Disentangling the link between supplemental feeding, population density, and the prevalence of pathogens in urban stray cats.
Background Supplemental feeding of free-roaming animals, including wildlife and feral or stray animals, is well known to have a substantial impact on various aspects of animal ecology including habitat use, activity patterns, and host-pathogen interactions. Among them, an increased population density (PD) of animals receiving supplemental food raises concerns regarding the transmission of pathogens in these host populations. The primary aim of this study was to investigate how supplemental feeding is associated with host PD and prevalence of pathogens with different transmission modes in urban stray cats. We hypothesized that supplemental feeding would be positively associated with host PD and the prevalence of pathogens with density-dependent transmission modes compared with pathogens with transmission modes that are considered relatively density-independent. Methods This study was conducted in six districts in Seoul, Republic of Korea which were selected based on different degrees of supplemental feeding and cat caretaker activity (CCA). The PD of stray cats was estimated by mark-recapture surveys. Stray cat blood samples (N=302) were collected from stray cats by local animal hospitals from each district performing the trap-neuter-release which tested for eight pathogens with different transmission modes (feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline panleukopenia virus, feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus-1, Bartonella henselae, hemoplasma, and Toxoplasma gondii) with molecular or serological assays. Associations between the prevalence of each pathogen and PD, CCA, and sex of cats were statistically analyzed. Results In contrast to initial predictions, the cat PD was generally higher in low CCA districts. The prevalence of (FeLV), which is transmitted through direct contact, was significantly higher in areas with a high CCA, conforming to our hypothesis. On the other hand, the prevalence of feline parvovirus, which can be spread by environmental transmission, was higher in low CCA districts. The remaining six pathogens did not show any association with the CCA; however, they had a unique association with the PD or the sex of the stray cats. Discussion Our findings suggest that in addition to influencing the PD, supplemental feeding may affect the prevalence of pathogens in urban animals by mechanisms such as increased aggregation and/or altered foraging strategies, with different consequences depending on the transmission mode of each pathogen.