Traveling vet helps to control cat colonies, protect public health
Smile when you call Dr. Becky Morrow a cat lady.
The veterinarian and Duquesne University biology professor always had a soft spot for strays.
As president and medical director of Frankie's Friend's Cat Rescue, a nonprofit organization she founded with several friends, Morrow travels across Western Pennsylvania on weekends, conducting clinics to vaccinate and neuter feral cats.
On a recent brisk, clear Saturday morning, Morrow carefully backed a pickup truck hauling a mobile surgery trailer into the parking lot of Pittsburgh's No. 4 Fire Station near Duquesne University and set up shop.
She sedated, vaccinated and neutered 21 feral cats with assists from volunteers Charles and Beverly Bowser of Millvale. The Bowsers, fellow animal lovers, said they relish the opportunity to make a difference.
“We're helping animals who don't get help, and that's what I went to vet school to do,” Morrow said as she snipped and sutured a gray tabby, adding a green tattoo on its belly and notching the tip of the cat's left ear ¼ to 1⁄8 of an inch, to show it has been vaccinated and neutered.
In a nation overrun by an estimated 70 million feral cats, which reproduce rapidly in the wild, Morrow's mission has public health benefits that reach beyond cats.
Feral cats can pose serious dangers to humans, said Sharon Silvestri, director of infectious disease programs for the Allegheny County Health Department.
“There are quite a few colonies of these cats around. It comes to our attention because people trying to take care of these cats, who don't have experience or realize how serious it is, get bitten,” Silvestri said. “Most cat bites get infected quickly, and if the cat can't be located and tested (for rabies), you need to get vaccinated immediately, and that can be costly.”
Last year, there were 708 reported cat bites in Allegheny County alone, Silvestri said.
But removing feral cat colonies can be an exercise in futility. Often, new colonies move in and take advantage of the conditions that drew their predecessors.
“But if we neuter them, that controls the population and they'll keep others from moving into an area,” Morrow said. A controlled colony also keeps the rodent population in check.
Morrow, 42, of Arnold has 12 rescue cats of her own, some of which have varying levels of disabilities.
She founded Frankie's Friends in the aftermath of a raid on an unlicensed feral cat sanctuary several years ago. Appalled at the condition of the felines, she dug into her retirement account to buy a house in Natrona Heights to nurse cats back to health, place them in adoptive homes when possible, and launch her traveling clinics to address the problem elsewhere.
Frankie's Friends provided Morrow, who was in private practice for six years before signing on at Duquesne a decade ago, an opportunity to marry her passion for helping animals to her love of teaching.
Duquesne students aiming for veterinary school tend to flock to Morrow's door.
Christina McCullough, 27, a third-year veterinary medicine student at Ohio State University, said she was lucky to study with Morrow.
“I don't think I would be in veterinary medicine if not for her. This wasn't even on my radar until I had a class with her and one weekend I went to a shelter with her,” McCullough said.
It's not unusual for Morrow and her volunteers to vaccinate and neuter 50 cats a day. At one clinic near Ford City they neutered 90 cats, Morrow said. Working with local rescue groups and Duquesne students who are trained to safely trap cats, Morrow estimates Frankie's Friends vaccinates and neuters about 2,500 cats a year.
Julie Baker of Blairsville, treasurer of Spay and Neuter Indiana PA Pets, said Morrow helped her group vaccinate and neuter 300 cats in the past eight months.
Feral cats, Baker said, aren't just a problem in urban areas with vacant buildings. They congregate in rural areas and can become a problem in college towns where students leave pets behind.
“There were 10 feral cats living in a stairwell at (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). Some students helped to catch them and we got them taken care of,” Baker said.
Baker said Morrow provides a quick wellness exam and takes care of any problems she discovers.
“We wouldn't be where we are now, without her,” Baker said.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer.