How the U.S. shelter system is failing cats

By Francis Battista

The municipal animal shelter system in this country was inaugurated in the late 19th century as a more humane alternative to rounding up and drowning or shooting large numbers of street dogs posing a public safety threat. Owner redemption was introduced as a humane consideration, but over the first three-quarters of the 20th century, neither the system nor the shelters changed that much apart from the method of dispatch — from drowning to gas chamber to decompression chamber to lethal injection. Lifesaving via adoption was related to rather passively, and those positive changes that were made were minor and incremental concessions to local activists.

Somewhere along the way, cats were added to the mix. The psychological well-being of impounded animals was hardly given a thought, either in shelter design or operational protocols — and the shelter environment, which is stressful for the dogs it was designed for, is hell for cats. Likewise, the return-to-owner protocols, which have proved marginal at best for dogs, are disastrous for cats.

It’s a well-known fact that return-to-owner rates for cats are abysmally low. Last year’s California Shelter Report showed that just two percent of cats entering shelters statewide were reclaimed by their owners. Those numbers are not unique to California, as they are evident across the country in just about every community. It’s an absolute failure of the sheltering system, but how do we fix it?

Under many state animal control codes, cats are an afterthought, with no specific mandate obligating local agencies to respond to calls regarding healthy, free-roaming cats — unlike with dogs. And, where local agencies do include cats in their brief, they tend to simply apply the same protocols developed for dogs, with no consideration for the distinctive behavior of cats or the distinct relationship they have with people.

The role of animal control

For most of the 20th century there was no pretense that the “dogcatcher” was looking out for a dog’s well-being, and they were routinely depicted in a negative light in movies, popular stories and films going back to the silent era. Usually, the dogcatcher was portrayed as a slapstick incompetent who got outwitted by a clever dog or the neighborhood kids, or as a stereotypical villain with malicious intent.

Today, animal control officers and agencies are understandably offended by those depictions. Indeed, most approach their work with compassion, but are too often operating in a system that limits humane options.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that animal control shelter designs began to include some features that actively encouraged the adoption of shelter pets. However, municipal sheltering and the philosophy around it was, and still is, based largely on the template developed for dogs 100 years ago, and these designs were based on a public health priority, rather than an animal welfare priority.

Beyond the operations of any given shelter, the old way of thinking about animal control at the municipal government level should evolve to reflect the expectations of the public who, polls show, believe that pets in shelters should only be killed if they are too sick or injured to be treated, or too dangerously aggressive to be safely adopted into a new home. Those are basically the goals of the no-kill movement — reducing shelter intake (noses in) and increasing positive shelter outcomes (noses out) through a variety of programs key to achieving those public expectations.

One big problem in the way that municipalities award animal control contracts is when they are based solely on the numbers of animals impounded. This is a disincentive to reducing shelter intake and offers no encouragement for increasing positive outcomes — return to an owner or adoption to a new home. In communities where this is the name of the game, what the public expects to be a humane, lifesaving agency can easily devolve into a bounty-based jobs program, and in such cases, the agency deserves all of the old “dogcatcher” epithets.

We need to rethink and redesign our animal control systems around modern, humane priorities, rather than perpetuate systems and shelters rooted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Managing cats

Not surprisingly, new approaches to managing cats inside and outside of shelters are generating significant attention.

The recommendations by the stakeholder group in California suggested that cats lacking identification should be allowed to immediately move through the shelter — meaning they could be made available immediately for adoption or transfer to a rescue group. The idea is that since return-to-owner rates are so low for cats, why burden shelters, stress and expose cats to disease, and create overcrowded conditions that drive up shelter killing rates, in order to accommodate the two percent of cat owners who might redeem their lost pet? Better to prioritize the interests of the 98 percent than the two percent. This is a radical idea, to be sure, and one that we had issues with at the time of the report’s publication — and still do today.

Taking someone’s cat into a shelter and immediately allowing that pet to be adopted could be a violation of property rights, and somehow seems to suggest that cat owners care less for their pets than do dog owners. The thinking seems to be this: “They’re not coming to get them, so let’s find someone else who may care for them more.”

This practice, however, does not track with the behavior patterns that cat owners have learned to expect from their feline friends. Someone who allows a cat to have access to the outdoors may well be used to the pet taking off for a day or two, and then turning up snoozing on the sun porch. By the time a search for the lost pet begins, it may be too late. The cat could belong to somebody else by then or, worse, have already been killed.

A similar scenario could occur if an indoor-only cat who's not collared and tagged gets out through an open door or broken screen. The cat could be scooped up and taken to the local shelter by a well-meaning passerby, only to be passed along immediately to a new home before the owner gets home from work or has a chance to search the shelter. I can see the headline now: “Distraught family fighting the system to reclaim beloved cat.”

The obvious answer to this is universal microchipping of cats to facilitate return to their families, but I don’t believe that failure to microchip or tag a pet should be grounds for the immediate removal and rehoming of someone’s cat.

The strategy of making cats immediately available for adoption if they don’t have ID is gaining traction in the sheltering community. Chicago recently implemented a new city-wide policy that includes this provision as part of a broader effort to move animals out of the shelter environment more quickly. Meanwhile, in neighboring Michigan, the strategy of eliminating hold times for cats with no ID (implemented by the Michigan Humane Society) appears to be in violation of state law, so it is likely that the property rights issue will have to be sorted out on a state-by-state basis.

Some alternative solutions

Cats are unique. They’re different from dogs and so, absolutely, their care should be different in our nation’s shelters. But instead of merely reducing or eliminating hold times (a policy that is bound to be challenged by aggrieved owners), we should consider other solutions.

As we said last year in our official response to the California white paper, there must be some kind of safety net in place to attempt to reunite cats with their owners, instead of summarily sending them off to a new home. In many cases, the best option for a healthy cat lacking ID is to be spayed or neutered, microchipped and returned to where he or she was found. Information from the California report shows that cats left to their own devices are 13 times more likely to find their own way home than if they were picked up by animal control and held in a shelter for owner redemption.

Shelter-integrated community cat programs (also known as return-to-field or shelter/neuter/return) have proven to be both palatable and effective, and have shown great results in cities across the country. In these jurisdictions, shelters have adopted a community cat management philosophy whereby healthy, free-roaming cats — friendly or not — are brought into the shelter just long enough to be sterilized and vaccinated. They are then returned to where they were found. Sick or injured cats, and kittens under eight weeks old, are brought to the shelter for needed care and/or fostering.

One way that shelters can improve the “cat flow” through their doors without risking violation of personal property rights is to implement a system with characteristics of the law in North Carolina. Under the Tar Heel State’s 2013 law, shelters can transfer lost pets to a rescue organization, foster family or the person who found the pet for a required 72-hour minimum hold time. Only when that time has expired can an animal be made available for a permanent adoption. It’s a smart idea, as it also promotes adoption and keeps the animal out of the shelter environment.

There is a common thread running through these innovative approaches and shelter workarounds to managing cats, many of which are being employed by progressive animal control agencies. It is the inescapable understanding that municipal animal shelters, with their essential design rooted in a 120-year-old effort to protect the public from packs of stray dogs, are failing cats miserably.


Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society