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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Getting the Word Out About Cats

Cats are not dogs. This seems obvious, and yet the correlative to that statement – that we cannot give equal treatment to cats by treating them the same way we treat dogs – seems to be lost on many people. In the last couple of years we have had proposals for innovative programs that seek to give homeless and lost cats the same chance for life that homeless and lost dogs have – not by treating cats and dogs exactly alike, but by recognizing and accommodating their differences.

Some people have reacted to these new programs by complaining that cats are being treated unfairly, and are being made second-class citizens to dogs. I’ve even heard the new cat paradigms referred to as the “war on cats.” While it’s a good thing for people to be cautious before adopting new ideas, we don’t want to be so cautious that we reject lifesaving ideas.

With that in mind, what are the new cat paradigms, and what is the evidence to back them up? I’m not an expert on the new paradigms – the experts would be Dr, Kate Hurley, Dr. Julia Levy, Scott Trebatoski, and all the other professionals who have been leaders in this field. But as I understand the new paradigms, one of the central ideas is that, in most circumstances, shelters should not take in healthy cats.


That certainly is a radical idea. But after looking at the evidence, it makes perfect sense. While an impounded cat is sitting in the shelter waiting for its owner to come looking for it, it may get sick, it is taking up space for cats who really need to be in the shelter (those who are sick, injured, or starving), and the likelihood of its owners finding it is far, far less than if it had been left alone.

That italicized clause is one of the keys to the new cat paradigms, and I think it is the most often misunderstood or overlooked part of the new message. So what is the scientific evidence to support the idea that a lost or straying cat is more likely to find its way home if it is just left alone? I asked Dr. Hurley this question, and she sent me two peer-reviewed studies that address the issue.

The first study was done in 2005 in Montgomery County, Ohio. It looked at cats lost by residents over a 4-month period and the success of methods that owners used to find the cats. The study included 138 cats. Just over half (53%) of the lost cats were recovered. Two-thirds – 66% – of the cats who were recovered returned home on their own. That is not a typo. All other methods, including neighborhood signs, identification, advertisements, and visiting the shelter, when added up, were only about 1/2 as successful as simply waiting for the cat to come home on its own. The second-most successful method for finding a lost cat was neighborhood signs, but only 11% of found cats were found by that method. Leaving cats alone was 6 times more effective than the second-best method at returning cats home. Only 7% of the cats were recovered from the animal shelter.

Now you might argue that perhaps only a few of the cats wound up in the shelter in the first place, and that explains why few were recovered from the shelter. The problem with that argument is that owners in the study took a median of 3 days, with a range of 0 to 21 days, to visit the shelter to look for their cat. And the median time between visits was 8 days. Half of owners did not visit the shelter within the typical 3-day hold time of the county, and when they did visit, their succeeding visits were not frequent enough to allow them to reliably reclaim their cats within the hold period. As the authors of the study said, it was possible that at least some of the cats in the study who were not recovered were killed by animal shelters. So, either cats did wind up in the shelter (in which case their owners did not reliably go to the shelter often enough to find them) or cats did not wind up in the shelter (in which case the shelter was irrelevant to whether they were found). Either way, impoundment is not a reliable way of returning lost cats to their homes.

This gets at one of the core differences between cats and dogs, which is that cats are more likely to hide when they get lost. A lost cat may hide for days or even weeks before it makes its presence known enough to come to the attention of animal control. People tend not to look in shelters for lost cats for a very good reason, which is that they know the likelihood of their cat being in a shelter on any given day is low. Unless they have the time to literally visit the shelter every couple of days for up to one or two months, their odds of finding their cat are not good even if it is impounded. And relying on shelter personnel or volunteers to recognize a lost cat from a photo or description is tricky because so many cats look alike. The shelter hold period was designed for dogs, plain and simple. The hold period does not fit cat behavior and it is ineffective to allow cat owners to recover their pets.

The second study was a national telephone survey that made contact with 2,587 households in 2010. A higher percentage of lost cats – 75% – were recovered than in the 2005 study. Of the 54 cats recovered, 48 were recovered either by searching within the neighborhood or the cat returning home on its own. The percentage of found cats who returned home on their own was 59% – not that far off from the 66% in the 2005 study, even though the two studies used different methodologies. Almost 9 out of 10 cats who were recovered either returned home on their own or were found by their owners right in their own neighborhood. Only 1 of the cats was recovered from the animal shelter (2% of the sample). Only 4 of the cat owners looked at the shelter for their lost pet. Once again, whether the low rate of recovery from the shelter was due to cats not winding up in the shelter or people not looking for them in the shelter, the result is the same – a very low likelihood of a cat being reunited with its family via the shelter.

