A PLAGUE of "gutter cats" infesting some areas of South Grafton could be carrying the feline equivalent of the disease that leads to AIDS.
Clarence Valley Veterinary Clinic's Ray Barnett said he had diagnosed two animals with the disease, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), in the past two weeks.
"The disease is spread when an infected animal scratches or bites another animal in a fight," he said.
"Its symptoms are very similar to AIDS in humans. Nothing much happens for a while, but eventually the animal gets sick from a simple infection that its immune system can't fight."
Statistics on the disease, which infects cats worldwide, show between 2.5% and 4.4% of cat populations is infected.
Cats infected with the disease, but not showing any symptoms, are able to spread the disease.
Mr Barnett said an explosion in the numbers of domestic cats could also have a more immediate impact.
"Undesexed males will get into fights when they are looking for mates," he said.
"We get a steady flow - about two a week - from people bringing in their cats after they've been in a fight with another cat."
The vet said desexing was the best solution to solve both the spiralling numbers of "wild" domestic cats and the aggressive behaviour of cats searching for mates.
Residents in several South Grafton streets claim the cats are living and breeding in drains - leading to the label "gutter cats".
"They live in the drains in Maxwell Ave," said one resident on The Daily Examiner Facebook page.
"The problem is that they are nocturnal and the ranger doesn't work at night. Driving in Maxwell Ave at night is an eye-opener. They are everywhere."
The president of Grafton Animal Rescue, Pam Holmes, blamed humans for the problem.
She agreed cat numbers were out of control in some areas, but said the cats were not feral.
"Many of these cats were owned and would be fine given some time to settle, certainly the kittens that are born on mass each year would be," Ms Holmes said.
She said there was a two-pronged solution to the problem: introduction of a breeder's permit and provision of low-cost desexing of animals.
"A breeder's permit system forces people to make a choice, either pay a fairly large registration or desex their animals," Ms Holmes said.
"We also need to make available low-cost desexing for targeted areas and people on low income to be able to desex in conjunction with the breeder's permit.
"Otherwise we will have animals being dumped in pounds, rescue centres or the bush or even worse. Many will be 'got rid of'."
Clarence Valley Council environment, planning and community director, Des Schroder, said council rangers were to have one of their scheduled meetings yesterday afternoon and the issue would be discussed there.
A new FIV vaccine (Fel-O-Vax FIV) is 80-85% effective in preventing FIV infection. It is administered as an initial series of three doses, two to four weeks apart. It is given to kittens at eight weeks of age or older. Cats more than six months of age should be tested to ensure they are free of the AIDS virus before being vaccinated and ideally they should be permanently identified with a microchip. An annual booster is needed to ensure continued protection.