Examining risks to cats from shelter stress, low adoption rates


National Report - In the world of sheltering, dogs are definitely faring better than cats.

National Report — In the world of sheltering, dogs are definitely faring better than cats.

That's according to Michael Moyer, VMD, a clinician, shelter executive, practice owner, president of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and now instructor in the field of shelter medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who recently lectured on the topic of cat stress in shelters during a Penn Science Cafe series.

He has been monitoring, mainly through observations, how shelter conditions may be making cats sick from stress.

The euthanasia rate for cats in some shelters exceeds 80 percent, according to Moyer. Shelters are a "remarkably dangerous place" for cats compared to almost any other conceivable alternative.

According to 2009 data from the Humane Society of the United States, the number of cats and dogs entering shelters each year is between 6 million to 8 million, while the estimated number of cats and dogs euthanized by shelters each year is closer to 3 million to 4 million. In Philadelphia, according to Moyer, more than 7,000 cats are euthanized in the city's shelters annually.

Even though euthanasia is carried out often in shelters each day, he says it's not because shelter staff are necessarily pro-euthanasia. "I have to be clear—the motive of the shelter employees, volunteers, executives and board members may be of the highest, best kind, but many shelters are, through their nature, going to be hostile to the health and welfare of the cats they admit."

Often, euthanasia can be an issue of not enough shelter space, especially during peak season for cat reproduction. Although the euthanasia rate dropped marginally for cats in recent years, Moyer says shelter resources are usually overwhelmed during "kitten season," which can extend from March to August, leading to a tripling of cat intakes around this time.

The best approach to reducing euthanasia numbers may be obvious—decrease the number of cats brought to shelters. But this solution is not the easiest, according to Moyer. "The strongest correlation with live exit (the most desirable outcome in sheltering) is decreasing intake, so areas with lower cat intakes have more resources per cat to space/neuter/care/foster. Places with the highest intakes have fewer resources per cat, and predictably poorer outcomes (though it isn't a simple money problem, it involves space, time and staffing resources)," he explains.

High-stress environment

When cats do wind up in shelters, it's not the same experience compared to dogs. In fact, dogs experience new stimuli each day in the form of new cages or runs, new volunteers, new scenery, new smells, etc. This kind of change can stress out cats, according to Moyer, who formerly ran a Chester County (Pa.) shelter.

"From the way their cages are cleaned, the way they're transported, handled and housed, they have very different needs from dogs (even small dogs)," he says. These needs are common among all cat types. "Change for cats means stress, and stress means relapse of latent viruses, sharing of those viruses, and a huge number of sick, snotty cats who were cute (though probably frightened and shy) on arrival, and are now in need of supportive care for weeks in order to convalesce."

Veterinarians can help, Moyer says, by creating a structure to lessen stress on cats.

Other suggestions include:

  • Improve housing, providing space of at least 9 to 11 square feet with a litter-box compartment and possible lounging area if possible.

  • Sheltering must become more aggressive in marketing cats, positioning and placing cats in more retail-appropriate locations.

  • Increase cat adoption outreach by promoting cats to local communities and removing barriers to adoption.

"Cost is a reality, but increasing adoptions is the way out in terms of more adoption revenue, more positive outcomes (which makes you more attractive to donors), fewer sunk resources in negative outcomes (euthanasia, died in shelter, sick in shelter)," Moyer says.

While Moyer applauds improved adoption rates for dogs, there is much improvement needed for the relinquished cat population.

"Many communities actually have a relative shortage of puppies in shelters and can transport them in from other regions to supply demand. There are still significant challenges, but the per capita euthanasia rate (number of dogs euthanized per 1,000 citizens) has dropped in many communities," he says.

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