Both of these studies are small. As with just about every issue involving animal sheltering, it would be nice to have more studies and have studies involving larger numbers of animals. I think the studies are meaningful in spite of the relatively small numbers of cats involved, however, because the percentage of cats who found their way home on their own was huge in both studies. This was not a subtle result – not the kind of thing where you need a cast of thousands to make sure that your result is statistically significant.

There are two possible ways for shelters to react to this data. One is to accept that impounding a cat is not a good way to reunite it with its family, and to change procedures so that healthy cats are not impounded and that people are advised about what does work – signs, searching the neighborhood, and waiting for the cat to come home. The other way would be to lecture cat owners about microchipping their cats and going to the shelter every day that their cat is lost. Which way do you think will be more successful?

Some people argue that even a 2% or a 7% rate of reuniting cats with owners makes it worthwhile to impound cats. That argument completely overlooks the fact that cats who are impounded cannot go home on their own, and their owners cannot find them by looking for them in the neighborhood. When cats are impounded, we cut off their best opportunity by far to get home – letting them get back on their own – and instead substitute a method, impoundment, that endangers their lives. Shelters are stressful for cats, and stress predisposes cats to disease. Not to mention that the percentage of communities that are saving all savable cats is currently in single digits, so even if the cat does not get sick it still has the hurdle of whether it will be adopted.

The two studies discussed above deal only with owned cats who are lost. There are a great many cats who go into animal shelters who do not have homes – they are either feral or they live in the community, possibly visiting many homes but not domiciled in any particular home. These “community cats” are not going to be reclaimed if they are impounded. Community cats who are healthy obviously are doing fine in their environment and do not need intervention by the shelter. Impoundment can only hurt them, unless the shelter can keep them healthy and find an adoptive home for them (or, in the case of a feral cat, a better situation than the one it was in). TNR and return-to-field are well established as the best solutions for most healthy community cats. Making return-to-field the default approach for healthy cats, whether they are community cats or lost pets, is the commonsense solution.

This gets at another of the important differences between cats and dogs, which is that today there are almost no truly feral dogs in the great majority of communities in the United States. The dogs in animal shelters are, almost uniformly, dogs who have been socialized to people and have lived in homes or kennel situations before coming to the shelter. Cats have retained much more of their wild nature than dogs, and many cats who come into animal shelters have either lived outdoors all their lives or they have transitioned in and out of homes and are very capable of “living off the land.” Once again, basing our ideas of what is best for cats on our ideas of what is best for dogs does a disservice to cats.

What about owner surrendered cats? When animal control stops taking in healthy cats, the shelter has more resources, and some of those resources can be used to expand pet retention programs. In cases where the owner has died or is unable to keep the cat any longer even with help, the shelter will be able to find a surrendered cat a home much more quickly because the number of incoming adult cats will be in better balance with demand by adopters.

Keeping healthy cats out of the shelter not only helps the healthy cats, it also helps the ones who are not healthy. When a shelter has fewer cats it can devote more resources to each cat. If 50 cats who all need rehabilitation come in from a hoarding bust, for example, the shelter will be much better able to help those cats if it is not already full. Kitten season won’t be so overwhelming if foster homes are not already full of healthy cats. We hear a lot about improving live release rates to 95% and even higher. Having the shelter take in only the cats who really need to be there is one way to get to those higher live release rates.

Although the idea of shelters not taking in healthy cats might sound radical to us today, it is not radical at all from a historical perspective. When animal shelters first started up in the 1800s before rabies vaccines had been developed, their primary purpose was to protect people from rabies by getting dogs off the streets. It was not known at that time that cats could transmit rabies too. Some animal shelters, like the ones in Boston and New York City, impounded cats starting around 1900, but it was very common throughout most of the 1900s for animal control units in the United States not to take in free-roaming cats. The idea that all shelters should routinely impound stray cats is of relatively recent origin, and it has not worked out well.

So, to sum up, even to a layperson like me it seems overwhelmingly clear from this data that shelters should not impound cats unless (1) the cat is ill, injured, or otherwise in need of help, or (2) the shelter has the ability to house the cat in a stress-free environment and quickly adopt it out once the hold period expires.

Makena Yarbrough, the innovative director of the Lynchburg Humane Society, the open-admission No Kill shelter serving Lynchburg, Virginia, wrote an article for her local newspaper that advises people what to do if they find a cat (although the title of the article refers to “feral” cats, it applies to all found cats). We have advice for people on what to do if they find a baby bird, and I’m sure that has saved many millions of birds from people’s well-intentioned mistakes. So I love this idea of telling people how best to help any free-roaming cats they come across. One important point is that since cats on average take longer than dogs to make their presence known after getting lost, lost and found services for cats need to emphasize that a cat that was just found today might have been lost a month or two ago, or even more.

We know how to help cats. Now we just need to get the word out. For more information, check out the Million Cat Challenge and the many helpful resources that Maddie’s Fund has made available about community cats.

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