Published on:  
Oct 22, 2015

What are the Alternatives to Intake for stray cats?

Dear Million Cat Challenge,

I’ve heard quite a bit about pet surrender prevention programs that help keep cats in their homes, but most of our cats come in as stray. What are some options for these cats? – Swamped by Strays

Dear Swamped,

Thanks for your question! Keeping pet cats with their families through behavior helplines, pet food banks, low cost veterinary care, and other services is a win/win/win for cats, people, and the shelter, but you’re right – for many shelters, the majority of cat intake is made up of strays and community cats.

If you’re going to make headway in reducing intake, you’ll need programs that address these populations. Sometimes it can be helpful to break down the incoming stray/unowned population into smaller groups for which alternatives can be developed. Three groups to consider include neonates, social stray cats, and feral cats. You can read more about this in the main resource section for Alternatives to Intake, but meanwhile here are a few pointers to consider:

Neonates: Sometimes keeping neonates safely in the community is as simple as providing the public with clear information about the right thing to do when they find a litter of kittens. Even if this doesn’t keep all neonates from passing through your doors, if it keeps just a few litters safely out of the shelter until they’re old enough for adoption, that’s a win. Higher investment but potentially higher yield programs include providing material support to spontaneous foster parents, like Miami-Dade Animal Service’s successful (and adorable!) “Milkman” program, in which animal control officers deliver training and neonate care kits to people who have found orphan litters, or Cleveland Animal Protective League’s very successful “foster to surrender” program.

Stray cats: Did you know lost cats are more than ten times as likely to return home by some other means than because their owners called or visited a shelter?

Counseling someone who has found a stray cat to post signs in the neighborhood, posting found cats on your shelter’s website, offering to scan a found cat for a microchip – not only can these tactics save space in your shelter for cats who really need it, they can increase the chances a lost cat will be reunited with his family. If the owners are not found, the cat can always be brought to the shelter later on, or perhaps the finder will decide to keep the cat or rehome him themselves – in which case resources not spent on admitting the cat, might be invested in helping make sure the cat is sterilized and vaccinated in the new home.

Just one caveat – if bringing in a healthy stray cat right away is an option, most people will tend to choose it just out of convenience and habit. Having a policy that healthy stray cats are only accepted by appointment, or even having a policy that healthy strays are not generally accepted, will give some people the extra push they need to consider other options. Of course exceptions can always be made for cats that are at substantial risk, creating a serious hazard, or under other special circumstances at staff discretion. For the story of a shelter that went all-in on not taking in healthy strays and found they could better serve all animals in their community by this means, read about Chico City Animal Services here.

Feral cats: If a feral cat is going to be sterilized and returned to her habitat, bypassing the shelter entirely will be less stressful for the cat as well as freeing up space at the shelter for cats truly in need. For shelters that don’t have an option to sterilize and return cats, providing referrals to TNR and other nuisance abatement options is often the only alternative to euthanasia.

Alley Cat Allies and other groups offer informational resources you can link to through your website, such as How to Live with Feral Cats in Your Neighborhood.

We know that having these conversations and trying to sort out the right option for every cat can be time-consuming and stressful. Don’t forget the Million Cat Discussion Group, a place for you to connect with colleagues and share scripts, scenarios and strategies for how to have these conversations with a minimum of pain. You can also download this Cat Intake Decision Making Flowchart from the City of Chico, Calif., and customize it to your shelter’s policy.

As one shelter director put it, “The new policy means more work on the front end for staff, who have to explain the options for people who have unwanted cats in their yard, for example. But the trade-off is that fewer cats enter the shelter, and fewer get euthanized – which makes for a happier staff.”

Dr. Kate Hurley