1. A Need for Transformation
Nationally, only about 30% of cats who enter shelters have positive outcomes. This is devastating for the cats and is inhumane. It’s also devastating for the people working every day to help them. And it’s difficult to make changes when animals keep coming through the door. But change is underway in many communities. Many shelters have found that making certain changes to their day-to-day practices and policies decreases intake numbers and increases live releases.
A great first step that can have an immediate impact is adopting a Feral Cat Protection Policy and no longer impounding feral cats.
This policy is based on the fact that although feral cats, also called community cats, are the same species as pet cats, they live outdoors and are not socialized to people. It recognizes that they live full, healthy lives outdoors—and that almost no community cats who enter shelters have positive outcomes, because they are not adoptable.
Below we explain how a Feral Cat Protection Policy (FCPP) works and outline other easy-to-implement changes that help you increase your live release rates. For example, many shelters are shifting their focus to organized Trap-Neuter-Return programs for community cats, innovative adoption programs, public education, support for pet owners, resources for compassionate community members who want to help animals, and other efforts that create positive outcomes for animals.
Making Change Happen
Making changes to how your shelter operates—or even considering making changes—can be overwhelming. It can require a drastic shift in thinking after years—or even decades—of operating in a completely different way. We’ve heard from many shelter employees who say they love cats but struggle with what to do with them when so many come through their doors every day.
Kate Hurley, DVM, Director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis, says she has loved cats since early childhood. She began her career by working in animal control. The cats she brought into the shelter only had a one in four chance of a positive outcome. “I believed in my bones that that was the best way to serve that cat and my community,” says Dr. Hurley. “So I did that work, as hard as it was.”
Dr. Hurley set out to learn more about the shelter system and found that there was a much better way to serve the animals. “Starting a couple of years ago, rereading old research, seeing what was happening in different parts of the country, I came to a kind of troubling conclusion,” says Dr. Hurley. She determined that many of the assumptions that she and her shelter operated under were actually false and that admitting healthy community cats to shelters was not serving the shelter’s goals.
Many shelters are coming to similar conclusions and working to change the way they operate. There’s a network of shelter staff who have gone down this path before and are willing to help. The new approach won’t be perfect—there will be bumps and hurdles. But the goal is to continue adjusting and improving as you advance your shelter’s policies and programs.
You may be wondering…
But what will happen to community cats? Don’t we have to accept community cats? Who will pay for their care? Can cats be left outdoors? How will we respond to calls from the public about community cats? How will not accepting community cats improve our shelter? Find the answers here.
2. A New Approach for Cats
We have heard from many animal shelters that want a model that helps prevent overcrowding and the associated health and emotional issues for animals and also helps the shelter save money. Many people assume that increasing adoptions is the only way to increase live outcome rates. But statistics show that live outcome rates can actually decrease despite increased cat adoptions1. This is likely because many of the cats entering the shelters are community cats.
Community cats are not socialized to people and do not want to live in homes. They are unadoptable, but many shelters still take them in even though there is no possibility for a good outcome for them in the traditional shelter setting. This approach is inhumane and ineffective, as it fails to permanently reduce outdoor cat populations because of the vacuum effect. When cats are removed, the remaining cats breed to capacity and other cats move in to take advantage of the available resources.
Adopting a Feral Cat Protection Policy is the best way to quickly lower your intake numbers—and it can actually help you increase your adoption rate.
Benefits of a Feral Cat Protection Policy
When shelters stop accepting community cats, they see almost immediate benefits—intake numbers decrease, save rates increase, and community support increases. This approach frees up critical staff time and saves money, allowing shelters to focus more on increasing adoption rates, improving shelter conditions, and implementing Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) in the community.
This approach can also dramatically improve staff morale. The Humane League of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania had a high volume of community cat intakes and ended up spending a significant amount of its time and resources killing community cats. This was demoralizing for the shelter staff, and CEO Joan Brown realized that it was not fulfilling the shelter’s mission of animal protection.
“I finally went to the board and said, ‘Where in our mission statement does it say euthanize [healthy animals]?’” says Brown.
In 2008, The Humane League made the decision to change as an organization. It would no longer accept feral cats. Instead, it now embraces TNR as the logical and humane approach that supports its mission. “Not only has it made a difference in the shelter environment, but it has allowed us to be far more positive, happy and hopeful in our work,” says Brown.
In the rest of this toolkit, we will outline how to adopt a Feral Cat Protection Policy, as well as the subsequent steps your shelter can consider taking to increase save rates for cats.
