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Crafting Solutions

By weaving legislation and public-education campaigns into a comprehensive plan, then adding specialized programs to sterilize cats or manage feral colonies, your agency can begin addressing cat-related problems in your community.

By weaving legislation and public-education campaigns into a comprehensive plan, then adding specialized programs to sterilize cats or manage feral colonies, your agency can begin addressing cat-related problems in your community.

© Bonnie Nance

If there were one recipe to help shelters successfully resolve problems related to cats, it would be printed on this page. But just as there is no single reason why cats pour into your shelter, there is no single solution that will guarantee each a loving home. There are, however, several approaches that work under the appropriate circumstances, and plenty of innovative ideas that may help your shelter fashion its own solutions.

Humane advocates usually begin by considering cat-control legislation, public-education campaigns, and feral cat programs, along with the ever-present spay/neuter programs. Ideally, a comprehensive plan will combine all these strategies. But since most organizations lack the time and resources to pursue every avenue, some focus first on areas that will reap the greatest rewards, then gradually roll out different segments of their plans over the course of months or years.

Each component has its strengths and weaknesses. Legislation may be an effective way to bring about change, but laws can be difficult to pass and enforce, and even the best of them can’t mandate loving, lifelong relationships with animals. Effective management of feral cat colonies may help certain groups of animals, but will not accomplish much for the thousands of other free-roaming cats in the community. Used in conjunction with one another, however, these and other programs address a multitude of problems from slightly different angles, overlapping and complementing each other.


There Ought to be a Law

By lobbying for effective cat control, humane organizations can compel people to do the right thing simply because it’s the law. But more importantly, the passage of such legislation encourages individual pet owners to voluntarily abide by the standards and expectations established by the community. Some of the more effective laws championed by shelters include mandatory licensing (or, alternately, registration and identification without a fee), confinement, sterilization, and mandatory holding periods for stray animals brought into shelters.

Anyone who’s spent time behind the front counter of an animal shelter knows how difficult it is to reunite a lost cat with his owner. Reclaim rates for cats usually hover around two or three percent, compared with 15-20 percent for dogs. Why the disparity? There are a number of reasons, including the possibility that cat owners put off searching for their animals, the fact that people are less likely to report stray cats than they are stray dogs, and, of course, the fact that many of the cats that arrive at your shelter had no true owner to begin with. But perhaps most important is the fact that cats rarely wear proper identification. That’s something some local governments are trying to correct with cat-licensing legislation, which requires people to claim ownership of their cats, place ID tags on the animals, and pay a small fee to register them with the city or county.

“Obviously, animals wearing identification get home a lot more quickly,” says Diane Webber, executive director of the Benton-Franklin Humane Society in Pasco, Washington, where cat licensing is now under consideration. “Over the last three to four years we’ve seen such a dramatic increase in the number of cats in the area that we now handle more cats than we do dogs. Dog owners and non-pet owners—general taxpayers—should not be made solely responsible for the control of cats.”

The threat of rabies is yet another problem that may be solved with the help of cat licensing. “Cats are much more likely to come in contact with a rabid animal,” says Webber, “and the only effective way to control rabies vaccinations is through a licensing program.” What’s more, when a pet owner visits a veterinarian for a rabies vaccination, it’s a great opportunity to provide other services that will protect the animal’s health. By proposing that such vaccinations be linked with a licensing program, humane agencies can improve the health of individual animals and help the entire community, reason enough for lawmakers and public health officials to support the idea.

The Same, Only Differential

By creating a differential licensing program—charging pet owners, say, $5 to license a sterilized animal and $25 to license an unsterilized animal—shelters can make a licensing program even more effective by encouraging pet owners to have their animals spayed or neutered. Even if a license is never renewed, once an animal is sterilized, he stays that way.

Unfortunately, few municipalities have the resources to make sure that every animal in the jurisdiction is licensed. Some agencies canvass their communities, going from door to door to make sure that every pet owner complies. This method of enforcement will be effective for some, but agencies that sell licensing as a service to the community and as a sort of “insurance policy” for individual pet owners will be even more successful.

