The number of community cats in the U.S. may approach that of pet cats (89 million), and with only an estimated 2% of community cats sterilized compared to over 80% of pet cats (Chu 2007, Wallace 2006, Levy 2004), the impact of this population on shelters likely far exceeds the impact of lost or unwanted pet cats.
Community Cat Management Is a Controversial Issue
Given the major role played by community cats, some of the assumptions on which traditional sheltering programs are based—for example, that stray cats are lost pets with an owner looking for them, or that unowned cats cannot remain at large without creating a substantial hazard to themselves or others—apply relatively well to dogs but perhaps less so to cats.
Management of community cats has emerged as one of the most controversial issues in animal control and welfare. Historically, community cats have been largely ignored by both governmental and humane agencies. Often, specific cats that have been declared a nuisance may be removed, but few agencies have comprehensive programs designed to decrease the number of cats in their communities.
Should Different Standards Exist for Different Cats?
What constitutes an acceptable quality of life for the domestic cat and whether different standards should exist for cats in homes, in shelters, or in community cat colonies is a topic of much debate among animal welfare professionals and veterinarians. Minimum standards of care for animal shelters have only recently been developed, whereas standards for pet cats tend to focus primarily on the provision of food and shelter.
Standards for free-living community cats are nonexistent. Some agencies believe that a free-roaming lifestyle is too fraught with risk and discomfort to be acceptable. Others believe that the lives of community cats should be judged no differently than those of other species existing in a “wild” state.
Should Healthy Animals be Euthanized?
Currently, many animal shelters are struggling with rising cat intake rates and low live-release rates compared to dogs. One contributing factor to these trends is impoundment of unsocialized feral cats. Once feral cats are admitted to the shelter, options for live outcomes are limited, particularly if a community-based program for feral cat management does not exist.
Historically, large numbers of healthy animals, including community cats, have been destroyed by animal protection agencies for population control as well as to prevent the possibility of potential suffering at some time in the future. As public awareness of this practice has grown, more people question whether euthanasia of healthy animals is compatible with the values of a humane society.