feral cats leave behind 1.2 million tons of waste each year. That's why, over the past three years, Sweeney has trapped, neutered and returned nearly 400 feral cats with help from First Coast No More Homeless Pets.
"We really need the community to step up and help solve this problem," said Dianne Wiles, Development Director for FCNMHP.
Wiles says the organization treats and releases 14,000 feral cats each year.
"You have to have the high volume to curtail the problems."
There's no vaccine for toxoplasmosis, however.
"It's really all about hygiene to protect yourself from the disease which you're very unlikely to contract."
Wiles says there's no sure-way to protect yourself from any disease, but Action News found toxoplasmosis isn't common in Jacksonville. According to the most recent data available from the Florida Department of Health, on average, only 18 cases are reported in Florida each year, and most are traced to horses, black rats, raccoons, and opossums, or to eating raw meat. To catch the disease from a cat, infected waste must be directly ingested by a human.
"The likelihood of that happening is very slim."
But if it is a public health risk, why are feral cats released at all? Wiles says feral cats will never be eliminated in their entirety, and if they are caught and euthanized, other feral cats would eventually move in, and those cats wouldn't be treated at all. Since August 2008, nearly 20,000 feral cats have been treated through the Feral Freedom program - the first of it's kind in the country - and nearly 60,000 more thanks to concerned neighbors.
While it's not a perfect system, Wiles believes it's the best practice they've found so far to stabilize the population and keep the community healthy, and Sweeney agrees.
"I think if people go out there and really look they'll see a well maintained colony isn't probably what they think."
Experts says toxoplasmosis is rare in household pets, and that hygiene is key to protecting yourself.
To learn more about the First Coast No More Homeless Pets' TNR program (trap, neuter, and release), go to www.fcnmhp.org or call 904-425-0005.