The State of the Cat
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.
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 Petfinder.com (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?
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.
- 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.
- 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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