Happy Cats

Today, as the end of 2015 approaches, we can say with confidence that no healthy cat should be dying in a shelter. That includes feral cats, bad-tempered cats, and older cats. If a shelter is killing healthy cats today – any healthy cats at all – they are doing it wrong. I say this not as an ethical observation, but as a purely practical statement of fact.

The new ideas that are saving cats are simple but revolutionary. They stemmed from people within the shelter establishment coming to the realization that because cats are so different from dogs, the procedures for sheltering them should be different too. Over just the last 5-7 years, new ways of sheltering cats have been developed that entirely threw out the old methods.

The old methods of sheltering cats involved treating them like dogs. They were impounded, put in cages, warehoused during the holding period, and then killed if they were not adoptable. And because there were so many of them they were very often killed even if they were adoptable. The only thing that kept the situation from being yet more dire was that in many places cats were considered to be free-roaming and were not picked up by animal control. Shelters still took in cats that people had trapped, though, and they took in owner surrenders. Many places had people doing TNR, but TNR caregivers usually tried to steer clear of the shelter because a feral cat in a shelter was probably a dead cat.

The old method of sheltering cats did not work at all. Take hold periods, for example. Hold periods work pretty well for dogs because dogs generally don’t hide and are impounded by animal control fairly quickly. An owner with a missing dog has a good chance of finding it at the shelter. Cats, by contrast, often disappear for days at a time, and an owner may not even become concerned until after the hold period has expired. And since cats hide, a lost cat may not be picked up by animal control for weeks or months. Even a diligent owner will have stopped visiting the shelter by that time. Cats tend to look alike except for coat color, so photographs and descriptions of lost cats are not of much help in lost and found. In traditional shelters that impounded cats, the reclaim rates tended to be around 1-2%. Even a No Kill shelter that worked very hard at return-to-owner was unlikely to have a double-digit cat reclaim rate.

Traditional shelters are horrible places for cats. A traditional shelter building is hard on a dog, but it is hell for cats. Even a well-designed modern shelter is not the ideal place for a cat. Cats are very attached to their territories, which is why most people quickly learn to hire an in-home pet sitter for their cat when they go on vacation rather than taking it to a boarding kennel. The sweetest, most sociable cat may turn into a hissing basket case in a shelter and act for all the world like it is feral. Terrified, frantic cats do not make good adoption candidates. The stress that cats feel in shelters sets them up for sickness too.

So a logical first step in saving cats was to try to cut down on the time they spent in shelters. One natural way to do this was to expand the concept of TNR. Many pet cats are like feral cats in that they are perfectly capable of living outdoors. Cats stay out of trouble by hiding from people, and they can forage in the trash and catch rodents. Many cats are only loosely attached to their homes, and look at their “homes” as merely one source of food and shelter among several that they have to choose from. Cat advocates realized that the same semi-wild instincts that made it so hard for a cat to be in a shelter could help that cat survive and thrive outside the shelter.

Over time and by trial and error, a new paradigm emerged. One principle of the new paradigm was to handle all healthy outdoor cats (“community cats”) using modified TNR techniques called Return to Field (RTF). A cat that was found outdoors in good condition could be presumed to be a cat that could take of itself, regardless of whether it was friendly or feral. It did not need rescue, it did not need rehoming. It just needed sterilization, a rabies vaccination, and to be returned to the outdoors as quickly as possible so that it did not have to be subjected to the terrible stress of the shelter. Another principle was that cats who are loosely homed are almost certain not to be reclaimed, and so returning those cats to the place where they were found gave them the best chance of maintaining their ties with that home. A third principle was that since the situation of healthy outdoor cats was not broke, we didn’t need to fix it. If the shelter was full and taking in more cats would mean killing some cats, then healthy outdoor cats were better off left where they were.

One of the offshoots of these principles has been that more and more shelters are advising people who find kittens to just leave them where they are unless they are obviously deserted and in distress. The mother of such kittens is usually lurking nearby, but won’t show herself out of fear. Scooping the kittens up and taking them to the shelter may be a natural reaction to seeing them by themselves, but the fact is that they are much more likely to survive if they are left with mom. Even better is if the shelter can provide a hotline for people to report such kittens. Then the shelter or a referral organization can go out and assess the situation and make sure mom and kittens get sterilized. This approach, if it becomes widely accepted and understood by the public, could help keep shelter intake down during kitten season. Most people already know not to pick up a fledgling bird but instead to watch it or report it, so getting the same message out about kittens should be possible.

