BARC Animal Shelter and Adoptions

Community Cat Program

What are “community cats”?

Community cat” is an umbrella definition that includes any un-owned cat. These cats may be “feral” (un-socialized) or friendly, may have been born into the wild or may be lost or abandoned pet cats. Some community cats are routinely fed by one or more community members, while others survive without human intervention. Whatever a cat’s individual circumstances, the term “community cat” reflects the reality that for these cats, “home” is within the community rather than in an individual household.

What happens to community cats in animal shelters? 

Although often treated as “strays” and held for possible reclaim by an owner, community cats by definition have no owner to claim them. Overall, only about 1 in 50 cats are reclaimed at most shelters [8]. Feral or very fearful community cats have historically been euthanized either immediately or at the end of a holding period at most shelters. Friendly cats will commonly be offered for adoption or transferred to rescue groups, if available.

However, because the number of community cats entering most shelters is significantly greater than the number adopted, even friendly community cats are sometimes euthanized. This often takes place after efforts to find a home have failed or the cat has become sick or overly stressed under crowded shelter conditions.

What alternatives exist to taking community cats into shelters for euthanasia? 

When no limits are placed on intake, in most communities shelters admit more than twice as many healthy cats as they are able to rehome. This number far exceeds shelters’ ability to provide permanent housing.

If euthanasia of healthy cats is not considered an acceptable option and the number of cats presented to a shelter exceeds the number of adoptive homes. Adding alternative live outcomes for cats admitted to the shelter (generally in the form of sterilization and release to a non-housed environment, e.g. trap-neuter-return).

Couldn’t greater efforts be made to find adoptive homes for all cats entering shelters? 

Ideally all healthy, social cats in communities would be placed into permanent, responsible, loving homes. Creative, proactive adoptions programs are certainly worthwhile and have succeeded in increasing the number of adoptions from many shelters.

For instance, in California from 2000 to 2010, the number of cats adopted from animal control shelters reportedly increased by almost 40%, from under 60,000 to over 80,000 a year[9]. However, at the same time feline intake increased from about 280,000 to over 400,000, resulting in over 75,000 more cats being euthanized annually.

In general, increasing adoptions enough to keep up with the number admitted to shelters has proven more difficult for cats compared to dogs. In many communities, most healthy, non-aggressive dogs admitted to shelters are released alive. For instance, in California in 2010, 58% of all dogs admitted to animal control shelters were released alive, compared to only 28% of cats[9]. The role of community cats likely explains a large part of this difference.

Many community cats are “feral” and would be neither appropriate nor happy as traditional pets in a home. In our increasingly urban society, there are few “barn homes” into which these cats can be adopted. On the other hand, many feral cats have adapted to living in the community. These cats have found a source of food and shelter just as other wild animals have. Some experts now believe the best option is to keep these cats where they are unless serious problems are documented. This can be accomplished through a TNR program or simply by leaving the cats in place and providing community members with recommendations for successful coexistence.

What is trap-neuter-return (TNR)?

One increasingly popular option is to spay/neuter and vaccinate healthy cats, then return them to the location where they were found. These programs are sometimes known as “trap-neuter-return” (TNR) programs. The fact that a cat is in good condition is considered evidence that it has a source of food and shelter – essentially it already has a “home” in the community, and is likely to continue doing well if it is returned to that home. Spay/neuter and vaccination improves health and welfare of cats and reduces problematic behaviors such as fighting, vocalizing, and of course reproducing.