Paradigm shift in cat management in the Shelter and for the community (Proceedings)


For decades, animal shelters have formed the centerpiece of our societys response to unwanted, lost, abandoned and feral cats.

For decades, animal shelters have formed the centerpiece of our society's response to unwanted, lost, abandoned and feral cats. This system has never been without flaws – ever since the first shelters were formed, the influx of cats has greatly exceeded the capacity of shelters to provide homes, with the result that millions of cats are euthanized annually. Troublingly, although substantial progress has been made in reducing canine euthanasia, the picture for cats is more discouraging. In some communities, feline intake and euthanasia has actually increased in recent years even as canine euthanasia declines. These trends combine with emerging data to suggest that fundamental differences between the species and their role in our society may lead traditional sheltering programs to be less successful when applied to cats than to dogs. In light of this, we need to critically evaluate whether these programs continue to represent the best response to stray and unwanted cats in all cases.

One major difference between cats and dogs in shelters is the role of un-owned cats. Free roaming canine populations are a rarity in most parts of the United States, but many communities harbor a substantial population of free-roaming, un-owned cats. These cats may be anywhere on the spectrum from feral to friendly, and for the purposes of this discussion will be termed “community cats” regardless of socialization status. The number of community cats may approach that of pet cats in the United States (between 82-88 million in 2007)(Levy, Gale et al. 2003; Chu, Anderson et al. 2009) . Only an estimated 2% of community cats are sterilized compared to over 80% of pet cats (Levy and Crawford 2004; Wallace and Levy 2006), thus the impact of this population on shelters likely far exceeds the impact of lost or unwanted pet cats. Given the major role played by community cats, some of the assumptions on which sheltering programs are based apply relatively well to dogs but perhaps less so to cats. On a more positive note, evidence is building that alternative approaches, which would not work well for dogs, may offer creative, humane alternatives for cats that would otherwise be euthanized.

Role of feline sheltering programs

Shelters commonly have several potential goals when admitting community cats, including:

  • Respond to and resolve nuisance situations caused by cats

  • Euthanize cats that are suffering or dangerous (and eliminate the euthanasia of all but these cats)

  • Reunite lost cats with their owners

  • Find new homes for healthy, friendly cats

  • Mitigate feline overpopulation and reduce associated risks for cats, people, and wildlife

Most sheltering programs in the U.S. are “untargeted”, in that cats are admitted based on citizen requests or actions (e.g. trapping and bringing a cat to a shelter) rather than a strategic analysis of the number, type, source or timing of cat intake to best achieve the above goals. This results in a program that is often quite successful in resolving citizen complaints or concerns but may be less successful in the goals of reuniting/rehoming cats, reducing euthanasia or mitigating the overall issues associated with free roaming cats in communities. Identifying both the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional sheltering approach in each area provides a foundation for evaluating alternative solutions.

Reuniting lost cats with owners

Nationally, only ~ 2% of cats in shelters are returned to their owners annually. In part, these stubbornly low reclaim rate for cats may reflect the fact that many cats entering shelters are community cats as described above and simply don't have an owner to come looking for them. Owner search strategies and cat behavior may also lead to relatively low reclaim rates for cats compared to dogs. Cat owners are far less likely than dog owners to find a cat via a visit or call to a shelter.(Lord, Wittum et al. 2007; Lord, Wittum et al. 2007) These data combine to suggest that admission and sheltering of un-identified cats may not be the most successful or cost effective strategy to reunite lost cats with their owners.

Re-homing cats

Certainly, a major goal of many shelters is to find new homes for cats. Most shelters enjoy greater success in this effort than in reuniting cats with former owners. Reported cat adoption rates commonly range between 20-30% and are sometimes much higher. However, in many communities adoption rates have remained relatively flat or even decreased over time. Coupled with low reclaim rates and increasing intake in many communities, relatively low adoption rates for cats translate directly into increasing euthanasia numbers. Multiple studies have documented this troubling trend. (Lord, Wittum et al. 2006; Morris, Wolf et al. 2011)

Just as cats may be reunited with their owners by non-shelter means, so might cats be rehomed without the intervention of a sheltering organization. A 2003 survey by the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association indicated that about 16% of pet cats were obtained from shelters, while 30% were obtained as strays. In some cases the odds of being rehomed as a stray may exceed the odds of a being rehomed via a shelter, especially in shelters with low adoption rates or for cats unlikely to adapt to a shelter setting.


Controlling feline “overpopulation”

A major goal for both shelters and society is to eliminate pet “overpopulation”. The most common definition for this is the number of pets in excess of the number for which permanent homes can be found. In the United States, this seems like a reasonable definition for canine overpopulation. Fortunately, interventions such as those described above, as well as long term promotion of surgical sterilization and responsible dog ownership have succeeded in substantially reducing canine overpopulation by this definition.

