Evaluating a Cat Sanctuary: A Hands-On Guide

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First, know that cat sanctuaries are not the answer for community cats who live and thrive with their feline families in their outdoor homes. In fact, sanctuaries are not a viable option for most cats, including socialized cats who have lived with people indoors.

Relocating community cats should only be a last resort. It is almost always in the cats’ best interest to leave them where they are, as they form strong bonds to their territory and colony members. Only relocate cats from their original outdoor homes if their lives are in immediate danger. Among some examples: When construction or demolition is taking place by their colonies; when they are forced to be removed for legal reasons; or when animal control insists on taking them to a shelter, where they will likely be killed. Before you consider taking cats to a sanctuary consider the alternatives.

Alternatives to Cat Sanctuaries

Do Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). TNR allows cats to remain in their outdoor homes, addresses concerns about cats, and improves the community. Cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to their outdoor home. If you run into pushback about practicing TNR, or your officials or animal control officers insist the cats be removed, try:

Find another caregiver. If you’re considering a sanctuary because you are no longer able to care for the cats, try reaching out to friends, neighbors, community members, Feral Friends Network members, and fellow cat lovers. They may be willing to take over caring for the cats, and that would allow them to stay in their outdoor home.

Find another suitable environment. If you are considering a sanctuary because the cats can’t stay in their current outdoor home, try to find another location for them. You may have luck placing community cats with individuals who have suitable environments for them, such as a barn or stable, spacious back yard, or a business like a brewery, vineyard, home and garden center, or warehouse.

Keep in mind: Relocation is stressful and can be dangerous for cats, especially for community cats who are not socialized to people. Community cats bond to their outdoor homes. Without the proper steps to acclimate them to a new home, and even when things are done well, cats may wander off to try and return to their original territory. That’s why relocating cats must be done carefully and with a specific protocol.

If you’re seeking a new home for an owned cat, consider these moves:

  • Talk with friends, relatives, and colleagues about possibly adopting the cat. See our adoption tips.
  • Speak with local adoption groups about fostering and eventually adopting out the cat.

If you have determined that bringing a cat to a sanctuary is your only option, then it’s important to evaluate the suitability of a sanctuary.

Steps to Effectively Evaluating a Cat Sanctuary

Research the sanctuary. You can find local sanctuaries and determine if they are reputable by searching for news stories that mention the sanctuary or the sanctuary owners.  Check online by typing in the sanctuary’s name and try adding keywords like “complaints,” “neglect,” or other telling words. If the sanctuary is on social media, see what other people are saying about it.

Visit the property in person. It’s critical that you physically go to the sanctuary to see with your own eyes if it is well kept. If the sanctuary refuses to let you visit or look around, that is a big red flag. Insist on visiting the sanctuary and do not take your cat there if you are not permitted check it out.
When you visit, look closely to ensure the sanctuary meets these standards:

  • The sanctuary overall is clean and sanitary
  • Outdoor enclosures are secure
  • Outdoor shelters are insulated and weatherproof
  • The sanctuary is adequately staffed
  • The caregivers interact with cats in a way that makes the cats feel safe
  • The cats look comfortable and well cared for

Talk directly with the sanctuary owner. Not only will you get a sense of the owner’s personality and professionalism, you can also get direct answers to important questions. Ask the sanctuary owner these questions:

  • Is veterinary care available for cats who become sick?
  • Are cats who become temporarily ill segregated from healthy cats?
  • Are cats with compromised immunity or chronic health issues kept in separate quarters?
  • Does the owner or caregiver live on the property or is someone always present?
  • How is the sanctuary funded and is there a long-term financial plan in place to support it?
  • What would happen to the cats if the sanctuary were to close?
  • Is there an emergency plan in place to keep the cats safe in the event of a natural disaster?
  • Is there a list of rescues, individuals, and caregivers who brought cats to the sanctuary and can you contact them?

Get references. If everything seems legitimate so far, it’s time to look for some good reviews. Get in touch with cat rescue groups or private individuals who have brought cats to the sanctuary and ask about their experiences. They should be able to tell you if they were satisfied with the cats’ care and their interactions with the sanctuary owners or staff.

Ensure cats are properly relocated to the sanctuary. Successful relocation involves following a strict protocol so cats can comfortably and effectively acclimate to their new home. Alley Cat Allies has a guide to relocation protocol.

Cats depend on us to make the right decisions for their well-being. Remember, the best approach for community cats is TNR, and the best outcome for socialized cats is adoption. Cat sanctuaries are a last resort and all other humane options should be exhausted before considering them.

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