How Your Typical Municipal Shelter Could Get To A 90% Save Rate In One Easy Step

OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit. But now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to talk about one easy step that would sharply improve save rates for typical shelters, and would free up lots of time and money that could be used to go the rest of the way to the 90% threshold and beyond. What is that one easy step? Stop bringing cats into the shelter unless (1) the shelter has room for them and can adopt them out, or (2) they are sick or injured.

This sounds like a radical idea to some, but in fact the idea has been embraced by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the ASPCA, and Maddie’s Fund, among others. See this draft whitepaper, and this blog by Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of HSUS. The reasoning behind their recommendation is very simple — many “stray” cats have homes, but for various reasons their owners don’t think to look for them at a shelter until it’s too late and the cat has been adopted to a new home or, in many cases, killed. If cats are just left alone, they are much more likely to find their way home.

Some people object to the idea of managing cat intake because they think that stray cats will overrun cities and towns unless they are rounded up by the local “shelter” and killed. Pacelle interviewed Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Jennifer Scarlett for his blog post, and Dr. Hurley explained that: “shelters have only been impacting a tiny fraction of the total population through euthanasia, not nearly enough to reduce the overall population size, not enough to protect public health, wildlife, reduce the cat population or serve any of the other goals we might have hoped to realize through this practice.” This article by Dr. Scarlett goes into more detail about cat populations, and shows that shelter impoundment and killing of cats barely makes a dent in cat populations. Since impoundment and killing of cats has negligible success at reducing cat populations, it is an exercise in futility to keep impounding them. Maddie’s Fund has created webcasts to show shelters how to implement modern techniques for managing cat intakes. Maddie’s Fund also has this FAQ to address concerns about the new protocols.

Some might wonder how diverting cat intake would save money if the shelter has to implement an alternative program to manage intake. The answer is to recruit volunteers for things like pet retention counseling and trap-neuter-return (TNR). People love to volunteer for things that actually help animals instead of killing them. But even if a shelter for some reason could not set up a good volunteer program, that shelter can certainly manage its intake with less time and expense than it takes to impound cats, house them for the stray-hold period, and kill them.

Let’s look at a couple of typical examples of how diverting cats from the shelter would affect the save rate. Let’s assume that 10% of a shelter’s current cat intake is sick or injured cats, and thus 90% of cat intake could be diverted. Let’s also assume that 5% of the sick or injured cats had to be euthanized and 5% recovered and were live releases. The Burlington County Animal Shelter in New Jersey is like many shelters in that it is doing pretty well already with dogs but is still killing lots of cats. The shelter took in over 5000 cats and dogs in 2012, and had an overall save rate of about 60%. The shelter’s save rate for dogs was around 90%, but the save rate for cats was less than 50%. If the shelter had diverted 90% of the cats and euthanized half of the remainder, the overall save rate would have shot up to about 85%. The time and money saved from sharply reducing intake could then be used to improve outcomes for the dogs and remaining cats, and the shelter could quickly reach 90% or more.

As another example, let’s look at the city shelter in Tallahassee, Florida, which is a typical, high-kill shelter for both dogs and cats. The shelter has been running at about a 50% kill rate for years and has not improved in spite of repeated “plans” put forward by shelter management. In fact, the Tallahassee shelter is so bad that the ASPCA recently kicked the shelter out of its “partnership” program. Even a failing shelter like Tallahassee could substantially improve if it followed the recommendations of Maddie’s Fund and HSUS. Florida shelters are required by law to post their statistics, and here are the statistics for Tallahassee for 2012. The live release rate was reported as 53% for 2012. If the shelter had cut its cat intake by 90% and euthanized half of the remaining cats for illness or injury, the live release rate would have increased to 65%. Then the shelter could have used the time and money it saved to improve its disgraceful save rate for dogs and for the remaining cats.

With major players like HSUS, Maddie’s Fund, and the ASPCA signing on to the idea that healthy cats should be diverted from the shelter, we could be approaching a tipping point on shelter policies toward cats. The thing I especially like about these new recommendations is that they could sharply raise performance even for dismal, hapless municipal shelters like the one in Tallahassee. But it won’t be easy to get shelters to buy in and change their ways, and the worst shelters will probably be the slowest to adapt, as they are in most things. As Dr. Scarlett said in her interview with Pacelle: “Making the shift to control shelter populations at the front door may be a huge cultural change for some communities. Leaders who decide this is the best solution for their community have to be ready to invest a lot of work and communication to get their staff’s buy-in, respond to the public’s concern, and be willing to work with local wildlife advocates. The good news is that results will be worth it.”

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