New Approach to Adoptable Cats
Many shelters are changing their approach to socialized cats as well. To decrease the number of cats with negative outcomes in your shelter, you may consider only impounding the number of healthy cats that you can adopt out. It may seem counterintuitive, but there are alternatives to shelters. Instead of accepting every healthy cat who comes through your door, you can empower citizens to resolve issues that may make them want to relinquish the cat and share resources to help them keep the cat until there is space at the shelter, find the cat’s owner, find a new home for the cat, or look for a rescue organization that may be able to help. In many cases, it is actually better for cats to stay where they are instead of coming to a shelter. According to Barbara Carr, Director of Erie SPCA in Pennsylvania, cats who were waitlisted when the shelter was full had far more live outcomes than cats admitted to the shelter. Of those not taken in, 45% were rehomed, 14% were kept by their caregivers, and about 6% were taken to a rescue group.2
Furthermore, when it comes to cats who are lost, statistics show that lost cats are more than 13 times more likely to be reunited with their owners through non-shelter means than through a shelter. More than 60% of cats who are lost return home on their own.3
3. Three Stages of Transforming Your Shelter
There are many policies and programs your shelter can consider implementing to save more cats’ lives. But you don’t have to do it all at once. We’ve broken up our recommendations for feline-friendly shelter practices into three stages.
These three stages provide an overview of some of the fundamental steps shelters can take to bring about change for cats in their community, but this is not meant to be a comprehensive, one-size-fits-all toolkit that will work for all shelters. Alley Cat Allies appreciates that all shelters have different capacities, and we are sharing examples of what has worked well for some shelters.
In the first stage, you can adopt relatively easy-to-implement, low-cost practices that can make a significant impact on your shelter’s save rates. After you’ve made some or all of those changes, you can move on to stage two where you’ll increase your shelter’s lifesaving capacity by making additional changes that are somewhat more resource-intensive. In stage three, we’ve provided additional programs and practices that are ideal but that require more staff time, money, and commitment than the previous stages. You may find that the order of these steps won’t work in your shelter and that you can instead adopt a few practices from each stage right away. That’s fine, of course! Even if you can only adopt one of these practices right now, that one practice might end up saving hundreds—or thousands—of cats’ lives.
Stage One: Take Simple Steps to Save More Cats
Adopt a Feral Cat Protection Policy
The best thing you can do right now to save cats’ lives is to adopt a Feral Cat Protection Policy. A Feral Cat Protection Policy explains that your shelter will no longer impound unsocialized community cats.
A Feral Cat Protection Policy (FCPP) can be as simple as:
As of [Date], [Name of shelter] no longer impounds healthy feral cats brought to the shelter and no longer traps healthy feral cats for impoundment. Feral cats are not socialized to people and are therefore not adoptable. Instead of impoundment, [Name of shelter] now promotes Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) for feral cats. Through TNR, feral cats are humanely trapped, vaccinated and spayed/neutered by a veterinarian, eartipped for identification, and returned to their outdoor home.
Once you’ve written and decided on a Feral Cat Protection Policy, you’ll want to announce this new approach to your community so that residents understand how it works and why your shelter has this new policy. Alley Cat Allies recommends posting your policy on your shelter’s website, on a bulletin board in the shelter, and on other communications materials. You can also send out a press release announcing this policy change.
Instead of impounding community cats, you can re-route them to TNR programs where they are neutered, vaccinated, eartipped for identification, and returned to their outdoor home. Although it may not be obvious, community cats are actually not homeless. Community cats are domestic animals, but just like the squirrels, chipmunks, and sparrows we see every day, their home is outdoors. TNR is humane, and it effectively stabilizes outdoor cat colonies. We will explain TNR and how to implement it below.
Stop Trapping Community Cats for Impoundment
Make sure that your staff knows to never trap community cats. If your shelter is associated with your city’s animal control, be sure that all animal control officers are aware that they should no longer trap community cats, unless they are trapping them as part of a humane Trap-Neuter-Return program. Explain your new Feral Cat Protection Policy and why it is the best approach to feral cats.
Stop Loaning Traps for Trap and Removal
As part of your new Feral Cat Refusal Policy, end the practice of loaning out traps for trap and removal of community cats. If you loan traps out to community members, ensure that they are using the traps as part of a humane Trap-Neuter-Return program and explain why your shelter no longer accepts community cats.
Recognize Eartipping of Community Cats
An eartip means the cat has been spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and is part of a community cat colony. Eartipping is an effective and universally accepted method to identify a spayed/neutered and vaccinated feral cat. It is the removal of the distal one-quarter of a cat’s left ear, which is approximately 3/8 inch, or 1 cm, in an adult and proportionally smaller in a kitten.
