138 cats rescued in Texas

Person wearing gloves and a gown holding Tinkle the orange tabby cat
Best Friends assists city of Sugar Land with far too many cats living in one house.
By Kelli Harmon

Tinkle is a talkative, cuddly orange cat who is one of a kind, but until recently, he was one of 138 cats living in a single home in Texas. He and the other cats in the home needed help — a lot of help. It took many people and organizations, including Best Friends, working together, but now Tinkle and the other cats rescued from overcrowded conditions have a fresh start in life.

It all started when the city of Sugar Land Animal Services received a report of a home just outside of Houston with far too many cats. The home’s resident was in the hospital, and when a family member arrived to look in on the pets, they discovered a terrible situation. Animal control officers were called to the house and noted an ammonia smell detectable even from outside the house. It turned out that there were 138 cats and kittens in the home. While many appeared friendly, it was clear that they needed to leave immediately. There were sick cats, deceased cats, and new kittens being born into an already serious situation because the cats weren’t spayed or neutered.

Dawn Steph, city of Sugar Land director of environmental & neighborhood services says, “We were shocked by the magnitude of the situation, including the number of animals and conditions inside the house.”

It was immediately clear that the cats would need to be removed from the home. So the Sugar Land Animal Services team began doing just that, even though the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Emergency case on the heels of a staff shortage

For any organization, 138 cats arriving at one time is a lot, and it was a massive number for Sugar Land Animal Services to care for; its 56 cat enclosures were already nearing capacity at the shelter. To make matters even more difficult, the shelter was operating with half the staff it usually had. Dawn says, “Even during normal operations, a hoarding case like this would have completely overwhelmed us, but in this instance, we had just experienced an almost complete loss of our regular shelter staff.”

The city’s priority was to get the cats to a safe place at its shelter or others in the area. Staff began loading up cats and kittens, and as they arrived at the shelter, they documented each cat’s condition. Dawn says, “We observed a variety of medical issues, including malnourishment and ringworm.”

They hoped to make the cats available for adoption as soon as possible. But given the medical problems and diseases many of the cats had, it would take a while for some to be ready for new homes.

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Several animal organizations helped by taking in healthy cats who were already at the Sugar Land shelter to free up space and resources for the cats from the neglect case. To prevent overcrowding and disease spread, the city of Sugar Land also set up a temporary emergency shelter at a second location: a city-owned house nearby where they could house nearly 75 cats who didn’t have a kennel at the shelter.

Dawn explains that they then activated the city’s Emergency Operations Center. That meant that city staff were temporarily reassigned from their regular duties to identify additional resources to take care of the cats. With the staff and city stretched to their limits, things went from bad to worse: Multiple cats tested positive for panleukopenia and calicivirus.

Cats who had the viruses or had been exposed to sick cats then had to be quarantined and treated. Also, Dawn says, “At the time of this incident, our shelter did not have a veterinarian on staff. We utilized contracts with local veterinary clinics for medical services, but due to the number of animals, we needed to identify other resources to provide the medical care such as vaccinations, testing and spay/neuters.” That’s where Best Friends came in.

Best Friends assists city with cats

Deyra Galvan, Best Friends community engagement senior coordinator, says, “We sent a few staff to go and help with the initial intake and vetting.” But a few weeks later when the cats started getting sick, it was clear that they needed more help.

The city of Sugar Land staff had been making the best of the situation for the 75 remaining cats at the temporary emergency shelter. But since it wasn’t designed to house cats and they needed to stay there longer than planned due to medical issues, the Best Friends Houston team saw an opportunity to make life a little better for both the cats and the people caring for them every day.

They loaded up a van full of supplies and spent the day helping the Sugar Land staff. Deyra says, “We brought pop-up crates, personal protective equipment, cat toys, bedding, and towels.” They completely redesigned the cat housing in each room and set up the spaces according to the cats’ needs: a quiet room for the shy cats, an area for the bigger cats who needed more space, and a medical room for cats who needed closer observation and treatment.

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Each cat had much more space to stretch out, plus clean bedding and toys. It was more comfortable for the cats and safer and more efficient for the people taking care of them. Deyra says, “The staff who had been taking care of the cats — most of them were guys from the public works department, and they were so nice and so willing to do anything for these cats. They weren’t familiar with animal shelter protocols and were grateful for the help.”

The Best Friends team came back again to help, sharing information and personality traits about the cats that would help place them. As the cats were healthy enough for it, they were taken to Best Friends’ surgery suite in Houston to be spayed or neutered.

In the coming weeks, the Best Friends team in Houston matched cats with shelters and rescue groups that could take them in and place them into homes. They also took in five cats who needed more time in medical quarantine. Tinkle was one of those cats.

Case closed

Today, the temporary shelter is cleared out, and all of the cats from the case are with new families or are safe with rescue groups. “The outpouring of support we received from city employees, the community and the surrounding region was tremendous,” Dawn says. “It was always our priority to ensure the best possible outcome for the pets in our care, and this would not have been possible without the many dedicated and passionate volunteers from organizations like Best Friends.”

And Tinkle? He was adopted from Best Friends in Houston when a volunteer told her friend about two gorgeous orange cats she had met who just so happened to need a home. Tinkle and the other cat, Ronalda, were just the type of kitties she had her heart set on, and now they’re in their new home, together and happy.

There’s no good time to handle an emergency case, but when everyone pulls together to help pets in need, it’s amazing what is possible. Sometimes the best team to save lives is the one you make through collaboration, commitment, and community.

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