By not impounding healthy outdoor cats, the shelter will have more space and time to help the cats who really need it. The shelter can identify categories of cats who are not eligible for RTF, such as owner surrenders who are used to living indoors, declawed cats, young kittens, and cats who have health issues. With only this limited number of cats to care for, the shelter should have enough space for quiet rooms and colony housing to keep the cats as happy and healthy as possible. And with fewer cats to adopt out, hopefully their length of stay will be less.

Some people have objected to these new techniques. They may be concerned that even though the reclaim rate for cats is very low, people should nevertheless have an opportunity to find their lost family member. This is an appealing argument, but studies have shown that cats are many times more likely to get back home if they are left alone rather than impounded. In fact, impounding cats is what tears families apart, because it destroys the cat’s best chance of getting home. Another objection to the new sheltering principles for cats comes from people who think that leaving cats where they are will result in them suffering. Cats suffer when they are taken from their territories, though, so a quick sterilization and return to their territory causes healthy cats a lot less suffering than impoundment.

But what about the hold period? If local laws or ordinances require all impounded cats to be held for a certain number of days, those rules should be modified to allow for return of the cat as soon as possible following sterilization. There is no point in having a cat sit in a shelter for five days or seven days when it will be happier back in its territory as soon as it is safe to return it. Some people protest getting rid of the hold period for cats, thinking that shelters want to use that as an excuse to kill cats sooner. Instead of just abolishing the hold period, some jurisdictions have tried to ease those fears by providing that a cat cannot be killed by the shelter for a certain number of days (with an exception for cases of untreatable suffering), but can be returned to the field without a hold period.

Other obstacles to the new techniques come from the same sources that can make TNR difficult. If TNR has never been implemented in a community, there may be laws that prohibit TNR that would also prohibit RTF. And of course the bird people are always ready to squawk about anything that even suggests that any cat should ever be allowed outdoors. These are probably the most serious obstacles that stand in the way of the new paradigms, but fortunately this type of opposition is gradually losing its effectiveness.

The new paradigms are being rapidly accepted by both No Kill shelters and traditional shelters. Partly that is because almost all of the national animal welfare agencies that are involved with animal sheltering have signed on to them. Partly it is because the Million Cat Challenge and Maddie’s Fund have been promoting the new paradigms very effectively. Partly it is because the new approach has been proven to work in several places, most notably Jacksonville. And partly it’s because what’s not to like? The new approach is cheaper, since donations and volunteer labor can be used to do RTF. It’s more pleasant for shelter staff because they no longer have to kill healthy cats or deal with stressed-out cats who get sick all the time. No Kill advocates love it because, with shelters having more time and space for cats, they can treat the treatables and get them healthy and adopted out.

So as we approach the end of 2015, there is no longer any reason why a healthy cat should die in a shelter. The new paradigms seem simple and obvious when you think about them, but they are revolutionary. It used to be that for a cat, going to a shelter was like the entrance to Hades, with the sign overhead saying “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” That no longer has to be the case. Hopefully by the end of 2016 we will have at least the seeds of these new paradigms in place everywhere.

20 Comments

  1. Well, I say it’s absurd to assume that “A cat that was found outdoors in good condition could be presumed to be a cat that could take of itself, regardless of whether it was friendly or feral. It did not need rescue, it did not need rehoming. It just needed sterilization, a rabies vaccination, and to be returned to the outdoors as quickly as possible so that it did not have to be subjected to the terrible stress of the shelter.” A friendly pet cat who has just been dumped by people who should be incarcerated may appear to be in good condition, having just finished her last meal.

    “Another” ill-advised “principle was that cats who are loosely homed are almost certain not to be reclaimed, and so returning those cats to the place where they were found gave them the best chance of maintaining their ties with that home.” It is not at all unusual for a cat-hating person in a relationship with a person who loves his cat to kidnap the cat and drop the cat off somewhere far away so that the cat’s person cannot find the cat and assumes that the cat accidentally got out, wandered off, and became lost or was hurt. Local shelters will not have seen the cat, but can encourage the cat owner to look farther from home, which takes time.

    “A third” wide leap of faith “principle was that since the situation of healthy outdoor cats was not broke, we didn’t need to fix it. If the shelter was full and taking in more cats would mean killing some cats, then healthy outdoor cats were better off left where they were.” If it ain’t broke, then why are conservationists calling for a cull of two million alleged bird-hunting feral cats in Australia, which will surely create even more pressure for exterminating feral cats located anywhere near wildlife habitat in the US or elsewhere? Has the author of this article ever heard of the American Bird Conservancy?