Make sure your staff knows to never trap eartipped cats. If they are mistakenly picked up, return them immediately to their original location.
Support Trap-Neuter-Return for Community Cats
Shelter protocol for community cats can focus on TNR. Those cats can be spayed/neutered, vaccinated, eartipped for identification, and then returned to their outdoor home. Maintaining excellent records, detailing the location the cats originally came from, will make it easier to return the cats—and track your program’s success. If your facility cannot start a program right away, consider partnering with local community cat groups that can help with referrals in the interim and work on making small steps toward the larger goal.
Read more about why TNR is the best approach for community cats and how to implement it in your community.
Reaching out to your community can help ensure that community members understand your shelter’s new approach to community cats—and are willing to get involved to make sure it’s successful.
- Build partnerships with other animal protection organizations in your area, including private rescues, breed-specific rescues, TNR groups, and other shelters. Also, reach out to the veterinary community to find clinics willing to spay/neuter community cats (you may even be able to negotiate a lower rate for community cats). You can include a list of these partner animal organizations on your website and in your shelter and work together with these groups with the goal of saving more animals’ lives.
- Provide resources for community members who are working to protect animals. This can include educational resources, meeting space for TNR and rescue groups, a low-cost spay/neuter clinic, and a trap loan program for individuals and groups conducting TNR.
- Launch a help line. Have a dedicated phone number or email address, or both, for answering the public’s questions about caring for outdoor cats and TNR and any other questions they may have. Work with local groups to triage calls to meet the needs of the caller. Nevada Humane Society instituted an Animal Help Desk at the shelter to provide free advice and assistance to the public about everything from TNR for feral cats to alternatives to surrendering a pet.
- Ask people questions to better understand their issues so that you can provide solutions that are best for the person and for animals. For example, you may learn that they want to surrender their cat because of a behavioral issue that you can easily help them with or that all they need is humane deterrents or repellents to keep community cats from entering their garden.
- When people call about community cats, connect them with your own or community resources that can help them help the cats, and make sure they are familiar with TNR. You can let them know about Alley Cat Allies’ Feral Friends Network, a network used to connect local groups and individuals practicing TNR with people in their area looking for help.
Educate, Educate, Educate
Educate the public—and your own staff—about outdoor cats.
- Educate the public about your programs and other local resources for stray and community cats such as low-cost or subsidized spay and neuter clinics and TNR programs. Provide information about community cats at the front desk of your shelter and at all adoption events—even dog events! Consider using our brochures, posters, and other educational tools on community cats and TNR.
- When you make the transition and stop impounding community cats, make sure community members understand why you are making this change and that it will actually help protect the cats and will help save the lives of other animals. Host a public information and TNR workshop to introduce the new approach and drum up volunteer support. You can get all you need to start your workshop here: Alley Cat Allies’ guide to hosting TNR workshops.
- When needed, let community members know about humane deterrents to keep cats away from places they are not welcome. Learn more about how to deter cats from areas where they are not wanted. Go to our marketplace to purchase brochures to distribute to callers, visitors in your facility, and in neighborhoods where officers are working.
- Become an educational resource center for your community. Transform your website, bulletin boards, and events into educational opportunities.
- Train shelter employees to better understand the public’s and the cats’ needs and provide tools and counseling to address common issues.
Spay/Neuter All Animals Before They Leave Your Facility
Spay/neuter all animals before they leave your facility for adoption, are transferred to another facility or private rescue group, or when they go to your shelter’s foster homes if they’re old enough. This reduces the number of kittens born each year and sends a message to the public that you are socially responsible and care about the lives of animals. Voucher and other post-adoption spay/neuter programs alone are not effective enough: they have a low rate of compliance and they require resources to maintain.
This includes spaying/neutering kittens before adoption or foster. Early-age spay/neuter (kittens are sterilized at eight weeks, or as soon as they weigh two pounds) before adoption is a safe and successful way to ensure that 100% of animals leaving your facility are sterilized. Learn more about early-age spay and neuter.
Early-age spay/neuter and spay/neuter before adoption practices are a good investment: implementing these programs means you can stop spending resources on follow-up to sterilization compliance, paperwork, and caring for the “oops” litters from adopted cats.
