Compassion In Action

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The State of the Cat

The Problem:

There is an elephant in the room in the animal rescue and sheltering world… an issue so vast and pervasive, yet simply not often enough discussed or targeted within the animal protection community to have adequately addressed it. That is the enormous plight of homeless cats.  We as a society seem to consider and value them differently than dogs. While the rescue community continues to make steady, incremental progress in dealing with homeless dog issues, we have not seen the same kind of progress for cats despite the dedicated work of a small number of cat-focused groups and the introduction of the concept of Trap–Neuter-Return (TNR) to the U.S. in 1980.


Photo Credit: Carol Guzy

What is TNR?  Trap-Neuter-Return or TNR is the title given to the philosophy and practice of trapping, sterilizing, medically treating, and returning community (or feral) cats to the location they were trapped.  The best of these programs add the additional component of “management”, where the cat colony is monitored for health and environmental issues, provided supplemental food and shelter if needed, and where new additions to the colony are quickly trapped and neutered.  These types of programs exist in many communities, sometimes created and operated informally by volunteers and other times by shelters or animal control departments within the community.  Ideally the operation of the program is legalized and codified by the adoption of a local ordinance to regulate the circumstance and procedures under which the cats are humanely trapped and returned as a means of controlling the community cat population and a compassionate alternative to putting healthy animals to death.

I will expand on specific issues faced by our feline friends in future blogs, but I would like to start today with the big picture.  As with any high-numbers issue, the sheer scope of the problem is difficult to grasp and further compounded by the fact that there is simply no accurate figure for the homeless cat population in this country; estimates vary widely from 60 to 100 million.  Cats can populate at an amazing rate. The astounding but accurate math is widely published: An unspayed female cat, her mate and all of their offspring, producing 2 litters per year, with 2.8 surviving kittens per litter can add up to 11,606,077 cats in 9 years.  One irresponsible guardian failing to spay or neuter their cat can quickly spiral out of control, creating an unmanageable environment and demonstrating that any solution that doesn’t include sterilization as a primary component is doomed to fail.

In the Community:  To assist any population, first we must understand its makeup.  Homeless cats living outdoors typically fall into one of two broad categories: stray or feral. “Strays” are typically socialized homeless cats that find themselves on the street for any number of reasons.  “Feral cats”, who are not socialized to humans, are essentially wild animals and often experience a great deal of fear and stress when forced to be in close contact with people.

The conditions faced outdoors by both stray and feral cats can be very difficult at times.  They can be hit by cars, attacked by other cats or wildlife and they are more susceptible to disease and exposed to extreme weather.  However, even with these challenges, outdoor cats can often have long and healthy lives.

While homeless cat issues exist everywhere, the degree of the problem and the localized response varies from community to community and sometimes is very different even from neighborhood to neighborhood.  For example, some progressive communities have adopted ordinances that legalize and legitimize Trap-Neuter-Return programs and volunteer programs have been organized to carry out this vital work.  However, some community’s animal control agencies do not even include cat issues within their purview.  But in the worst cases, there are animal control agencies that encourage the trapping of feral cats so they can be put to death.

Laws concerning homeless cat populations can be complex and vary greatly depending on the municipality as well.  For example; some communities have progressive TNR ordinances (See ARC’s sample TNRM ordinance here) where 100% of their community cats are sterilized and managed while the adjacent counties often have antiquated laws pertaining to cats; making it illegal to feed “stray” cats or release them back into the community after being captured. Some ordinances go as far as equating the caretaking of community cats with abandonment.

In the Shelters:  While a cat’s life on the street is not an easy one and TNR alone cannot provide all the solutions, sheltering is a very difficult proposition for cats as well.  While the current set up and operation of most shelters provides challenges for dogs, it is even more difficult for cats. Approximately 2-5% of stray cats (compared with approximately 15-20% of stray dogs) in shelters are returned to their guardians and more than 70% of cats (compared with about 56% of dogs) are put to death in shelters each year, largely, shelters cite, because of a lack of adopters, no space, age, and spread of disease.

Cats can quickly decline physically, emotionally, and socially in a shelter environment.  These very particular and clean animals are often housed with their litter box, food, and sleeping areas within 2 by 2 foot enclosures (on average), often without any way to perch forcing them to defecate, eat, and sleep in an uncomfortable proximity.  Most shelters do not always have the space and resources to offer significant time out of the enclosures in a larger and more stimulating play space.  The stress involved in semi-isolated encapsulation can sometimes be unbearable.  A cat who may have been social and healthy upon arrival at the shelter may very well become antisocial and sickly in a very short period of time.  Stress that has physically manifested as illness can be transferred to other cats in the shelter that are also stressed and consequently have a comprised immune system. Often when a sick cat has been housed within proximity of other cats, all cats are put to death in order to halt the spread of disease.  One sneeze is often an instant death sentence for a cat in a shelter, and in the most unfortunate cases it can be a death sentence for the entire cattery.