The impact will multiply if your agency can obtain the cooperation of veterinarians in the area, as Alachua County (Fla.) Animal Services has done. Originally, many veterinarians in the county were hesitant to offer licenses to their clients, refusing to serve as “tax collectors.” But a local politician worked with Animal Services to design a special decal to be displayed by veterinarians enrolled in the program. As soon as the idea was suggested to veterinarians, those who hadn’t previously participated feared competition from participating veterinarians. As a result every veterinarian soon enrolled in the program without a decal ever being produced.

In a few communities, animal care and control agencies have even found that pressure from pet owners leads veterinarians to offer licensing as a service to their clients. When a pet owner in New Orleans faced a heavy fine for failing to license his animal, he asked his veterinarian why the doctor hadn’t advised him of the requirement. The veterinarian saw the need to change, and now sells licenses at the clinic.

Safe and Sound

A few agencies have lobbied for cat-confinement laws with varying degrees of success. Obviously, if your agency can convince pet owners to keep their cats indoors, you’ll be protecting animals and decreasing your own workload as well.

Five years ago, the Aurora Animal Shelter in Colorado pushed local lawmakers to pass an ordinance prohibiting owners from letting their cats roam. While rallying support for the law, the shelter surveyed local breeders; held public meetings with veterinarians and others; gathered news clippings, surveys, and other information indicating the impact of roaming cats; and presented their findings to the city council along with a proposed draft of the legislation. The ordinance passed and went into effect in February of 1994. (Ordinances such as these often allow pet owners to walk their cats on leashes as well, ensuring the animals’ safety while allowing them to enjoy the outdoors.)

Without a coordinated effort, however, it’s nearly impossible to push through cat-control legislation of any kind. As soon as such proposals are introduced, many self-described “cat lovers” insist that it’s impossible or impractical to attempt to regulate the comings and goings of cats. Often those who don’t even own cats insist that it’s unsafe, even inhumane, to place collars and tags on the animals. And of course, many decry licensing as simply one more instance of government meddling in people’s lives.

If your shelter is considering pushing for cat-licensing or cat-confinement legislation, you may be able to return the focus to the larger issues by assessing public sentiment with a survey (see the sidebar on page 8).“Our city council has found the opposition on cat bills is very vocal—like an unneutered male cat at night,” says Kathy Savesky, former executive director of the Peninsula Humane Society (PHS) in California. “But they don’t represent a large constituency, and traditionally they don’t vote. By having survey information at your hands, you can prepare politicians in advance.” Once lawmakers see that the majority of people in the community support legislation, they’ll be able to look beyond the smaller but more vocal groups that oppose it.

Another Tool in the Toolbox

Dennis Moore, director of Palm Beach County (Fla.) Animal Care and Control, was faced with such opposition nearly ten years ago, when cat licensing was first proposed in the region. Overwhelmed by the public outcry, county commissioners rejected the proposal. But six years later, the agency once again began gathering support for cat licensing.

“This time around we did our homework,” says Moore. “We spent a lot of time with cat fanciers, cat clubs, smaller humane societies, and smaller rescue groups, educating them and getting their opinions. We tried to involve all the people we knew during the discussion process.” After three years of devising the best way to legislate cat control, the agency presented another proposal to the county commissioners. When the time came for public hearings, not one person objected to the ordinance.

But there was still some question of the agency’s ability to enforce the ordinance. If cats without licenses were found roaming free, would animal control be able to do anything about it? Moore conceded to the commission that the legislation was only a first step. “We explained that we were getting lots of complaints from people being bothered by nuisance cats, and we had no tool to do anything about it,” he says. “[With this ordinance], we were saying that cats should be on an equal footing with dogs. When our officers are involved in these situations, the ordinance will basically be a toolbox for them, so they can resolve the issue between the neighbors and help the cats.” The law took effect in September of this year.

Still, in many communities the obstacles to cat licensing will be difficult to overcome. In some cases, animal care and control agencies have lowered their sights a bit, lobbying for laws that require people to simply register their cats with the city or county (for no fee), or place identification on the animal. While such programs are not ideal, they encourage the use of ID tags, microchips, or ear tags, and establish ownership, which increases the number of stray cats returned home safely and helps neighbors minimize conflicts by identifying animals causing a nuisance.

Fixing Things for Good

Obviously, one of the best ways to lower the number of free-roaming cats in the community is to lower the number of cats reproducing in the community. Every shelter should already be promoting the benefits of spaying and neutering and referring people to subsidized clinics when necessary, but with legislation that forces or strongly encourages people to sterilize their animals, the impact is even greater.