Institute Programs that Reduce Owner Surrender
Provide community members with more options than bringing their companion animal to your facility. Some services you can offer include: website and in-shelter bulletin board posting services, a list of pet-friendly apartment buildings, tips and ideas about getting a companion animal adopted successfully, and invitations to join adoption events. To improve animal retention, consider implementing programs such as low-cost medical services and behavior training. You can also start a pet food bank for people who are not able to afford pet food.
Stage Two: Make Additional Changes to Help Even More Cats
Keep Accurate and Detailed Records
When shelters track the number of animals entering the facility and how they leave (returned to owner, adopted, etc.), they have a clear picture of how they are improving, can assess the effectiveness of their programs over time, and can keep track of how their resources are being allocated. It is beneficial for records to include specific categories of cats (stray, feral, socialized, etc.) and to also document the animal’s original location; who brought her to the shelter and why; and the animal’s outcome, including adoption, transfer, or death. For any death, list the reason for death. It is also beneficial to track the number, type, and result of calls you receive from the public.
Accurate and detailed records can help your shelter in a number of ways:
- They provide immediate information about where and how resources are being used to help identify needs and evaluate the success or failure of programs. You can analyze the effectiveness of your lifesaving programs and determine whether the amount of money spent on spay/neuter impacts the number of animals brought into the shelter.
- They can help you identify high-impact areas and neighborhoods for Trap-Neuter-Return and other efforts. You can see which zip codes, neighborhoods, and other areas the most cats—and phone calls—are coming in from.
- They can help you make the case to potential donors, foundations, or partners on why they should support your shelter’s work. People want to know exactly how their money will be used and will be more likely to donate if they can see that your shelter is making improvements over time.
- They build public support. Being transparent about your shelter’s new programs to protect and improve more lives, and then sharing the change in your statistics as you implement those programs, ultimately improves relations with the community. People want to help where they know they are saving lives. Being open with them will build community-wide confidence. It is important to get buy-in from your constituents, and transparency is a good public relations move to promote your humane programs.
Implement a Shelter-Sponsored TNR Program
TNR is the only humane and effective method of care for community cats. Shelters that start TNR programs can see dramatic results in a relatively short time period. They tend to see significant reductions in kitten and cat intakes, and then increases in their save rates.
Richmond SPCA started a TNR program in 2004. Volunteers humanely trap community cats and bring them to Richmond SPCA’s spay/neuter clinic where they are sterilized free of charge.
“Feral cats are remarkably good at taking care of themselves,” says Richmond SPCA CEO Robin Starr, who implemented the shelter’s TNR program and many other lifesaving initiatives. “With time, patience and support of TNR programs, we can prevent the continued growth of these colonies and keep the cats healthy and well cared for by dedicated volunteers. Feral cats do us no harm, and they deserve to live out their lives peacefully in the only environment they’ve ever known.”
You and your staff can learn how to conduct TNR through Alley Cat Allies’ free webinars.
Learn how to practice targeted TNR, which involves identifying which areas or neighborhoods have the most people calling about cats or bringing in cats, and then targeting TNR efforts in those areas.
Purchase Traps to Loan to the Public for TNR
Consider charging a refundable deposit to ensure that traps are returned. Learn how to use the traps and become familiar with trapping techniques. Include information about how to trap community cats with each trap, and always make sure people borrowing traps sign an agreement stating that the traps will be used only for the purpose of TNR of outdoor cats. Show borrowers how to set the traps before they leave your facility. The Sacramento SPCA, and BARC in Houston are just a few of the many shelters that run trap loan programs. Review our guide to starting a trap depot.
Strengthen and Expand Your Adoption Programs and Foster Network
Having creative and innovative adoption programs and a large and diverse foster network can make a huge difference in animals’ lives.
Here are some approaches we’ve seen at shelters around the country that are committed to improving their save rates:
- Keep adoption hours during weekends and evenings to improve shelter visitation rates. Increase off-site adoption events.
- Improve the access of animal rescue and breed-specific rescue groups to your shelter by building partnerships and creating outreach protocols. The City of Chicago’s Animal Care and Control partners with 230 rescue groups!
- Increase the number of homes available for fostering the animals who enter your shelter. Make sure your community knows you need foster homes by posting on social media, posting flyers in community centers and stores, and by sending out a press release. Call local veterinary offices and ask whether any staff members are interested in fostering. Host regular orientation sessions at your shelter or a local library for potential foster volunteers. Ask current foster volunteers to speak about their experiences at the event. Feature foster volunteers in newsletters and on social media to show appreciation and create a sense of community within the shelter volunteer network.