Limited Resources:  Additionally, the resources like rescue and foster networks that exist for dogs outside of traditional shelters simply do not exist to the same degree for cats.  There are notably fewer rescues that pull cats from shelters and the few that are focused on this effort are typically filled to capacity. For example, in the state of Tennessee at the time of this blog’s publication, there were 399 organizations registered with (make that a hyperlink to Petfinder). Here is the 399 breakdown:

  • Cat focused rescues: 29
  • Dog focused rescues: 158
  • Both dog and cat rescues: 196 (of those 1,644 cats were posted and 2,980 dogs were posted, so even though their mission is both many are essentially dog rescues)
  • Misc (farm animals, bunnies, ferrets, etc): 16

The challenge for cats in our society is significant and complex.  The resources and solutions are limited, and often not used effectively or in collaboration with one another.  Often community governments, which should be leading the effort, fail to support and embrace and sometimes even fight against the progressive efforts of their citizens.  There are issues of strays versus ferals and how best to humanely meet the needs of those populations.  There are issues of culture and attitude towards cats both in society as a whole and the animal protection world. Our philosophic differences inspire a disabling intolerance and aggressively challenge one another and organizations, ultimately building barriers when we should be building bridges.  As we strive for a compassionate society for animals, we must make every effort to unify as a movement.  This is the only way we can be truly effective in our collective mission of saving lives, ending suffering, and promoting compassion.

Why the Difference?  More cats live in American households than dogs – approximately 93 million compared with 77.5 million, respectively.  This fact forces us to ask the question:  If so many people have cats as companions, and they reproduce at a rate comparable to dogs, then why is the number of cats who are homeless and put to death in our shelters so much greater than the number of dogs?

Photo Credit: Carol Guzy

I believe the answer is what many “cat people” have been saying for a long time…  While we as a society may consider cats as suitable companion animals or appreciate their beauty and comedic talents, we as a society seem to consider and value them differently than dogs.   Maybe it is their independent nature and the linked misconception that “cats take care of themselves”, but society largely does not exhibit the same concern or demand the same resources for cats that are given to dogs.  In response to a 2005 study on pet overpopulation that in part sought to determine if there was disparity in the number of dogs vs. cats who are recovered after disappearing from home, Veterinarian Dr. John New Jr. noted:  “One of my gut feelings about the ‘disappeared category’ is that it… reflects a different standard in society when we look at cats than dogs… more people are accepting that a cat can wander and disappear for a few days. They may not be as motivated to look for a cat and by the time they contact animal control, it might be too late.”

We know the value scale for animals exists. That is why our society can generally find it acceptable to eat some animals and keep others as pets, why rats are often viewed as diseased pests while squirrels are seen as beautiful woodland creatures, or why wearing fur has become taboo but most people don’t think twice about leather and I believe why cats are viewed and treated as more disposable than dogs.  In order for homeless cats to find their ideal living situations, we must place greater value on their wellbeing, recognizing their needs in the community and in the shelters.  We must set them up for success and those of us in animal protection must lead by example, demonstrating greater value for their lives and speaking about the problem whenever possible.  We must take the public’s comfort and familiarity with cats and turn it into an informed compassionate concern for cats, and then motivate that concern into action.  And we must have governments embrace and support the efforts of shelters and volunteers – as a community we can solve the plight of homeless cats.

What can we do?

The incorporation of active and organized Trap-Neuter-Return programs into every community is critical in inhibiting the population growth of feral and stray cats.  If you are interested in becoming a more active force for cats in your community there are many ways to get involved.

Legislation and Advocacy

  • Advocate for a TNR ordinance: If your community is lacking this vital tool to help address the problem, contact your elected representatives to ask them to propose or support a TNR ordinance and provide sample language.  (See ARC’s sample TNRM ordinance here.)
  • Spread the word: Team up with others who working towards the same goal to advocate progressive actions for cats to your community’s legislators and inspire others to get involved.

