For Community Cats, A Change Is Gonna Come
Page 3 of 3

Is SNR the Panacea?

Black cat in shelter cage
Julie Busch Branaman for The HSUS

Not so fast, you might say. What about shelters that can’t afford SNR? What if there is no veterinarian on staff, and no local clinic available to provide sterilization at a modest price? What if there is local legislation prohibiting sterilization and return of cats to their habitat? These are realities facing many shelters.

Fortunately, there is a third option: Don’t admit healthy cats if the result would be euthanasia of that cat or another to make room. In the majority of communities in the U.S., there is no legal mandate for shelters to impound every stray cat.

This idea was a hard sell for me at first. I “grew up” professionally at an open-intake shelter where we took pride in accepting every pet that came our way. Our fear was that cats would suffer even more dire consequences if we turned them away, regardless of how crowded the shelter conditions or how slim the chance for live release. But now we know more about community cats. According to the data we have, the vast majority of cats in a given community are never touched by a shelter, and the ones who do come in present as physically healthy. By admitting even a few in excess of the number we can care for and release alive, we compromise our shelters’ function and ultimately fail to serve cats to the best of our ability. Shelters that have eliminated intake of healthy feral or stray cats for whom euthanasia would be the likely outcome have found they have more time, energy, and resources both for the other animals in the shelter, and for building programs to better address the community’s needs over the long haul.

If only some of these ideas can be implemented at first, they’re still worth pursuing. Think about starting small. If a few slots are available for SNR, even once or twice a month, a few feral cats can be admitted. When the SNR slots are full, alternatives can include referrals to the nearest clinic offering this service, as well as the many practical and humane strategies to coexist peacefully with community cats. Likewise, if even a few barn homes can be found, then a few unsocialized cats can be admitted, sheltered, and released alive. Meanwhile, the remaining cats can stay in the relative safety and familiarity of their community “home.”

An added benefit of allowing unidentified cats to remain where they are is that it will actually increase the chances of lost cats being reunited with their owners. According to a 2007 study by Linda Lord, cats are more than 10 times as likely to be returned to their owners by means other than a call or visit to a shelter. And cats living in communities also have a chance of finding a new home; multiple surveys have documented that people are more likely to acquire cats as strays than from a shelter or rescue.

Come Together

Perhaps the greatest benefit of allowing cats to remain in communities is that it gives every community member a chance to participate in the solution...With a little guidance, many people will rise to the occasion, and find ways to coexist peacefully with the cats in their neighborhood.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of allowing cats to remain in communities is that it gives every community member a chance to participate in the solution. Shelters have a long history of taking this approach when it comes to wild critters such as raccoons and opossums. Realizing the futility of trying to control these species through shelter admission and euthanasia, we guide people to other solutions. The same can be true for community cats: With a little guidance, many people will rise to the occasion, and find ways to coexist peacefully with the cats in their neighborhood. Without the illusion that euthanasia can eliminate the concerns associated with cats, wildlife advocates, public health officials, and cat aficionados alike can work together to find other answers. And while there will no doubt be some relentless complainers over this idea – as there are with any new policy – some great shelter wisdom applies perfectly here: “You’ll be criticized no matter what you do. You might as well be criticized for doing the right thing.”

I started this article with a reminder of what got me into this field in the first place—my love for animals. But I’ve come to realize I love people too. I love the people who do this challenging, rewarding, necessary, and sometimes heartbreaking work. I remember myself as a 24-year-old field officer, brimming with enthusiasm for my chosen profession. I think of how my heart ached for the cats we couldn’t save, and whose lives I ended with as much compassion as I knew how. I think of people still in the trenches, and I mentally multiply the number of cats euthanized by the toll each death takes on all of us. I picture the river of time, energy, space, money, and heartache our profession has poured into the seemingly unending task of sheltering and euthanizing healthy cats.

Then I imagine we just stop. We don’t admit one more healthy cat to a shelter than we can release alive. And I imagine that enormous river of resources and compassion diverted to finding other solutions, to spay/neuter services, to educating the public, to caring for domestic and wild animals, to finding ways to protect all the species we treasure. I imagine you, reading this article. I wonder what your role is and what it would mean to you if we could see a day when no healthy cat was euthanized in our shelters. I hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years to find out.


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Dr. Kate Hurley holding a kitten
UC Davis

Kate Hurley is the director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Dr. Hurley began her career as an animal control officer in 1989. After graduation from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999, she worked as a shelter veterinarian in California and Wisconsin. In 2001, she returned to UC Davis to become the first in the world to undertake a residency in Shelter Medicine. Following completion of the residency, Hurley became the director of the UC Davis Koret shelter medicine program. Two of her proudest achievements are co-authoring the “Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters” and co-editing the textbook “Infectious Disease Management in Animal Shelters”. She loves all things shelter-related, but her particular interests include welfare of confined dogs and cats, humane and effective strategies to manage community cats, infectious disease, and unusually short dogs. She loves shelter work because it has the potential to improve the lives of so many animals and the people who work so hard to care for them.