Stage Three: Become a Model Shelter for Cats
Provide Spay/Neuter to the Public
Open a spay/neuter clinic for low-cost or subsidized spay and neuter services. Offering these services to the public shows your commitment to the community and animals—and will ultimately reduce your shelter’s intakes and increase your save rates.
Learn more about high-volume, high-quality, low-cost spay/neuter models and veterinarian training in these methods at www.humanealliance.org. Find out more about unique veterinary protocols for community cats.
Conduct Community Outreach in Underserved Communities
Develop strategies and programs to bring critical information and services to areas where many people cannot afford or access veterinary care and other resources that support pet wellness. You might invite your volunteers to assist you with going door-to-door in certain areas and offering information on spay/neuter services and other low-cost veterinary services. If possible, hand out certificates for free spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations. Even better, launch a mobile spay/neuter initiative and literally bring free veterinary services into low-income areas.
Increase your impact with targeted outreach. If you are tracking where animals brought into your shelter are coming from—and where you’re receiving the most calls from—you can identify which neighborhoods and zip codes to spend the most time in.
Make the Case to Local Officials
Work with local officials to ensure that your community’s laws and policies help save animals’ lives—and voice your opposition to proposed or existing policies that make it harder for shelters and others to save animals’ lives.
- Review local laws and policies that may affect community cats. If people conducting TNR in your community are not facing any legal issues or harassment, then you likely do not need to push for a law supporting TNR, and a law could actually complicate things and make it harder to implement widespread TNR in your community. However, if TNR groups are being harassed for their efforts to help community cats, that’s when it’s time to push for a simple, straightforward law supporting TNR. The number of local governments across the country with ordinances favoring TNR for outdoor cats has risen exponentially over the past decade, from just 24 in 2003 to 240 in 2013. That’s a tenfold increase in just one decade! Nationally, more than 330 local governments have embraced TNR as their official approach to animal control for community cats. Explain the benefits of TNR and have a detailed proposal ready to outline how a TNR ordinance would help improve your community.
- Provide animal control officers and supervisors with supporting evidence showing how this new approach to outdoor cats is working for other shelters.
- Remind officials that saving animals’ lives generates positive media and community support. Americans love cats and do not want to see them die in shelters. More than 80% of Americans believe that leaving a stray cat outside to live out his life is more humane than having the cat killed, according to a national survey conducted for Alley Cat Allies by Harris interactive. As you know, people feel much more comfortable supporting a shelter that is doing all it can to save lives.
- Make sure that animal control officers and officials understand that the concerns citizens have about cats will still be addressed. Explain that the issues residents have will be remedied through TNR. Emphasize that TNR ends mating behaviors such as yowling and fighting, in addition to ending the breeding cycle and stabilizing the population.
- Voice your opposition to counter-productive animal control laws that force more animals into shelters, create barriers to TNR and other humane approaches, and overtax shelters by monopolizing resources and staff time. Laws and ordinances that mandate spay/neuter or cat licensing do not work. They only penalize owners and caregivers and increase the number of animals killed. Bans on feeding stray and community cats and requirements for community cat colony care unjustly single out caregivers. Learn more about ordinances.
Start a Neonatal Kitten Care Program
When unweaned kittens show up at animal control shelters, these babies who require around-the-clock care are almost always killed. But some shelters are starting lifesaving programs to protect these extremely fragile and vulnerable animals. Neonatal kitten care programs rely heavily on devoted volunteers and foster homes to care for the animals. Volunteers are trained in neonatal kitten care and generally given the supplies they need to bottle-feed and care for the kittens until they reach the appropriate age for adoption. Some programs are housed at the shelter itself, with visiting volunteer “nurses” who take shifts with the kittens. This approach avoids the daily grind of neonatal kitten care, which can drain shelter staff’s energy.
Austin Pets Alive! in Austin, Texas, developed an innovative neonatal program that is saving kittens’ lives. Austin Pets Alive! Executive Director Ellen Jefferson, DVM, and her staff visited the city shelter often to determine how to focus their lifesaving efforts most effectively. “One thing I was really struck by is that out of 10,000 animals that were being euthanized or killed, 1,200 of those were orphaned kittens,” she says.
Austin Pets Alive! started having their volunteers pick up kittens as soon as they were dropped off at the city shelter. They were then housed in a dedicated neonatal ward where caregivers signed up for two-to-four hour feeding shifts to ease the burden of 24-hour kitten care. In 2012, the program rescued almost 1,200 kittens.
Whenever kittens arrive at your shelter, be sure to try to also get the mother whether that means trapping her if she’s a community cat or asking the person who brought the kittens in if they can also bring the mother in. Learn more about what to do in various scenarios in which you may be trying to trap a mother.
