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, 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 and pit bull terriers in August. Nationwide, 65 nonprofit clinics will get grant money, said executive director Susana Della Maddalena.
The spay and neuter center run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles will use the money to spay all female cats for $20, said spcaLA president Madeline Bernstein.
Spaying or neutering is safe for kittens as young as 8 weeks old, Bernstein said.
Los Angeles-based Stray Cat Alliance has sterilized more than 75,000 cats in the last decade. Now, through its "I Spayed LA" program, the charity is working with residents in the poorest parts of Los Angeles to provide education and spay and neuter services.
The 90037 zip code covers only three square miles but is home to 50,000 residents and 10,000 cats, said Stray Cat Alliance executive director Christi Metropole.
ISLA lends cages to residents and teaches them to trap feral cats. The animals are sterilized free of charge and returned to the neighborhoods.
If 70 percent of the feral cats in the zip code can be sterilized over the next three years, Metropole predicts it will nearly eliminate the homeless cat population at the South Los Angeles shelter, where the kill rate for cats now is over 80 percent.
Not every agency believes in trap, neuter and release (TNR) but groups like Alley Cat Allies, HSUS and ASPCA say it's the best way.
When a feral cat is spayed or neutered, the top quarter-inch of its left ear is cut off. Called ear-tipping, the ASPCA says it is safe and the best way to easily identify which cats have been sterilized.
FixNation in Los Angeles offers free spay and neuter service to cat colony caregivers. They sterilize more than 70 cats a day and have trapped, neutered and returned nearly 80,000 cats since 2007, said co-founder Karn Myers. But the organization's five-year grant has now run out and if FixNation can't raise $500,000 by March, its free feral sterilization program will be in jeopardy, Myers said.
GetYourFix.org is a Virginia group that matches sponsors with pet owners who can't afford surgery. In nine months, they've matched more than 200 owners with donors, said Stephanie Downs, co-founder of parent FiXiT Foundation.
California is even tapping its car culture. The Department of Motor Vehicles is taking orders for a pet lover's license plate that sponsors say will generate a steady stream of money for free and low-cost spay and neuter programs. The state needs 7,500 orders before the plates can be made. The campaign is five months in and halfway there.
The plate says "Spay & Neuter Saves Lives" and features a drawing by actor-artist Pierce Brosnan.