    FINALLY, “One of the offshoots of these principles has been that more and more shelters are advising people who find kittens to just leave them where they are unless they are obviously deserted and in distress. The mother of such kittens is usually lurking nearby, but won’t show herself out of fear.” A feral cat mother will not leave unweaned cats in visible locations. If multiple unweaned kittens are found in open areas, you can be sure that the mother IS NOT “lurking nearby.” Either the feral cat mother is unable to return to her kittens, probably because she is dead or injured, and the hungry kittens wandered out of their nest, or some misguided person has taken a litter of kittens and dumped them somewhere they think kindly people will see them and take them – BECAUSE JUST LIKE THE SHELTER WHO RETURNS CATS WHERE THEY WERE FOUND, NO MATTER WHETHER THEY ARE TAME DUMPED PET CATS OR TRUE FERAL CATS, THAT PERSON WANTS TO “GIVE THEM A CHANCE,” THUS RE-SUPPLYING THE STREETS AND ALLEYWAYS WITH HOMELESS CATS AND PERPETUATING THE IDEA THAT CATS CAN DO JUST FINE ON THEIR OWN AND IF YOU MOVE AWAY, YOU CAN JUST LEAVE THEM BEHIND, AND IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM, DRIVE THEM SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY AND LEAVE THEM OFF. IN WHAT WAY IS THIS TEACHING RESPONSIBLE ANIMAL CARE AND AN END TO CAT HOMELESSNESS? THIS IS JUST SO SHELTERS CAN KEEP THEIR KILL RATE DOWN AND SHIRK RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE PREVENTION OF ANIMAL SUFFERING.

    • Kim, your complaints about the new cat policies all seem to be premised on the idea that there are bad people in the world who harm cats. In the first place, the number of people who actually do bad things to cats is very, very small. In the second place, risk is part of life. We take risks in our own lives, such as every time we drive a car. It’s crazy, in my opinion, to think that we need to put cats in shelters – where they will suffer and stand a substantial chance of getting sick or being killed – in order to “save” them from the extremely remote possibility that they might experience cruelty. As for ferals in Australia, I’m not sure what that has to do with community cats in the US. And yes, I have heard of the ABC. In fact, I’ve written several posts on the issue of cats and birds.