Start a Ringworm Program
Many cats lose their lives at shelters just because they have ringworm, which is similar to athlete’s foot. Ringworm is highly treatable, and does not have to be a death sentence for cats in shelters. Some shelters have opened ringworm wards where cats with ringworm are cared for and treated. They are moved into the general cat area once they are successfully treated and their infection clears up.
Austin Pets Alive! opened a ringworm ward in 2010 and has already saved more than 200 cats just through this simple program. Their innovative program allows cats to be adopted directly from the ringworm ward so that they can be treated at home with their new family instead of staying at the shelter longer for treatment. They also have a Facebook page for the ringworm ward so that people can get to know the cats.
Nevada Humane Society also has a ringworm program. When the shelter’s former director Bonney Brown began her work there in 2007, she immediately instituted many policy and program changes to increase the shelter’s lifesaving capacity. One change she made was to end the automatic killing of animals for ringworm and other treatable conditions. The shelter depends on foster homes to help care for cats and kittens with ringworm until they are symptom-free and ready for adoption. Since it can be challenging to find foster homes willing to care for animals with ringworm, they make sure to educate people about exactly what ringworm is, how to treat it, and what simple precautions to take when caring for an animal with ringworm.
Frequently Asked Questions
The best change shelters can make right now to save more cats is to adopt a Feral Cat Protection Policy and stop impounding feral, or community, cats.
You may be wondering…
But what will happen to community cats?
Instead of being impounded, community cats can be spayed/neutered, vaccinated, eartipped, and returned to their outdoor home and their family colony. The population stabilizes—no more kittens! Volunteer caregivers provide food and water for colonies and help ensure that the cats coexist peacefully with their community. TNR is a humane method of care—and the best approach—for outdoor cats. If your facility cannot start its own program right away, consider working with local community cat groups that you can refer people to in the interim. Learn how to implement an organizational TNR program.
If you decide to take the next step and only accept the number of healthy socialized cats that you can adopt out, there are other alternatives to shelters for those cats who you can’t accept. Cats are actually much more likely to find their way home or be adopted if they stay where they are instead of coming to a shelter. According to Barbara Carr, Director of Erie SPCA in Pennsylvania, cats who were waitlisted when the shelter was full had far more live outcomes than cats admitted to the shelter. Of those not taken in, 45% were rehomed 14%, were kept by their caregivers, and about 6% were taken to a rescue group.4
For detailed veterinary protocol for community cats, go to the Veterinarian Resource Center.
Don’t we have to accept community cats?
Many public shelters operate under the assumption that they are legally required to impound community, or feral, cats when residents bring them in. But it is actually rare that local or state laws require municipal shelters to impound healthy community cats. Check your local laws to determine whether your city or state requires that municipal shelters accept community cats. If your municipal shelter is required to accept community cats, work with local officials to propose reversing this policy.
Who will pay for their care?
While costs differ from area to area, implementing a shelter-sponsored TNR program—or even just underwriting the spay/neuter for community cats—will almost always cost less than catching, receiving, housing, feeding, and then killing the cats. And it’s a real investment in the future—leading to healthier cats and happier community members and humanely stabilizing outdoor cat populations. If your shelter can’t afford to sponsor its own TNR program right now, you can consider partnering with private community cat protection groups that can cover some or all of the cost of TNR and use volunteers to trap and transport cats. For example, commissioners in Hillsborough County in Florida have approved a two-year TNR pilot program that will save the tax-funded shelter at least $160,000 a year through a partnership with private organizations.
Jacksonville Animal Control and Protective Services estimates that the city’s TNR program, Feral Freedom, has saved the city more than one million dollars in just over four years. According to Donna Alexander, DVM, director of Cook County Animal and Rabies Control, the average cost of trapping, transporting, holding, killing, and disposing of a feral cat is $185. The cost of TNR is much lower. If caregivers trap and transport the cat, the organization providing TNR services only covers the surgery or a portion of it. Even if the shelter is covering all costs associated with TNR, the total cost will still be lower than that of the trap and remove method.
Many public shelters cover the cost of TNR themselves because it is an investment in cats’ lives and health and because it demonstrates a commitment to using socially responsible, compassionate, and efficient approaches to serving the animals and the public. It also quickly pays for itself with reduced intake rates and increased save rates.
Also, it is free to educate people about TNR—you are welcome to use any of our free resources on TNR.
Can cats be left outdoors?