Hands-On Action

  • Become a community cat caretaker: Effective TNR programs require dedicated organized caretakers to manage the community cat colonies.  They depend on these managers for food and sometimes shelter, in the form of specially designed cathouses or access to other safe and protective structures.
  • Foster a cat – or two!: Contact your local shelters to determine what programs and policies they have in place for addressing homeless cats. Ask them what you can do to help.  Nearly every shelter and rescue desperately needs foster homes for cats. When an animal is fostered, this usually means they are not subject to the space/time constraints that can apply shelter.  Your foster gets to learn how to live with a family and a space at the shelter or rescue is freed up for another homeless animal in need – two lives saved at once!  Fostering is the perfect way to help save lives if you aren’t quite ready to adopt yourself or you may find it even more fulfilling to help many cats along their way to a happy home.
  • Adopt: If you are ready to adopt or find that your foster cat is desinted to become your forever cat, the promise of lifelong love is one of the most special gifts you can give a homeless animal.
  • Support or initiate spay/neuter efforts: The need for effective, low-cost spay/neuter programs to address community and homeless cats is urgent and should be considered a high priority.  Contact your local shelters and support existing programs or help to organize and fundraise for a pilot program in your community.
  • Volunteer for your local shelter: Homeless cats in shelters need better housing, enrichment, and more proactive cat care programs.  These are problems that can typically be easily corrected if the resources are available.  Individuals and communities have a vital role in ensuring that shelters have the resources to successfully shelter and get cats adopted.  Healthy, compatible cats up for adoption are ideally group-housed, creating a positive and stimulating environment for them where they can show off their personalities.  Work with your shelter to create a community cat room to make this visibility and interaction possible.

Financial Support

  • If you are unable to offer physical support, consider contributing funds earmarked specifically for community cat programs.

While the problem is sizeable and largely unaddressed, it is not unsolvable. If we focus our strategies, we can address this problem through consistent, collective action.  We can educate our leaders and fellow citizens.  We can support our shelters and rescues.  We can refine and improve our methods.  We can turn our concern into compassionate action and we can create lasting change for cats.

Alley Cat Allies is the only national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection and humane treatment of cats. Their website is an excellent resource for those who wish to learn more about how to improve the state of the cat.

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13 responses to “The State of the Cat”

  1. Laura Cull says:

    I am SO thankful that an animal organization is finally brave enough to come out on this issue. I am an animal lover first and foremost but ever since my first adopted cat in 1990 I have become a converted cat lover. And after having volunteered in animal shelters I am even more committed to cats. We will always have cats in our lives and when temperments allow we will always foster cats. And I’ve donated to the local spay/neuter program and designated my gift to CATS ONLY.
    In my 15+ years involved with animal welfare I describe the situation as “dog-centric”. Dog people often take offence to this saying that they love all animals. But if they could hear their language and conversations objectively they would see that there truly is priority given to dogs over cats.
    I don’t want to take anything away from dogs and I want to see dog rescue work thrive. But I also want to see cats valued at par with dogs and just as much effort gone into saving stray and feral cats.
    Thank you for sharing your honest observations. Hopefully it will make a difference.
    With great respect,

  2. Evelyn says:

    LOVE this article/analysis!
    Cats usually get the short end of the stick; that’s why I’ve gotten so involved in cat rescue.
    Evelyn in cincinnati

  3. Crystal says:

    I grew up in foster care and not the good kind, but I learned early on to be friends with cats and it helped alot, it also made me while I do love all animals be a cat person as the saying goes…I have in my time taken in strays to give them food and love, found homes for many cats dropped on my doorstep when I lived in the country, fed a stray cat community at one point and volunteered my time at a cat only shelter at one point. Overall, I think cats should be ranked with dogs for the amount ofresources allocated to help them, I love cats and things like what I read in this article just make me so sad, even if you can’t foster a cat there are shelters out there that will let you come in and just hold and love them all the time, just get started and within a week they willrecognize you and won’t say anything when you come in to do your love work with the cats, even no kill shelters need people to do this, they have more pressing concerns than this so they don’t advertise it but trust me, you will have both the recognition and warm feelings of the cats and the recognition and warm feelings from the humans who work there….I once had a cat named Red caged alone at the one I was able to help out at because some idiot female didn’t listen when he hissed ather and still picked him up and got clawed down the face, I worked with this cat intensively and within three months he was reformed and ready for a forever home…cats need humans to help them don’t let your heart be the one that doesn’t get involved

  4. karen says:

    I don’t like the part in the Trap-Neuter-Return-Manage Suggested Program & Ordinance Language where it says “To have all trapped cats tested for feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency virus,
    and to have those who test positive humanely put to death or isolated indoors in
    appropriate housing.” Feline leukemia should not be a death sentence—they do need to be isolated but definitely not put to death. The first test can be false positive or given proper care the cat can often fight off the exposure to feline leukemia. At the very least, if given proper medical care, they can live a happy life for many years even with feline leukemia. I have 4 cats that were able to fight off their exposure to feline leukemia before becoming infected and the next two tests were negative. So please don’t give people the idea that they should put any cat to death because of a positive feline leukemia test. Only isolation and proper medical care and retesting should be mentioned here in this information if you are truly supportive of cats.

