For the past 140 years, community cats have been brought to animal shelters in the hope of improving their welfare (Zawistowski 1998). For decades, animal shelters have formed the centerpiece of our society’s response to unwanted, lost, abandoned and feral cats.
A Troubling Picture for 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 destroyed annually.
Although substantial progress has been made in reducing canine euthanasia, the troubling picture for cats is more discouraging. In some communities, feline intake and euthanasia have actually increased in recent years even as canine euthanasia declines.
These trends 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 impoundment represents the best response to un-owned or unwanted cats in all cases.
The Likelihood of Being Reunited with Owners
Ironically, the likelihood of being reunited with their owners is greater for lost cats if they remain where they are rather than being admitted to an animal shelter. In one study, cats were 13 times more likely to be returned home by non-shelter means (such as returning home on their own) than by a call or visit to a shelter. This is in contrast to dogs, who were over 4 times more likely to be returned to their owner by a call or visit to a shelter than by returning home on their own.
Owners tend to delay searching for lost cats longer than lost dogs (median time to finding cats versus dogs was 5 days versus 2 days, respectively). In addition, too few lost cats have ID tags or microchips, so less than 2% of stray cats in shelters are reunited with their owners (Lord 2009).
Regulate Intake to Match Shelter Capacity for Life-Saving
Admitting cats in excess of the shelter’s capacity will markedly increase their risk of imminent death, even if by a humane means. An alternative is to regulate shelter intake so that it matches the shelter’s capacity for life-saving. Most jurisdictions are not legally required to provide unlimited and immediate shelter impoundment for cats. Instead, shelters can focus on public safety and humane care by taking in dangerous, sick, or injured cats, and focus on lifesaving by taking in only those that are likely to be adopted.
Kittens should certainly be prioritized for rehoming efforts, but if euthanasia or disease rates in the shelter jeopardize their survival it may still be preferable to leave them in the community when better odds are not available through another avenue.
An Ineffective and Costly Strategy
Unsocialized feral cats have been living outdoors for thousands of years, but bringing them to shelters is often a deadly choice. Since they are not suitable candidates for adoption, cats that may have thrived for years in the community are often destroyed within hours or days of arriving in shelters. The continuous untargeted removal of a small proportion of the community cat population is neither an effective strategy for managing the population at large nor the best use of limited animal shelter budgets.
Trap-Neuter-Return—An Alternative to Impoundment
In recognition that the outcome for feral cats in shelters is often death, more shelters are turning to Trap-Neuter-Return as an alternative to impoundment. The Feral Freedom program in Jacksonville, Florida increased the municipal shelter’s live release rate for cats from less than 10% to more than 50% virtually overnight when it established a city-wide policy that all feral cats would be diverted to a Trap-Neuter-Return program instead of entering the shelter.