      • Please do not think that I am doubting your sincerity, but it is difficult for me to imagine what experience within or knowledge of the animal protection cause would lead you to believe that “the number of people who actually do bad things to cats is very, very small.”
        Very little of the cruelty to animals that occurs is reported to authorities. This is basically common knowledge, but is backed up by after-the-fact interviews of violent criminals, including serial killers, as well as reports by victims of child abuse and domestic violence. Of reported animal cruelty cases, only the more sensational ones are ever covered by media. Nevertheless, the HSUS website says that in 2007, 1,880 cruelty cases were reported in the U.S. media (based on numbers from pet-abuse.com). “64.5 percent (1,212) involved dogs (25 percent of these were identified as pit-bull-type breeds); 18 percent (337) involved cats; 25 percent (470) involved other animals.” It does not indicate how many animals altogether were involved in the total number of cases, but there were probably more than 337 cats reported victimized in the 337 media articles. Judge for yourself if you think this data suggests a “very, very small” world of animal cruelty.
        Texas veterinarian Kristen Lindsey would never have been caught for shooting a cat with a bow and arrow if she hadn’t posted a photo of herself with her dead cat trophy on her Facebook page. She claimed the cat was a feral, obviously thinking a cat’s feral status would be justification for killing him, but it turned out that the cat was Tiger, the pet cat of local resident Amy Hemsell.
        Kristen Lindsey was probably one of the many “hunter conservationists” who want free-roaming cats classified as “varmints” by state fish and game departments, so that they can be legally killed year-round with no restrictions or regulations. I mentioned the American Bird Conservancy in connection with Australia’s plan to kill two million feral cats, because ABC wants free-roaming cats removed, never to be returned. ABC is the most prominent and vocal of the foes of free-roaming cats, but virtually all conservation organizations favor policies that keep cats indoors.
        I do not on principle oppose TNR of feral cats, as long as they are being returned to relatively friendly habitat, where there is shelter and adequate food provided. I do oppose release of feral cats into hostile habitat, even if it is the territory from which they were captured. If people object to their presence, because, say, the property is sensitive wildlife habitat, then the cats will be at (for me) an intolerably high risk of abuse.
        As expressed in my earlier comment, I am totally opposed to returning tame cats to site, unless you can verify that the cats have homes or at least have quasi-homes. Verifying the with-home/without-home status of these cats would not be difficult. When the cat is picked up, the cat catcher can simply ask at the nearest dwelling if the cat belongs to someone. OR, after the cat is received at the sterilization facility, a photograph can be taken and someone can take the photograph back to the neighborhood to verify that the cat belongs there before the cat is released.
        It beggars belief that an animal welfare agency would advise a concerned person to leave a motherless litter of kittens where they were found. A mother cat will only bring them out of a hidden place once they are weaned. Are animal shelters really becoming that desperate to be unburdened by the presence of animals?
        You repeatedly state that animals suffer in animal shelters. In shelters, “they will suffer and stand a substantial chance of getting sick or being killed.” Only if it’s a bad shelter. I thought it was one of Maddie’s Fund’s priorities to encourage upgrades of shelters so that animals wouldn’t suffer or become stressed out, so that shelters would redesign as much as possible to be like the San Francisco SPCA. Animals will only suffer in shelters if they are miserable shelters. Even feral cats can be made reasonably comfortable in shelters, or homes, if they are given roomy areas with hiding places.
        But if there is absolutely nothing to be done with animals but turn them out all alone onto the streets or to euthanize them, then those who have taken jobs in animal welfare should take responsibility for the welfare of the animals and simply turn off the animals’ sweet lives with an overdose of the anesthetic you’d be using anyway to perform the sterilization. Up to the point at which the anesthetic drug is administered, the experience of the animal in being captured, transported, and handled is exactly the same whether the animal is going to be revived or euthanized. Unless the animal has the probability of a decent life, it is cruel and irresponsible to prolong it. When we accept custody of an animal, we are guardian. We are free to “take risks in our own lives,” but we are not necessarily free to take comparable risks on behalf of others in our care. You probably believe that the ultimate risk is death, but I am certain there are many fates worse than death by anesthesia.
        There was a wide chasm between the conventional animal sheltering community and the nascent no-kill sheltering movement of the mid-1990s. It seems the chasm has widened and deepened, to the point that the no-kill side seems to want out of sheltering.
        But to get out from under the burden of all those animals, it is willing to deconstruct humane education gains of at least two generations of Americans who had learned that cats could be just as loyal companion animals as dogs; cats should be considered part of the family; cats deserve and need human care, to live in a house and be fed and not just have to find shelter under the porch and pay their own way by catching mice.
        Instead you want to instill into people the idea that cats don’t need to be fed; they don’t need to live in houses; and if you move away, just do what people used to do and leave the cat behind, because cats do just fine without being cared for by people.

        • You quote HSUS for the number of 1,880 cruelty cases in the US in 2007. You do realize, don’t you, that 1,880 cruelty cases out of a population of about 200,000,000 owned pets and feral cats would mean that an individual animal in 2007 had less than a 1 in 100,000 chance of being a victim of cruelty? I just don’t understand the belief that some people have that we have to kill pets to save them from cruelty. Killing them IS cruelty.

    • I’m trying to get past the title of your post, “Happy Cats”. I don’t believe there is anything “happy” about a domesticated cat that was once in a home being fed daily, being thrown out on the street to fend and feed itself. I have difficulty with your statement, “A cat that was found outdoors in good condition could be presumed to be a cat that could take of itself, regardless of whether it was friendly or feral. It did not need rescue, it did not need rehoming. It just needed sterilization, a rabies vaccination, and to be returned to the outdoors as quickly as possible so that it did not have to be subjected to the terrible stress of the shelter”. Yes, a shelter is a very stressful environment for a cat but what you fail to address is that they are being fed, are getting medical treatment and have a much greater chance of being adopted into another home. The stress the cat faces in a shelter environment is temporary. By leaving a domesticated, social cat to fend for itself, exposed to diseases and starvation is cruel to say the least. Cats that are left to fend for themselves have a very shortened lifespan and most of the time die a horrible death due to untreated medical issues. Why not give them the chance of being adopted into another home?

      Jacksonville has come a long way in the last 5 to 10 years with their animal programs. Part of what makes Jacksonville successful are volunteers and fosters. Without these people giving of their time these programs would not be. I know this firsthand as I am an animal volunteer. I volunteer for the simple fact that I would like to see these cats be in a safe environment and have a second chance as opposed to RTF.

