The Million Cat Challenge

The Million Cat Challenge was launched on December 10, 2014. Remember that date, because this is going to be big. As Peter Wolf said in his blog about it, the launch “felt like something historic – as if we’ve entered into a new era of animal sheltering where cats are concerned.” I could not agree more. If the Million Cat Challenge initiatives are fully implemented, they will stop shelter killing of healthy and treatable cats. And the initiatives are not difficult, nor do they require any special talents on the part of shelter leadership.

Three reasons why the Million Cat Challenge will be so important: the ideas behind it are great, the people behind it are wonderful advocates, and just about every important organizational player in animal sheltering in the United States today has signed on to it.

The organizations that are supporting the Million Cat Challenge include Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends, HSUS, ASPCA, Alley Cat Allies, PetSmart Charities, NACA, NFHS, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, and the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. Having the agreement of all of these organizations is crucial, because it will give local shelters with conservative directors the confidence that they need to adopt the new ideas. The designers of the Challenge want every municipal shelter in the country to sign on. The support of almost all of the important national organizations should help make that possible.

And confidence will be necessary, because the ideas proposed by the Challenge are revolutionary. The Five Key Initiatives add up to nothing less than a complete overhaul of how cat sheltering is done in the United States. Two of the initiatives, alternatives to intake and removing barriers to adoption, are elaborations on ideas that are already fairly standard in No Kill programs. Another initiative, managed admission, has been around for a few years with great results, but is still somewhat controversial. The other two components of the Five Key Initiatives are completely new – using return-to-field for healthy community cats, and insuring that cat impoundment and length of stay are balanced with shelter capacity.

Surprisingly, even though these programs are unconventional, shelters are jumping aboard the bandwagon in big numbers. Almost every shelter I research these days that is making any effort at all to increase live releases for cats is using at least one of the 5 key initiatives. And that includes shelters that no one would think of as cutting edge. It’s almost as though everyone has just been waiting for permission to change the way they handle cats.

In addition to offering support from virtually everyone who is anyone in sheltering at the national level, the Challenge makes it as easy and inviting as possible for shelters to participate. Shelters can choose to adopt one of the initiatives or all of them. The Challenge asks each shelter to provide only 3 numbers each year, from 2014 through 2018, as well as the same 3 numbers for the baseline year of 2012. The three numbers are cat intake, cat euthanasia, and cat live releases for each year. Shelters report only once per year, with their estimate for the upcoming year and their actual data for the previous year. What could be easier?

Although the goal of the Challenge is to save 1 million cats over the 5-year period, the potential is even greater. No one knows exactly how many cats are being killed by shelters every year currently, but estimates are around 2 million per year. If every shelter adopted all five of the initiatives, that number could fall to well under 500,000, since only unhealthy and untreatable cats would be euthanized. Thus, the upside potential of the Challenge is that it could save over 1.5 million cats every year.

Any shelter can participate, even if it is very small or is already No Kill. Existing organizations that support local shelters, such as TNR groups, can get their numbers counted by encouraging their shelters to sign on to the Challenge.

The proposals in the Challenge ask shelters to recognize something that is intuitively obvious but has never been fully acknowledged by animal shelters in the United States – cats are different from dogs. Animal shelters originally started as dog pounds, and the methods for impounding and releasing cats were simply borrowed from what had always been done for dogs. The average return-to-owner rate for cats is about 2%, and even the best shelters generally do not even hit double digits. For decades people have simply shaken their heads over the pitiful return-to-owner rates for cats, while shelters continued to kill them. One of the saddest parts of my job in researching shelters is to see those tiny numbers for return-to-owner for cats, even in shelters that are trying hard and are very successful at return-to-owner for dogs. The shelter-capacity and return-to-field initiatives that are part of the Challenge will ensure that far more of those cats find their way back home.

The Challenge is the joint project of two well-known shelter medicine specialists and their organizations – Dr. Kate Hurley of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and Dr. Julie Levy of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida. For some background on how Dr. Hurley arrived at her ideas about how shelters should handle cats, this article from a 2013 issue of Animal Sheltering magazine is a good read. My favorite quote from the article – we can just stop euthanizing healthy cats.” And then Dr. Hurley explains in detail why this is not a crazy idea.

The Challenge website has a lot of information on how to get started. In addition, Maddie’s Fund is presenting a 90-minute free webcast and Q&A on the Challenge on January 15, 2015. Dr. Levy has emphasized that resources are being made available to allow participants to network with and support each other, and that the Challenge is designed as a collaborative effort.

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