Several cities and states have passed laws to reduce the cat overpopulation problem. On the island of Oahu, Hawaii, cat owners whose animals are found outdoors without identification are asked to provide an ID tag or microchip for their animal. If the animal is intact, owners are given the option of paying a $100 fine or having their animal sterilized. Fortunately, 99 percent of those who violate the ordinance choose to have their animals spayed or neutered.

Twenty-seven states guarantee that animal shelters don’t contribute to the overpopulation problem by requiring that all animals adopted from shelters be spayed or neutered. Because adoption contracts are often difficult to enforce, however, some shelters have a harder time than others making sure pet owners actually follow through. But in counties like Arlington, Virginia, few violate the ordinance. That’s because those who fail to sterilize their animals must pay a $300 fine, spend a year in jail, or both. What’s more, each day that passes beyond the contract date constitutes a separate offense. Thanks to these strict penalties and the cooperation of the local prosecutor’s office, the law is very effective. Of course, even if your state or locality doesn’t have such a law, your shelter’s own internal policies should require the sterilization of all adopted animals.


Teaching ’Em a Thing or Two

It’s one thing to use legislation to push, poke, and prod people into responsible pet ownership. It’s quite another to gently lead them onward with a public education campaign.

As one part of the Virginia Beach SPCA’s push for licensing legislation, the shelter began educating the public in an attempt to gather support for the initiative. “We wrote letters to the editor, made radio [appearances], produced some humorous promotional pieces, and held a public debate on cat licensing that was televised on the local cable station,” says Executive Director Sharon Adams. The promotional effort paid off and the legislation passed.

But even without the power of legislation, shelters need to educate or, better yet, “market” responsible pet ownership to the public, selling it as advertisers sell any other product.

“We need to stop thinking strictly in terms of education,” says Savesky, “and instead try to change people’s behavior by employing a ‘social marketing’ approach. We behave the way we do because of the information we have and our personal values, not what the messenger is telling us to value, but what we already value. We’re trying to influence a group’s behavior in order to achieve our objectives. If they have a different belief system, we may not be able to change their values, but we should be able to convince them to do the right thing according to their own set of values.”

If you’re trying to encourage people to keep their cats indoors, then spell out the benefits of following such a practice and the drawbacks of failing to do so. Posters and advertisements created by PHS illustrate the many risks facing outdoors cats, offering people peace of mind for keeping cats indoors rather than suggesting people feel guilty for allowing their cats outdoors. And to encourage people to place identification on their animals, one of PHS’s newsletters asked: “You put your name on your beach ball, your beer cooler, and your kids’ underwear when they go off to school, so you can get them back if they are lost. Why don’t you put your name on your cat?” The question made pet owners think twice about how much they value their companion animal.

Social marketing doesn’t begin and end with exhaustive public appeals to convince pet owners to do the right thing, however. Sometimes you simply need to help those who, say, want to train their cat to use a scratching post or a litter box. By working with an animal behaviorist, training volunteers to respond to callers’ questions, or producing educational brochures for the public, you can help preserve the bond between cats and their owners. By helping renters encourage landlords to allow pets, you’ll also be educating people and keeping cats in homes.

In some cases, you may even be able to learn a little from the public. If you’re having a hard time convincing people to follow your lead, take a broader look at the message you’re sending and consider why the public has failed to embrace your arguments. For instance, if pet owners resist the idea that all cats belong indoors, you may be able to meet them halfway.

“It’s not that we don’t want cats to be outdoors, it’s that we want them to be safe,” says Leslie Sinclair, DVM, director of Companion Animal Care for The HSUS. “If we can create some situations where cats can enjoy the outdoors safely, it may help us bridge the gap between what we want and those who say, ‘I would never force my cat to stay indoors. He loves to be outdoors. He’s been going outdoors for ten years, and he’d be miserable if I made him come in.’ So talk about outdoor enclosures, training cats to walk on leashes, and so on. If we adjust our approach, people will be more likely to make sure their animals enjoy the outdoors safely.”