      • You are making a number of assumptions that are likely not true for a healthy outdoor cat. 1. That the majority of healthy cats who are encountered outdoors had homes and have lost those homes and are now out of their element. 2. That all cats that are free-roaming are in so much danger of disease or starvation that a stressful shelter is a better choice for them than leaving them where they are. 3. That a shelter offers cats a reasonable chance of finding a home. What studies of healthy outdoor cats have shown is that the ones who are in good body condition are likely to have homes (the attachment to the home may be loose but it is there) or territories. So what you are doing when you catch such a cat and take it to the shelter is that you are taking it from a stable environment where it was doing well (its home) to a dangerous, frightening, and uncomfortable environment (the shelter) where it may not have much chance of leaving alive. I just don’t get why people think the latter choice is better.

        • Let me clarify, I am not referring to TNR which is “trapping” a feral cat, sterilizing, vaccinating and returning the cat back to where he was trapped. Years ago, feral cats that were brought into the Jacksonville city shelter were euthanized. The TNR program changed that. These are cats are not social, most have been born outdoors and are managed and part of a feral colony. I am referring to social cats that have been dumped by their previous owners, left behind when the owners moved or have gotten lost. For a cat to be social it needs human contact. These cats did have homes before, otherwise they would be feral and they are out of their element. Free roaming cats are in danger. When they get sick they do not get medical attention. The social ones not in a colony roam the streets looking for food. When encountered, these cats may look healthy but it’s just a matter of time until they are not able to locate food or encounter disease. This in itself is stressful for a cat and this stress continues unlike cats that are in the shelter for a short period of time. Four of my cats were left behind when their owners moved and when I found them they were not healthy and able to fend for themselves.
          Are you aware of why our programs are so successful?

          Are you familiar with our adoption events such as the Mega adoption event held four times a year that empties out the shelters? The adoption events that the volunteers hold every first Saturday of the month at the city shelter or the adoption events where the three large agencies, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, The Jacksonville Humane Society and Animal Care & Protective Services collaborate. These adoption events get these cats and dogs out of the shelter and into homes. This is a large part of why we are so successful. So, yes, the shelter does offer a great chance of that animal finding a home.

          I am part of the Jacksonville community and am speaking from my personal experience in being part of the successful animal welfare programs in this city. I am one of many volunteers that spend my Saturdays at adoption events so that these cats do not spend much time in the shelter and find new homes. What I am referring to may not be the case in other high kill city shelters across the country. In that case I would tend to agree with your point of view. I am simply responding to your article as it referred to the successful Jacksonville animal welfare programs but you do not address the reasons why our programs work. I’m assuming that you are not part of the Jacksonville community or part of the animal welfare programs in the city. You therefore are speaking in broad terms and don’t have firsthand experience or inside knowledge of what happens in Jacksonville, Florida.

          • I’ve written about Jacksonville several times, quite recently, in fact, and I’m a huge fan of their program. The Jacksonville organizations, particularly First Coast No More Homeless Pets, were originators of the new cat paradigms, so it’s ironic that you’re talking about Jacksonville as an example of a city where the programs are not in practice.

            The problem with taking all free-roaming, friendly cats into the shelter is that a lot of those cats are not lost, they are just free-roaming, or they may have a somewhat loose or informal connection to their home. In my neighborhood there are several “outdoor” cats who have families who love and care for them. If an animal control officer picked them up and took them to the shelter, it’s highly unlikely that their families would think to look for them there – at least, they wouldn’t think of it during their hold time. With a nationwide reclaim rate for cats of well under 10%, those cats will almost certainly lose their homes, and their families will be left forever after wondering about what happened to them. By all means, if a cat is not doing well outdoors, impound it, fix it up, and adopt it out. But if it is doing well it probably has a stable situation and there’s an excellent chance that it has a home of sorts, or at least a caretaker.

            One thing I see a lot of is people criticizing the new cat paradigms without really understanding them. In your case, you like what Jacksonville is doing, and yet you are criticizing the very programs that allow Jacksonville to be so successful.

