Animal lovers had their claws out when New Hampshire senators removed a provision from the proposed state budget last month, but a last-minute deal could save nine lives, and then some.
Current law in New Hampshire prohibits animal shelters and rescue organizations from transferring pets with contagious illnesses, including cats with feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus, also known as FIV.
That means shelters have to care for such cats indefinitely, move them to other states or euthanize them, even though the illnesses pose no risk to humans or other animals and the transmission rate among cats is very low.
The budget proposal backed by the House Finance Committee in April included language that would allow such cats to be adopted from New Hampshire shelters, but the Senate took it out. A compromise reached last week restored the provision to the proposed budget, which now heads back to both chambers for a final vote Thursday.
"The issue is urgent. There are cats that are positive right now who are waiting for a decision," said Lindsay Hamrick, New Hampshire state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
Republican Sen. Gary Daniels, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said his committee deleted the provision because members felt it was a matter of policy that should be addressed via a separate bill rather than as part of the budget. But after learning more about the issue, senators reversed course, he said.
Hamrick said advocates will submit legislation next year if the budget fails, but they hope that won't be necessary.
The two viruses — which often don't require treatment — affect about 2 percent of cats. New Hampshire shelters take in 50 to 100 such cats each year, Hamrick said, and in a 2015 survey, nearly 90 percent of the shelters said they euthanized the animals.
Some shelters keep the cats as long-term "sanctuary residents," but they have to be kept separate from the general population, said Marylee Gorham-Waterman, executive director of the New Hampshire Humane Society shelter in Laconia. At her facility, that means the cats can't enjoy the new social room or "catio," a screened-in room that allows animals to enjoy the outdoors.
"They have to be in lockdown," she said.
Workers at the Laconia shelter recently rescued a stray cat they thought would be a perfect candidate for adoption. But the cat, dubbed "Kitty Fantastico," turned out to have FIV, and was taken to a shelter in Maine.
"He wasn't some grizzled stray that was really not interested in being around people," Gorham-Waterman said. "He's just a love who was obviously someone's housecat at some point."
Lawmakers working on the budget deal were flooded with emails from feline fans. One senator said he had received more than 200 messages in 24 hours. Among the senders was Danielle Eriksen, of Weare, who once rescued a cat with FIV that had been thrown from a truck.
Eriksen was hesitant when her veterinarian delivered the diagnosis, but gave the animal a chance after the vet told her, "This is a really cool cat, and he deserves to live."
The cat, Otis, lived for another 14 years without requiring any special medication or care.
"I understand why they came up with the law in the first place — of course you don't want contagious animals released — but this isn't rabies," she said.
Aside from New Hampshire, Kansas is the only other state with a similar prohibition against transferring such cats, and officials there are working on changing regulations, said Hamrick. The New Hampshire budget provision has the backing of the state Department of Agriculture, the New Hampshire Veterinary Medical Association and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.