Published on:  
Oct 22, 2015

If we don’t take these cats in, what will happen to them?

Dear Million Cat Challenge, Here’s the question that keeps me up at night: If we don't take them, what will happen? What parking lot or busy intersection will they be dumped in? What creek will they be drowned in? What will happen if they are injured or sick or starving? The possibilities if we don’t take them eliminate the possibility for us of turning any animal away. – Out of the frying pan into the fire?
Dear Frying, 

Ouch, I know the feeling. It’s one thing to know in our heads that the vast majority of cats are out and about every day, facing all the risks you describe, no matter what we do. 

In fact, even using a conservative estimate, there are at least 30 million unowned cats in the United States. That’s about 1 cat for every 10 people. Divide your local population by ten, and you get a rough estimate of unowned cats in the area served by your shelter.

Now think about how many cats are admitted to your shelter each day. Nationally, it amounts to less than 1 in every 10,000 cats on a daily basis. There’s just no way we can expect that to have an impact on the overall harm suffered by cats in the community. 

This is borne out by data from shelters that have decreased intake by such means as closing night drop boxes, discontinuing field pickup of cats, or placing other limits on cat intake. A few months ago I asked a handful of shelters that had made such changes about their feline DOA pickup data, as at least an indirect measure of many of the harms we fear for cats. 

Here’s a graph from one shelter that discontinued picking up healthy strays entirely in February 2012. There was no concurrent change to field services staffing or DOA pickup policy. You can see that DOA pickups actually declined in subsequent years, perhaps because solving problems by mitigating feeding sources and referring cats to TNR programs actually decreased the amount of roaming going on. 

DOA Pickups before and after alternatives to intake

Even when we get all that intellectually, it’s a whole other thing to grasp this in our hearts, especially when we’re faced with not just the theoretical population of cats “out there,” but a living, breathing cat right in front of us. It’s doubly hard when the person wanting to turn over the cat gets threatening or belligerent. 

When you’re faced with that situation, here are a few thoughts to hang onto: 

There are many ways we can reduce risk to cats without admitting them to an overcrowded shelter or exceeding our ability to find homes for them all:

  • Sterilization and vaccination enormously reduce risk for unowned cats, as well as improving their ability to get along with their human and animal neighbors. 
  • Often, lost cats can be helped home more effectively by helping the finder locate the cat’s owner than by admitting the cat to a shelter. 
  • Unwanted pets can be rehomed by their owners, with a lot less stress for the cat in the process, and sometimes the human animal bond can be salvaged after all.

All this can mean the shelter is truly a safe haven for cats that have no other option. 

Finding all these solutions takes time, effort and often, cold hard cash. Working within our capacity and creatively seeking solutions for the cats we can’t admit – even if those solutions aren’t perfect at first – will mean better conditions for all cats over time, whether in the shelter or out and about. 

Finally, a personal note. Perhaps like you, I “grew up” professionally in shelters where we prided ourselves in taking every animal presented to us. We did this regardless of how crowded things got in the shelter, even regardless of the animal’s chance for live release. We did this in the absolute conviction it represented the highest level of service to animals and community members. We believed euthanasia of the cats that didn’t make it back out was the sad but necessary price of preventing the far worse suffering we imagined as the consequence of turning animals away. 

It has been hard to make the mental shift to seeing shelters as resource centers to guide the public in caring for cats, rather than taking it all upon ourselves. I hate giving up on the idea that my superpowers can protect all the cats of the world. I’m especially uncomfortable when I know a shelter doesn’t have all the resources to make it right for the cats they don’t bring in – they don’t have the ability to offer free spay/neuter surgery to help someone rehoming their own pet, for instance, or there’s no TNR group in the community to which they can refer those who have found a feral cat. 

But then I got this email from the director of a small city shelter that was in just that position. Without a veterinarian on staff they couldn’t offer sterilization as an alternative to admission. But they didn’t wait to solve that problem. Knowing that the only thing they could offer was euthanasia, they took the plunge and discontinued admission of healthy strays beyond the number they could rehome or relocate. These words from Betty C. at Clovis Animal Services in California are with me every time I sit with another shelter and talk through the options for admitting, or not admitting, even one cat beyond their capacity to provide the care and outcome she deserves:

"(F)or the other hard-headed animal control folks like myself, I hope they will take the leap and know while I don’t think it is perfect (since we can’t do TNR right now), I am very thankful to have been a part of the movement that has saved thousands of lives and lightened the burden placed on our souls and that of our staff that have had to euthanize these cats all these years."

So, Frying, I know how you feel. But I encourage you to keep asking the question, and maybe rephrase it just a bit. Instead of asking in what field cats will be dumped or what will happen if they are sick and starving, ask how we can mitigate those risks not only for the cats coming to the shelter, but for all the cats out there every day. 

How can we educate the public about responsible feeding methods? Help someone resolve a nuisance situation with their neighbor rather than dumping their cat? Empower community members to intervene when they see a cat at risk, and provide material support to them rather than taking it all upon ourselves?

By asking new questions, maybe we can find some answers that will let us all sleep better at night. 
Dr. Kate Hurley