  2. I firmly believe in TNR for feral cats but friendly house cats that were dumped by their ignorant owners do not do well in the street. They don’t have the skills to survive long term outside and friendly cats are at great risk for people to harm them. We advise people to leave them in the street until a rescue group can save them since a NYC shelter is usually a death sentence. Of course it all depends the area in which the cat lives, some places are of course safer than others. Susan, unfortunately we live in a world where there are more cruel people than you seem to think there are. I live in the NYC area, and people bring an overwhelming amount of unwanted animals to Animal Care & Control. People poison or trap feral cats and take them there because they want them dead- they do not want cats on their precious property. They could care less if the cat is spayed/neutered and eartipped. If they don’t trap and take to ACC, they trap and dump them far from their home, which could be a death sentence. I had a PRIEST threaten to trap and dump a cat last week after the eartipped feral he trapped was returned to her colony. We also have people that kick cats, throw them from buildings, hang them from trees- returning cats to high crime areas is never a good idea. I much rather be killed with a needle than be tortured until I die. I care for several feral cat colonies and worry about their safety from humans since I provide food and shelters.

    • I wonder if there is a type of PTSD that affects some rescue people, leading to a disproportionate focus on the possibility of harm from humans. I talked to a woman once who got almost hysterical while telling me that there was so much cruelty in the world it was better for animals to be killed by injection. It’s very odd. Should we shoot all the gazelles because they might be killed by lions? Or wipe out all the fish because they might suffer from pollution? And by the way, do you report all those zillions of people who are harming cats? All 50 states now have felony animal cruelty laws.

      • Susan, can I assume that you are not a rescuer or a rescuer that does not see animal cruelty on a regular basis? Also have no idea where you live but I certainly would not want to be a stray cat in South Central. There is no disproportionate focus going on here since I get threats from people to harm animals at least once a week. My friends neighbor killed her entire colony and threats from neighbor’s is usually the highest complaint when doing TNR. If you do not live and breathe rescue and are in the streets daily caring for colonies, please do not speak of PTSD that effects rescuers. We have to attend community police meeting because the animal cruelty issues are high and the ASPCA handed over their humane law department to the NYPD that cannot handle it or care to since they have much bigger problems than a cat being thrown off a roof and then being stoned to death once it landed. The cat survived BTW but lost a hind leg and had a long recovery. He is just another reminder of what goes on in the streets when teenagers have nothing better to do. Other animals are not so lucky. It is extremely hard for police to prosecute animal cruelty but every incident is reported. It’s a joke of a law that tries to make us feel better but very few people get arrested so it is useless!! If we have cops, firefighters and priests trapping and dumping cats at other locations, what the hell do you think the criminals are doing to them???

        • I think animal cruelty is a very serious problem and I think we need more cruelty investigators (it’s expensive and time-consuming to bring such cases to a successful conviction). My comment about PTSD was not made lightly or dismissively. People like you who are in the trenches dealing with animals who need help are heroes, in my opinion. On the other hand, I cannot agree that since there is cruelty in the world, that is a reason to pre-emptively kill animals because they might experience it. And the fact is that, without RTF, death at the shelter is a likely outcome for a large number of these cats. There is a well-known phenomenon with new medical students who are seeing a lot of dire illnesses in their patients – they become hypochondriacs – they see fatal disease around every corner for themselves and their loved ones. When you are involved in a line of work that causes you to see a lot of sickness, or a lot of cruelty, you get a warped view of the frequency and the statistical likelihood of such things. Cats should not have to die because rescuers who should be protecting them develop a warped view of the world.

        • Not sure if it’s ptsd or need to be hero/martyr that drives this kind of thinking. Orgs who trust their fellow man and believe others care as much as they do save more lives. Glass half empty or full? We are a field filled with the need to have good guys and bad guys, deeply rooted in our history. Time to let go and let others who care help.

    • It’s funny you should say that because northern cities like New York and Baltimore have lots of feral cats. We have hardly any data on the issue, but I’ve always suspected that cold temperatures have less effect on cat survival than disease. Since warm weather is more conducive to communicable disease, cats may actually fare worse in warmer climates. The breeding season of cats is controlled by day length, so if there are more cats in the south (and again, I have not seen data on this), it might be because cats are having more litters in the south, not because northern cats are dying from the cold.

      • Scientific studies have found no correlation between winter temperature, lattitude, and feral cat abundance across Southern Canada. Successful RTF programs are now operating across the Northern U.S. and increasingly in Canada. Although cat abundance in general is lower in colder versus warmer climates, the same principles apply: the cats that do make it into shelters in good body condition, are for the most part those that have access to food, shelter and a means to survive in the community. If cats were unable to thrive in cold climates, shelters in those regions would not have been admitting and euthanizing cats by the thousands for the last decades. The happy flip side of this is that shelters in cold climates can use the same tools (and are already doing so) that have been deployed so successfully elsewhere. Cats are survivors: with sterilization, they can survive and thrive in any climate without contributing to the next generation entering shelters.