Yes—and for community cats, this is the only humane option. Cats have lived outdoors for thousands of years and can live—and thrive—in every habitat and climate, from farms to cities, and north to south. Outdoor cats can have the same lifespans as pet cats. A long-term study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association of a TNR program noted that 83% of the cats present at the end of the observation period had been there for more than six years—showing that the cats were living about the same amount of time as pet cats, who have an average lifespan of 7.1 years.5
Outdoor cats are also healthy. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that of 103,643 community cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states from 1993 to 2004, fewer than 1% needed to be euthanized because of debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases.6 Alley Cat Allies’ own clinic had similar findings. In other words, most outdoor cats live full, healthy lives outdoors.
Research shows that feral cats are not a health threat to communities in which they live. After testing feral cats in Northern Florida for FIV, FeLV, and nine other infectious organisms, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery concluded that “feral cats assessed in this study posed no greater risk to human beings or other cats than pet cats.”
How will we respond to calls from the public about community cats?
The majority of people calling animal control about community cats are looking for help—they do not want community cats to be taken away and killed. Even though communities sometimes have one opponent who is very vocal and makes it seem like people want the cats gone, that idea is held by a small minority. The truth is that killing healthy cats does not align with what the overwhelming majority of Americans want. More than 80% of Americans believe that leaving a stray cat outside to live out his life is more humane than having the cat killed, according to a national survey conducted for Alley Cat Allies by Harris Interactive.
When people call, educate them about community cats, TNR, and local resources like low-cost spay/neuter clinics. If you have partnerships with local groups providing these services, give referrals when appropriate. If needed, provide information on humane deterrents to keep cats away from places they are not welcomed, and step in to mediate disputes. Share educational materials and information in your shelter and online about community cats and why TNR is the best option for the cats, the shelter, and the community. Always be sure to tell people the truth about what will happen to community cats who are brought to shelters—that they almost always have negative outcomes. Learning about what happens to community cats in shelters motivates people to participate in the only humane approach to community cats, TNR.
Sue Cosby, CEO of the Pennsylvania SPCA, says that when her shelter receives calls from people who see cats outside, they start by educating the callers about why these cats are outside and let them know that TNR is the best approach for outdoor cats.
“Animal control in Philadelphia has actively supported TNR for nearly a decade,” says Cosby. “Over the years we have come to recognize that there are a wide range of cats living comfortably in our community from the truly feral to the socialized, yet un-owned neighborhood cat. If they’re healthy, happy or feral, we explain that the cats living outside are already in their home—they live outdoors much like the squirrels and other animals seen outside. We explain how humanely trapping, vaccinating and sterilizing the cats, then returning them right back to where they live outdoors, is the best option for the cats and for people. We have continued to evolve over time on how we can best help cats and the community, at first just assisting just the truly feral and now being more flexible to serve a wider range of cats in a similar fashion. Our philosophy is to educate people and help them understand that scooping cats up and bringing them to the shelter is neither the best, nor the only, option.”
How will not accepting community cats improve our shelter?
Shelters that stop accepting community cats, and support TNR programs, generally see both their intake numbers decrease and their number of live releases increase. Shelters can also save money by not taking in community cats. Holding cats for a waiting period and then killing them is costly. It is obviously extremely stressful for the cats, as well as for the shelter staff. Shelters are often able to invest more resources into adoption services and programs that empower community members to help protect animals. Shelters that have stopped accepting community cats and increased their save rates often report that this shift drastically improves shelter staff morale and community relations as people feel better about a shelter that is actively working to increase live outcomes.
Lives Saved in Albuquerque
The Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department implemented a large-scale Trap-Neuter-Return program in early 2012. The city started covering the cost of spay and neuter surgeries for community cats brought to clinics. The city’s program includes a TNR trap loan program, resources and advice for community cat caregivers, mapping of hundreds of community cat colonies, and a partnership with local activists to scrutinize cat intake records to identify any cats who might have come from a known colony. This community-oriented program works wonders for cats. Within the first year of conducting TNR, 59% fewer cats were killed in the shelter than in the previous 12 months.
“At the time, the city was killing several thousand street cats each year but there was no evidence it was a successful method of controlling the street-cat population,” said department employee Jim Ludwick in an article in PETroglyphs. “It was adding to crowding in our catteries, at a time when crowding was a major contributing factor in the suffering and death of domestic, adoptable housecats at the shelters.”
Best Friends Animal Society helped form and support this unique partnership in Albuquerque to make TNR possible. PetSmart Charities awarded Best Friends Animal Society a $700,000 grant to support the initiative.