However, for cats the meaning of overpopulation and carrying capacity is less clear. “Home” for a cat may not be a traditionally defined pet home, yet the cat may be in good body condition with access to food and shelter. Although for many cats it would be preferable to re-home them into a more traditional domestic setting with an owner to meet their physical, medical and behavioral needs, in most communities this option is simply not available for all cats. IF the alternative is euthanasia at a shelter (or dire conditions at an overcrowded “sanctuary”), before admitting a cat the case needs to be made that remaining in place would be even more detrimental to its welfare. There is growing evidence that this is not always the case. Many un-owned cats are not entirely without a caretaker - feeding these cats is a common activity, and cats presented to spay/neuter clinics are rarely emaciated or suffering serious injury or illness.(Scott, Levy et al. 2002; Wallace and Levy 2006) The general good health of community cats is reflected in the health status of cats entering shelters –many shelters report 10% or less of cats entering the shelter injured or ill.(Wenstrup and Dowidchuk 1999)

Environmental and public health impact

Even where cats are doing well in communities, it may be still be argued that as a non-native species, they pose a risk to wildlife and as such should be eliminated. Studies have come to varying and sometimes contradictory conclusions regarding the impact of un-owned feline populations on native species. The advisability of removing/killing cats and/or limiting their population through TNR is likewise debated. However, there can be little doubt that free roaming cats, owned or not, do have a negative impact on native species in some cases. Likewise, cats, like any free roaming animal, can carry diseases that are harmful to people or pose a risk to pets, although again the magnitude of this threat has been questioned.

There is a tendency to conflate the negative impact of free roaming cats with advocacy for “traditional sheltering approaches” as an activity that will mitigate or eliminate these issues. However, those on both sides of the debate readily acknowledge that existing feral cat Trap/Neuter/Release (TNR) programs, unless targeted to geographically isolated locations or coupled with ongoing intensive management, are often of insufficient scope to result in long term population control. Likewise, available models and evidence suggest that current sheltering practices are often not of sufficient scale to effectively impact overall feline populations, nor sufficiently targeted to mitigate cats' impact in particularly sensitive environments. If this is the case, the desirability of eliminating free roaming cats becomes a moot point in the current debate.

The most obvious evidence for the limited effectiveness of the current system can be found in the ever-increasing feline intake and euthanasia in many communities. Estimating the size of community cat populations allow us to determine with more precision whether a given sheltering program is likely to have an impact on the local population. Mathematical models indicate that at least 50% of a feline population would need to be permanently removed (euthanized or adopted into an indoor home) and an even higher percentage spay/neutered and released (either through TNR or adoption into a home that allows outdoor access) in order to reduce the population size over time.(Andersen, Martin et al. 2004; Foley, Foley et al. 2005) Based on multiple studies of community cat feeding, it's estimated that there is ~ 1 un-owned cat for every 6 people in a community(Levy and Crawford 2004). Obtaining the population of a shelter's service area and dividing it by 6 thus gives a rough estimate of the number of community cats. This can be compared to the number of stray cats taken up annually to estimate the percentage of community cats affected by the program. If this amounts to substantially less than 50-75%, the effect of the shelter program on the overall environmental impact of cats is likely minimal.

Alternative approaches

While it may be discouraging to ponder the apparent limitations of ‘traditional' feline sheltering, the good news is it opens the door to consideration of dramatically different possibilities. There is less risk in straying from an imperfect system than in abandoning one which is functioning exactly as intended. With this in mind, there are two basic options to explore: providing alternative outcomes for cats admitted to the shelter (generally in the form of neuter and release programs), or deferring or limiting intake in the first place. For all these possibilities, we must bear in mind what real alternative options exist. Even if there are concerns or problems associated with new approaches, the bar to measure them by is whether the outcome is preferable to the current situation, not whether they represent flawless solutions to all the many issues associated with free roaming or abandoned cats in our communities.


Shelter based neuter and return programs

Community based Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs have become increasingly common and widely accepted over the last decade.  In these programs, community cats are trapped, usually by volunteers, and transported directly to a clinic for surgery. Following surgery, cats are generally returned to the location at which they were trapped. The touted benefits of these programs include the direct reduction of nuisance behaviors associated with intact cats; the improvement of welfare for the cats; and the gradual reduction of populations in some situations. Traditional TNR programs bypass the shelter entirely, removing and returning free roaming cats directly into the community.

While acceptance has grown for community based TNR programs, it has only been in recent years that TNR has been considered for shelter cats . However, from a feline welfare and environmental impact perspective, it's logical that if this approach is acceptable for community cats that happen to be trapped by volunteers and brought to a clinic, it can apply equally well to cats that happen to be captured by citizens and brought to a shelter. One notable difference is that citizens bringing cats to shelters may have different motivations than community cat trappers, and thus prefer a different outcome (such as permanent removal to eliminate nuisance behaviors, versus release back into their neighborhood following alteration). However, a great majority of people when given only two choices, between leaving a feral cat in place versus having it killed, would choose to leave it in place.(Chu and Anderseon 2007) In the first year of the shelter based TNR “Feral Freedom” program in Jacksonville, Florida, fewer than two dozen serious complaints about the program were reportedly received.