    • As a colony caregiver for nearly 9 years in New England, last winter being the harshest I can remember, my ‘feral cats’ made it through just fine. Cats are found in even the harshest environments, but those with shelter, food and water will, of course, do better than those that don’t.

  3. Advocates of TNVR make the scientifically undocumented claim that establishing ‘colonies’ of neutered and vaccinated cats in urban and suburban environments where they are released helps reduce the overall cat population. This is pseudoscience; other cats will simply move elsewhere to avoid contact and territorial conflicts with established cat colonies, giving the false impression that there are fewer cats in a given locale. At best, TNVR cat colonies may indirectly help reduce stray and feral breeding populations of cats, if established in significant numbers, by competing for the same wildlife food-source. But surely the cost to wildlife, biodiversity (competition with indigenous predators such as raptors and various wild carnivores) as well as to the health and well-being of these TNVR program cats, far exceeds any alleged benefits in most urban and suburban environments. Those TNVR programs that provide proper care in adoption-promoting cat sanctuaries, such as indoor-outdoor, complex-environment, group-housing facilities and in “island” colonies on some farms, horse barns, warehouses and even prisons, may be acceptable from a veterinary bioethics perspective: But with the proviso that all cats are fed on a daily basis and are rejected as colony members if they test positive for feline immunodeficiency disease and feline leukemia, unless the colony is specifically for such afflicted felines. But even given these supports they may not have adequate protection from being injured and killed by traffic, dogs, coyotes and wide-roaming tom cats and even shot, poisoned by property owners and also poisoned by rodenticides after consuming contaminated rodents.
    The domestic cat, Felis domestica, does not belong in urban and suburban environments where it should not be exploited as a “working animal”, a biological weapon against rats and mice. They will kill many species other than these rodents and are likely to be poisoned by rodenticides put out by property owners. After trapping a stray/feral cat on our property my wife and I took him to Minnesota’s largest animal humane society not knowing that they had instituted a “Community Cats Initiative,” supported in part by a grant from PetSmart Charities, that embraces a TNVR policy that stipulates that the cat whom we took to them could be returned where he was caught if he was not adopted as a “Working Cat” for rodent control on a person’s property. No instructions are provided about feeding and oversight of such cats. All TNVR assigned cats are given only a rabies vaccination and no vaccinations against contagious feline diseases, no test for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency disease, and are released 24 hours after surgical sterilization. The tip of left ear is cut off for identification purposes as a “Working Cat”.
    This amounts to abandoning an immunocompromised animal that is put at risk, an act of cruelty and irresponsible from animal welfare, wildlife protection and public health perspectives. A vet tech involved with this program told me “These are wild, feral cats”, implying that being unadoptable by her behavioral assessment they belong in the wild. She refused my request to see behavioral assessment tests being conducted and justified her organization’s TNVR program on the basis of the often cited the University of California at Davis veterinary college small study of such a program. Now under the Million Cat Challenge, a joint project of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and the University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, this kind of TNVR treatment of cats is being promoted nation-wide. Their website states that they are “supported by our participating animal shelters and their spay/neuter partners, as well as many national and regional organizations” They are also “ grateful for the contributions of our sponsors, especially Maddie’s Fund, whose generosity made this campaign possible.”
    But to date, none of these community-based programs have published any peer reviewed reports showing they have succeeded in effectively controlling feral cat numbers on any significant large scale. (See Foley, P. et al Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2005: 277: 1775-1781). Such TNVR community dumping of cats is irresponsible and inhumane release and abandonment which should be prohibited by municipal authorities and State public health authorities just as it is being vehemently opposed by the national Audubon Society and other conservation organizations.
    As veterinarians Walter E. Cook and David A. Jessup write in their letter on this issue (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 20015: 247: 141-142) “… although some cats may do reasonably well in some protected outdoor situations, it is our experience that feral cats suffer more and die sooner than owned and protected cats.” I agree with them that local animal control organizations must put humane options first and give greater emphasis on “stemming the flow of kittens into free-ranging populations through mandatory, enforced spaying and neutering of pet cats and stronger message about responsible pet ownership is a good goal.” Many indoor cats would benefit from having more stimulating environments; by being provided biologically appropriate diets rather than those with high carbohydrate and vegetable protein content from GMO ingredients; and from owners/caregivers knowing the basics of feline behavior and appropriate care and handling. Without the knowledge for proper, responsible care, including early spay/neuter, people will abandon young male cats when they start spray-marking in and around the home, and female cats who become agitated when in estrus and want to go out, are allowed out and become pregnant. This adds to the seasonal influx of litters of kittens into shelters. All members of the species Felis domestica should be regarded and treated as domestic, confined to home and immediate property, microchipped, vaccinated and neutered, and ideally kept with at least one other compatible member of their own species.
    Allowing indoor cats to go outdoors at any time, unsupervised and roaming out of their owner’s property—and often not spay/neutered and therefore producing ever more kittens— and killing wildlife in the process, should be prohibited in every community. Yet many “cat lovers” support TNVR programs in their communities ideologically and financially, many feeling a sense of purpose in going out in all weathers to feed “colonies” of these poor cats. But with few exceptions, the ecological and animal welfare impacts of unfed, un-monitored “colonies” of released cats from animal shelter/humane society operations call for either the euthanasia of un-adopted cats or the setting up of suitable facilities to contain them totally and at the same time provide for their basic behavioral requirements to help insure their health and well-being,
    Free-roaming cats around peoples’ homes are the most common cause of indoor cats becoming extremely disturbed, house-soiling, developing stress-related health problems such as cystitis, and attacking each other, so-called redirected aggression. Others may show displacement behaviors such as excessive-self grooming and self-mutilation. Chronic and sub-clinical health conditions such as high blood pressure and arthritis ( mainly from improper nutrition), as well as hyperthyroidism may be aggravated by such stress of territorial invasion by indoor-outdoor, free- roaming, lost and feral-living cats including those who have been released by local humane society/animal rescue organizations under the misguided TNVR-no-kill banner.