  5. Dee says:

    I have TNR-ed over 80 feral cats in the past 15 years. I currently operate a cat sanctuary where I care for 40.

    • Jan says:

      I inherited over 27 unaltered cats and kittens when my husbands ex wife moved out.She did not believe God wanted us to alter any living creature.So needless to say I had a mess on my hands.But with help from some very wonderful people we managed to get all fixed,vetted and re-homed,as I had a lot of close friends who had small farms, and they took a bunch each! The only ones left behind were a nasty tempered Tom and an even nastier Rag doll,siamese mix female. Those cats kept our rat and mice population down as we lived in a rural area.And never had a problem w/snakes except the one the ol’ Tom left me for a gift one morning!They also taught me a lot.They are amazing and very adaptable creatures!

  6. Dunrey LaRose says:

    Thank you so much for this in-depth and insightful look at the issues facing our stray/feral and homeless cats. I am an animal lover in general – love them all! But my lifestyle is more conducive to having cats as my companions. The 3 cats I have now were stray cats that somehow arrived on my doorstep or were brought to me, and my 2 previous cats (16 & 17 years old) were rescues. I do love dogs and have fostered several for rescue groups. And I volunteer at a shelter and work with both cats & dogs. In seeing the general public’s interaction and with both cats & dogs, I believe your explanation regarding the attitudes that people have towards cats is very accurate.

    While all of our companion animals face a variety of serious issues, it seems cats often get the short end of the stick when it comes to community awareness, allocations of funds and just a lack of concern in general for their well being. Thank you again for bringing these issues to the attention of so many people. I look forward to your updated posts and blogs.

    Thank you again for your caring and compassion towards all animals. You are my hero!!!


    Dunrey from Florida

  7. Margaret Dhillon says:

    Thanks for your article, I am a cat and dog parent and volunteer at a free roam no kill cat shelter, I have 4 dogs and 7 cats (all rescues and 4 of the cats came from feral colonies as kittens) who all get along thank goodness. I think a huge part of the problem is the lack of education about spay and neuter and the prohibitive cost in many areas. Each one of my cats cost $400+ to spay or neuter and the last one I was given a *feral discount* and it still cost me $300. Really I know that vets spend a lot of money to get their education but maybe there needs to be some universal low cost/free spay and neuter campaign and folks less fortunate than me who are caring for strays could afford to have them vetted instead of allowing them to breed.

  8. Hello-
    Thanks so much for such a well-researched and well laid out article. I’m the American co-Founder of Vietnam Animal Welfare Organisation in Hoi An, Vietnam and we are faced with the same problems here but on a much larger scale as cats are still stolen and eaten here. Our rescue here takes in far more cats than dogs simply because people find kittens in such horrible conditions in the markets and bring them to us, but the adoption rate is very low. While our program has not yet expanded to take on TNR as we have only been operating since March 2013 and just moved into the new shelter this week, we look forward to being the first to initiate this program in Vietnam once funds allow for the purchase and import of human traps. Just getting pet owners, both local Vietnamese and foreign residents, to spay and neuter their cats is a real challenge as the prevailing mentality is that breeding is the “natural” thing to do, though by that mentality, it’s also natural for a cat to live for less than a year while suffering from disease, malnutrition, and abuse. This is a hard concept to drive into people and like your organisation, we feel education is a huge priority.

    As the onsite manager of the shelter, I can tell you having 20 cats definitely makes me seem like the crazy cat lady, but were we to have that many dogs on the property, I guarantee the heckling would be different simply due to the mentality toward cats that you write of so well here.

    I will share this on our facebook page. Thanks again! Well done.
    Catherine Besch

  9. sempai says:

    BRAVO < <3 <3 <3 :) :)

  10. Michelle says:

    As a cat rescue in a major city that has an estimated 185,000 cats on the street, I cannot thank you enough for this article.

  11. Susan Willard says:

    I cannot support TNR unless cat colonies are registered and caretakers licensed. We cannot afford yet another solution that grows the population of abandoned cats. The goal of TNR should be the gradual elimination of the colony. That is not what is happening with the current solutions presented by Alley Cat Allies.

  12. Valerie says:

    Great post. It’s a shame that there is a stigma about cats, as a poster above pointed out, women are called crazy cat ladies and men are looked as effeminate for having cats. In ancient Egypt cats were worshipped by all.
    I love my cat. She was a stray that came begging at my back door one night. Now she sits on my lap and purrs and keeps me warm at night. She gets me up early in the morning so I’m never late for work anymore. Can’t say enough about her. She’s made me a better person. I wish i could adopt more but she is aggressive toward other cats. After this article though, I think i’ll make another donation to the humane society for the cats.

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