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.