    • I don’t think that anyone believes that TNR or RTF is a perfect solution, but we live in a complex world and very little is perfect. I do want to note that in this long comment you appear to be doing what you accuse TNR advocates of doing – making statements as fact (for example, that claims that TNR reduces colony size are “pseudoscience”) without citing the data to back up your statements.

  4. While I appreciate the concern for cats who might not do well outdoors, at least two studies provide compelling evidence that the vast majority are quite healthy.

    Of the 2,366 cats admitted to a two-year, high-impact TNVR program in one Alachua County, Florida, zip code for example, only 16 (0.7%) were ineligible for the program due to health issues. [1] In San José, California, where more than 10,000 community cats were sterilized and returned over a four-year period as part of a shelter-based community cat program, it was observed that “impounded feral cats are surprisingly healthy and have good bodyweight.” [2] To quote Jon Cicirelli, Deputy Director for San José Animal Care and Services, “Most of these cats are healthy. They’re vibrant. They don’t need us. All we really need to do is control their population.” [3]

    Finally, I think it’s important to be clear about the alternative implied (intentionally or not) by those who oppose return-to-field programs on this basis: vast numbers of cats killed in shelters, with no end in sight. Multiple surveys have demonstrated that this is not what the public wants. [4-7]

    As Susan has already noted, TNR and RTF are imperfect solutions. In the vast majority of cases, though, they’re the only truly feasible solutions we’ve got.

    Literature Cited
    1. Levy, J.K., N.M. Isaza, and K.C. Scott, Effect of high-impact targeted trap-neuter-return and adoption of community cats on cat intake to a shelter. The Veterinary Journal, 2014. 201(3): p. 269–274. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090023314001841
    2. Johnson, K.L. and J. Cicirelli, Study of the effect on shelter cat intakes and euthanasia from a shelter neuter return project of 10,080 cats from March 2010 to June 2014. PeerJ, 2014. 2: p. e646. http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.646
    3. Jones, C. Cats: San Jose shelter spays, releases strays. 2012. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Cats-San-Jose-shelter-spays-releases-strays-2437677.php
    4. Karpusiewicz, R. AP-Petside.com Poll: Americans Favor No-Kill Animal Shelters. 2012. http://www.petside.com/article/ap-petsidecom-poll-americans-favor-no-kill-animal-shelters
    5. Chu, K. and W.M. Anderson, Law & Policy Brief: U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats, 2007, Alley Cat Allies: Bethesda, MD.
    6. Gibson, I., Hawaii Case Study: Developing Productive Partnerships to Protect Cats and Wildlife, in The HSUS Cats Outdoors Conference2012: Marina del Rey, CA.
    7. Wolf, P.J. New Survey Reveals Widespread Support for Trap-Neuter-Return. Humane Thinking, 2015. https://faunalytics.org/new-survey-reveals-widespread-support-for-trap-neuter-return/

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