After all, more often than not, people act out of love for their animals, in an attempt to do what they think is best. So you’ll want to build bridges to reach them rather than erect barriers that may keep them from hearing your message. Remember, too, that the effect of education will be limited unless people are given the means to act. If your shelter touts the benefits of sterilization in low-income areas, for instance, make sure people have access to subsidized spay/neuter clinics. If you request the community’s help in curbing problems posed by feral cats, make sure your trap-loan program is up to speed.


Although it’s clear that cat-related problems are more far-reaching than the territory prowled by feral cats, attempts to provide humane solutions to the “feral cat problem” are among the most hotly debated and the most likely to make the headlines of the local paper. What’s more, because feral cats present the most visible problem, everyone in the community seems to have an opinion.

Proponents of trap-test-vaccinate-alter-release-and-monitor (TTVARM) programs garner support by touting the many benefits of such programs. Feral cats are allowed to live out their lives in their own environment. The number of animals gradually decreases until the colony is eliminated. And thanks to people in the community who are more than willing to feed and care for the animals, humane organizations need only provide general oversight and spay/neuter assistance, sparing them the need to devote so much time and energy to housing and euthanizing animals.

But the debate surrounding feral cat management programs continues. Some say the programs contradict the shelter’s message that all cats should be indoor cats. In fact, many animal control agencies would be violating their mission if they endorsed a program that allows animals to roam. And every agency faces the same tough questions: What sort of life is it for a feral cat? When testing and vaccination procedures are difficult to administer, is the increased public-health risk acceptable? Is it true, as many wildlife enthusiasts argue, that the numbers of birds and small mammals killed by feral cats outweigh the potential benefit that any TTVARM program might have?

Because these questions have no simple answers, many shelters weigh their options carefully before moving forward. If your shelter does decide to move toward a feral cat management program, develop a close relationship with feral cat caregivers that is mutually advantageous. The Peninsula Humane Society’s successful Feral Cat Co-op program requires each caregiver to provide a contact name, location of the colony, number of animals in the colony, and other information. If feeders agree to follow certain guidelines (acquiring land-owner consent to maintain the colony, removing socialized animals from the colony, and so on), the shelter provides free sterilization and vaccinations for the cats.

Not all TTVARM programs are the same, however. The Hawaiian Humane Society’s program is more loosely defined, but equally effective. Feral cat caregivers need only pay $5 for an ID tag or microchip and bring the animal to the shelter’s clinic for free sterilization. Because an ordinance requires identification of all owned cats and sterilization of all outdoor cats, it’s in every caregiver’s best interests to take advantage of the program.

In both regions, thousands of feral cats are sterilized annually, and the problems associated with feral cats are decreasing with time. But the programs require plenty of attention and each is a long-term investment. They are not panaceas, but components of a comprehensive plan aimed at improving the lot of all cats rather than simply those on the fringe.

“The reality is we’re never going to control this problem until we shut off the flow of quasi-owned cats, the indoor/outdoor animals, and the abandoned animals that are supplying the population,” says Savesky. “Peninsula’s Feral Cat Co-op is only justifiable for animals for whom there are no other alternatives.”

A Time for Everything

Although TTVARM programs are becoming more popular, many in the sheltering community have been slow to embrace the idea, clinging to the belief that euthanasia is the only humane way to relieve a feral cat’s suffering. Regardless of your views, there are still many instances when trapping and euthanizing animals is the best—if not the only—appropriate strategy, such as when:

  • public health is threatened by rabies or other zoonotic diseases;
  • the risk to wildlife is deemed too great;
  • the dangers to the colony are unacceptable; for instance, when feral cats are found near highways or in climates subject to harsh winters;
  • no one will step forward to guarantee that the animals’ needs will be met;
  • members of the community are opposed to the presence of feral colonies;
  • the colony is growing beyond the capacity of the area to support the population.

Though neither euthanasia nor trap-and-release is the prescription for every community, each has its time and place. In some communities, both approaches are used to address different circumstances. Humane advocates will no doubt continue the debate over feral cat management, but for now many shelters are finding that TTVARM programs are an effective way to build bridges between the animals, the animal care and control agency, and the public. “Most of the feral cat caregivers enrolled in PHS’s program are compassionate, concerned, and caring,” says Savesky. “We can either harness that compassion and work with it to reach common goals, or have that compassion coalesce against what we’re trying to do. We chose to harness it.”


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