Shelter based TNR programs have the benefit of directly targeting cats that are otherwise certain candidates for euthanasia, either because they are “feral” and thus unadoptable, or simply because the shelter is unable to find homes even for all friendly cats admitted. This confers an advantage over traditional community based TNR programs, in which it is hoped that shelter intake and euthanasia will decrease as an indirect benefit but there is no guaranteed link. A combination of both programs is ideal: community based programs bypass the shelter entirely, reducing the cost and complexity of the process, while shelter based programs provide an immediate alternative to euthanasia.

Limiting intake

Many shelters pride themselves in being immediately responsive to any community member's desire to turn in their own or a found animal. Historically this has been viewed as not only excellent customer and community service, but preferable to more dire possibilities should the animal remain at large. A major impetus behind early shelters' taking up of strays was to protect them from inhumane treatment at the hands of government programs that otherwise performed animal control. (Zawistowski, Morris et al. 1998)   In this context, even certain euthanasia in an animal shelter was preferable to capture and inhumane death at a public “pound”. Because of the greater potential threat posed by dogs; the absence of stable populations of “community dogs”; and the relatively high likelihood that a stray dog will be reunited with its owner or rehomed via a stay in the shelter,  the approach of immediately admitting all stray dogs to shelters continues to make sense in many communities. However, the rationale for this approach is worth reevaluating for cats.

As described in the foregoing discussion, admitting cats to shelters does not necessarily increase their chances of being reunited with their owners or even in some cases of being rehomed. On the other hand, admitting cats beyond the shelter's capacity (for care and/or live release) will markedly increase their risk of imminent death, even if by a humane means. It is easy to gauge the number of cats that can be admitted over a given time period without leading to euthanasia or death for some – it is equal to the shelter's capacity for cat housing at the start of the time period (the number of empty cages, condos, spots in a group room, etc.) plus the number released alive in the same time period. The rationale for admitting cats in excess of this number is presumably that euthanasia would be preferable to the alternative of remaining where they are. The acceptance of community and shelter TNR programs suggests an increasingly common belief that spayed/neutered cats are not better off dead than living in communities. The question remains whether intact cats are better off so. Certainly, there are more welfare and nuisance concerns for intact cats, but these are not dis-similar to those experienced or caused by most wild animals. For that matter, any living being, humans included, is likely to both experience suffering and create nuisances at many points throughout their lives. We take it as a given that capture, transport to a shelter, and housing in confinement followed by humane euthanasia would be neither desirable from a welfare perspective nor practical for nuisance or population control of these other species. Following this reasoning, some shelters have simply discontinued the intake of feral cats for whom rehoming is not a possibility.(Carr 2012) This can be logically extended even to healthy social strays cats if the alternative is euthanasia – socialization status does not in itself reduce a cat's chances to survive and thrive in the community.


Scheduling intake

The decision to admit or not admit cats need not be an all or nothing response. When determining the options for community cats, it's important to realistically evaluate not only the options available, but how many cats can be provided that option in a given time period. Clearly, adoption into a responsible, permanent home is the preferred choice for most cats. Trap/neuter/vaccination and release is increasingly available as another viable and humane option, and is an optimal choice for healthy cats in excess of the number that can be rehomed. However, the availability of both these outcomes may be limited by either finances or program capacity in any given time frame. Deferring intake of cats until such time as a positive outcome is available allows the maximum number of cats to pass through a program to live release, while eliminating euthanasia except where necessary for suffering or dangerous cats.

An increasing number of shelters are following this line of reasoning and scheduling intake of healthy cats only as space allows. As soon as one cat is adopted, released, or euthanized, another cat can be admitted. These programs may target either healthy stray or owner surrendered cats. Additionally, provisions should be made for any cat failing or unable to adapt to the outdoor environment, such as injured cats and underage kittens.

Of course, in many communities the reality is that there will simply not be enough “open appointments” to admit all cats for whom shelter is sought. When intake is unlimited there are far more cats entering most shelters than are released alive – the dilemma with which shelters have been struggling for over a century. Without euthanasia to make room for newly incoming cats, eventually waiting lists could stretch out months or years into the future. Whatever choices are made to manage this situation in the long term, scheduling intake based on capacity creates clarity regarding the consequence of admitting even one cat in excess of the number released alive over time: it will mean euthanasia for one cat, whether for the one newly admitted or for one already in the facility. This sobering reality leads us back to the question with which these notes began: on a case by case basis, is it better for a cat to be admitted to a shelter, than to be altered and returned to its habitat or simply to remain where it is? We owe it to ourselves and the cats whom we labor to protect, to ask this question without prejudice or pre-conceived notions, for each and every cat that comes to our doors.

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