Rethinking cats and their needs helped shelters save more than 2 million feline lives. They’re not stopping there
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Being in a shelter is stressful -- at best -- for cats. Stress plus crowding leads to illness. And when there are too many cats and too few homes, euthanasia is often the outcome. But two veterinarians, in partnership with shelters, are working to change that equation.
Five years ago, Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy challenged themselves -- and shelters -- to save a million cats over a five-year period. By 2018, more than a year early, a million cats had found new lives outside of shelters. Since then, more than a million additional cats have followed in their pawprints.
The secret? Providing cats with more secure, healthful and comfortable living quarters, and recognizing that some cats do best living on their own or working a job instead of being housecats.
Dr. Hurley is the director of the University of California, Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, and Dr. Levy is a professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida. One of the key initiatives of the Million Cat Challenge, as they called their campaign, is “capacity for care.” That means not just avoiding overcrowding, but also providing conditions that let cats be cats.
To be happy and healthy, cats need freedom from fear and distress, freedom from illness and disease, and freedom to express normal behavior. Sometimes meeting those needs is as simple as installing portals -- little round doorways -- to combine two cages into one unit. Portals allow cats to have separate areas for sleeping and eating, away from litter boxes. For cats, that’s huge.
“We designed that as an intervention to reduce upper respiratory infection, and we’ve heard from shelters that have reduced it by 90% or more,” Dr. Hurley says. “Upper respiratory infection is a stress-induced disease in cats, so those kinds of reductions speak to not just the health of the cats, but to their mental well-being.”
The difference is visible. Cats play more and scratch to mark their space. It’s still a small area, but because the cats are happier, they look better and stay healthier. That means they find homes more quickly.
Preventing overcrowding by managing when and how many cats come in is also key. Foster homes, behavior counseling and trap-neuter-return programs for feral cats are among the solutions that keep cats out of shelters.
Feral cats are among those at greatest risk in shelters. Not every cat who lands in a shelter has lived life as an indoor pet -- or wants to. Some have grown up outdoors and are savvy at caring for themselves, sometimes with a little help from humans who feed them and make sure they have shelter from inclement weather.
When those cats are brought to shelters, they aren’t going to suddenly enjoy being around humans or appreciate the opportunity to live indoors. Ensuring that they are healthy; vaccinating them (even once can potentially protect them for a lifetime); treating them for parasites or wounds; spaying or neutering them so they can’t add to feline population numbers; and returning them where they came from is one way to help these cats leave shelters alive.
“We loan traps and pay 100% of spay/neuter costs, plus rabies vaccine, if people agree to allow the cats to remain on their property afterward,” says Dee Dee Drake, executive director of Calaveras Humane Society in California.
Placing feral cats on farms as barn cats or in warehouses, distilleries and other businesses where rats and mice may be a problem is another solution. That allows them to lead independent lives without having to interact with humans or be confined indoors.
“I think trap-neuter-return is more and more widely practiced and accessible, and I think that's a hugely positive trend,” Dr. Hurley says.
Help your cat
enjoy vet visits
Q: It was always a struggle to get my previous cat to the vet. Now that I have a new kitten, do you have any advice on ways to ensure that I can take him to the vet without a fight?
A: I think one of the reasons people avoid taking cats to the veterinarian is because the visit can be stressful to both cat and human. It doesn’t have to be, though. Here are some easy steps you can take to help your kitten or cat feel comfortable on the way to the clinic and during the examination.
-- Accustom your kitten to a carrier. Leave the carrier sitting open in the house so your kitten can explore it, nap in it and even eat meals in it. Line it with a blanket or towel sprayed with a feline pheromone to make it welcoming, and put treats inside it as an occasional surprise. Reward your cat any time you see him inside the carrier. When your kitten does need to go for a ride in it, the experience won’t be scary. Hint to other readers: You can use the same techniques with an adult cat.
-- Schedule veterinary visits at a time of day when your kitten or cat hasn’t just eaten. She’ll be less likely to suffer motion sickness and more interested in getting treats from veterinary staff. Bring a good supply of her favorite treat, whether that is a store-bought goody, deli turkey or small bits of cantaloupe -- yes, some cats love the fragrant melon.
-- Make the first appointment with the veterinarian a fun one. No shots, just a weigh-in and some treats and petting from the staff. Think of it as a “getting to know you” visit.
You can find more tips on making veterinary visits pleasant for cats at fearfreehappyhomes.com. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Wacky pet names
run the gamut
-- Every year, pet insurance company Nationwide issues a list of the wackiest dog and cat names its members give their pets. Here are some of our favorites. Dogs: Indiana Bones (Mikkel named her dog that, too), Albus Dumbledog, Ruff Bader Ginsburg, Barkardi Gold, Scarlet O Hairy, Nostradogmus, Captain Morgan Freeman, Bilbo Beggins, DJ Skribbles and Bits, and Barnaby Bones. Cats: Wu Tang Cat, Reese Whiskerspoon, Jean Clawed Van Damme, Henry Hissinger, Dave Meowthews, Hairy Pawter, Bunsen Honeydew, Edgar Allen Paw, Jean-Luc Picat, and Tumtum McPuff.
-- Have you met the Tibetan terrier? Nicknamed “luck-bringers” or “holy dogs” in their native country of Tibet, the dogs -- which aren’t true terriers -- accompanied nomadic herdsmen or served as watchdogs in Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries. The shaggy, medium-size dogs, weighing 20 to 24 pounds, are generally mild-mannered and friendly. If you get one, plan to brush and comb the long double coat at least a couple of times a week to keep it tangle-free. It parts down the middle and comes in a variety of colors and combinations, including white, gold, tricolor, brindle and black. Not too big and not too small, the TT has a moderate activity level and can be a good walking, hiking or dog sports buddy.
-- “Making biscuits” is the colorful colloquialism used to describe the feline habit of kneading with the paws. (It’s especially apropos if your cat has white paws that look as if they’ve been dipped in flour.) Cats love to push their paws in and out on our bodies or other soft surfaces because it takes them right back to early kittenhood, when they would knead mama cat’s belly to stimulate the flow of milk. The habit often continues throughout life and seems to occur when cats are feeling relaxed and contented. Got milk to go with those biscuits? -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.