Pet Connection: Shelters consider hands-off cat policy

06/11/2013 12:00 AM

06/10/2013 5:33 PM

How do you help more cats with less money? Contrary to decades of conventional practice, some in the shelter community are arguing that for municipal shelters the answer is to leave free-roaming cats alone, and to ask communities' nonprofit shelters to do the same.

"We help when a cat is in trouble, or is causing trouble," said Tracy Mohr, a 30-year shelter veteran who recently turned Chico into one where cats are no longer routinely accepted at the city's tax-funded shelter. "If that's not the case, we leave them alone and ask that others do, too."

Chico's city shelter no longer accepts "nuisance" cats trapped and brought in by citizens, nor cats presumed to be lost pets. The city shelter also no longer accepts cats given up by their owners for adoption.

Those animals now go to the Butte Humane Society, a local nonprofit that had already been pulling cats from the city shelter for adoption. By sending people looking to rehome a pet directly to the nonprofit shelter, the community has one-stop shopping for adopting cats while sparing the animals the stress of being moved from one shelter to another.

The changes were put in place in February, and they've resulted in fewer cats killed and, more surprisingly, fewer unhappy citizens. Mohr said that's because the shelters were all on the same page when it came to handling cats, and because the community outreach ahead of the change was extensive.

"We have a very active animal welfare community here, with a lot of organizations and a lot of very active, concerned people," said Mohr. "The change made perfect sense."

What didn't make sense was continuing with traditional sheltering methods when budgets are being slashed, said shelter medicine pioneer Dr. Kate Hurley of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. Hurley said that landing in a shelter is a good thing if you're a dog, but that's rarely the case for cats.

"People know when a dog is missing, and they know it right away," she said. "The dog was here, and now he's not. That's not true with cats. It's not uncommon for an owned cat to be missing for a while, and an owner won't start looking because the cat always came back before.

"With all our efforts in shelters to reunite cats with their owners, more commonly what we're doing is killing people's pets," said Hurley, noting that 67 percent of lost cats are reunited with their owners by returning on their own, but only 2 percent of shelter cats are reclaimed by their owners.

In other words: Cities can save money by not dealing with "lost" cats or feral cat colonies, which are both situations that typically can be resolved without official intervention.

The change is in part a realization that free-roaming cats, whether pets or feral, have more in common with wild animals than with dogs. No one would ever suggest that there are enough man-hours and money to eradicate entire populations of wild species in urban areas. Instead, the strategy is to remove dangerous animals and help those wild animals in trouble. The same strategy works for cats, said Hurley, and Mohr agrees.

"Take people complaining that there's a cat in their yard, going to the bathroom in their garden," said Mohr. "If they trap that cat, really, is that going to solve the problem? No, because there are probably more cats in the neighborhood. Trapping will be an exercise in futility.

"What we're counseling people to do, the same way we counsel them with wildlife, is to use strategies that make a yard less attractive for a cat.

"The problem gets solved by leaving the animal alone in most cases, and we're using our community to solve it."

The bottom line, said Mohr, is a collaborative community effort aimed at problem-solving, using strategies that actually work with and for cats, while saving money for taxpayers.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at or visit Back columns:


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