Chico, California: A Tremendous Shift
Chico Animal Services in Chico, California, has made a huge change in its approach to cats. It stopped accepting all healthy cats—whether they are unsocialized or socialized—on February 1, 2013. “Obviously, bringing them here is not in their best interest,” said Tracy Mohr, the manager of Chico Animal Services, in a Chico Enterprise-Record story. “If they are more likely to go home or more likely to get adopted out there, we don’t have any business bringing them to the shelter.”
The shelter now encourages community members to conduct TNR and helps residents locate traps. They refer any owner-surrendered cats to a private shelter where they are more likely to be adopted.
“There has been a tremendous shift among the welfare community on how to handle cats…What works great for dogs does not work for cats,” Mohr says. “Ending the intake of healthy [community] cats will significantly free up resources and energy and allow the shelter to focus on cats that really need the help.”
San Jose, California: Fewer Kittens, Lower Animal Control Costs
San Jose Animal Care and Services in California ditched the trap and remove method in favor of TNR in 2010. Director John Cicirelli’s says his department is focusing on “reducing the number of cats being born in the community, which will reduce the number of cats in the shelter and the number of [calls] we must respond to.”
Cicirelli’s department spays and neuters all healthy feral cats who are brought to the shelter and then returns them to their neighborhoods. They educate the residents in these neighborhoods about feral cats and how they can get involved with efforts to help them. As a result of the program, Cicirelli and his team have reduced cat and kitten shelter intake by 25% over the last three years7.
Feral Freedom in Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville is home to the very successful Feral Freedom program, a program of First Coast No More Homeless Pets. Feral Freedom is a public-private partnership promoting TNR that started in 2008.
When community cats are brought into Jacksonville’s shelter, they are sterilized and returned to their outdoor homes. The program is funded entirely by private donations and animal advocacy organizations. Close to 20,000 community cats have been sterilized, vaccinated, and eartipped through the Feral Freedom program since 2008.
Data confirms the success of this partnership. Jacksonville Animal Control and Protective Services estimates that Feral Freedom has saved the city well over one million dollars in just over four years. In the program’s first year, negative outcomes for adult cats decreased nearly 60%8.
Since the shelter stopped taking in community cats, adoption rates of socialized cats has increased dramatically, according to Scott Trebatoski, Chief of Animal Control and Protective Services in Jacksonville. Since 2007, the number of adoptable cats who are either adopted or transferred to a rescue organization has increased 322%. That’s right—322%!
“This is one of the most positive and unexpected benefits of TNR,” says Trebatoski.
Manatee County, Florida: More Transparency = More Adoptions
Manatee County Animal Service in Florida wanted to increase the number of animals adopted—and decrease the number of negative outcomes—in its shelter. The shelter started listing on its website the date when a particular animal may be killed, as well as charts detailing the number of animals impounded and whether they ended up being adopted, returned to owners, transferred, or killed. Manatee County is now seen as a state model for shelter transparency.
In April 2013, the Florida legislature passed a bill that requires all state animal pounds and shelters to release monthly reports about how many animals they take in and what happens to them. The bill was based on Manatee County’s practices and success.
“When they start doing it [referring to the Florida bill], they’ll see that their numbers of live release rate are going to increase, their save rates are going to increase because they’re going to have that awareness out in the public,” said Tammy Bentley, a Manatee County shelter employee, in a story on ABC affiliate WWSB.
Chicago: A Model City for Cats
In Chicago, a coalition of animal shelters and rescue groups works together toward the mutual goal of humanely stabilizing community cat populations. Since the program began in 2008, more than 17,500 community cats have been sterilized through Trap-Neuter-Return in Cook County, which includes Chicago, and the effort has been financed by private groups. The coalition collaborates to offer spay/neuter and other veterinary services, public education, trap lending, hands-on trapping help, transportation services, recovery space, food, and assistance with rehoming cats. The results of this proactive approach have been impressive. One of Chicago’s TNR groups, Tree House Humane Society, started targeted TNR projects in 2011 in two zip codes. The number of community cats brought to animal control from those areas already has been reduced by 30-40%. The original population of the colonies has shrunk by 23% through adoptions, and the community has become much more involved in caring for the cats.
 Local Rabies Control Activities. [cited 2012; Available from: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/discond/Pages/LocalRabiesControlActivities.aspx.
 Levy JK, et al. “Evaluation of the Effect of a Long-Term Trap-Neuter-Return and Adoption Program on a Free-Roaming Cat Population.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2002. 222(1): 42-46.