Published on:  
Dec 30, 2015

How can we have fewer cats and save more lives?

Dear Million Cat Challenge,

I’ve read your information sheet and love the idea of providing our cats with more space, but I still don’t see how we can keep fewer cats on hand and still save more lives. It seems like magical thinking! How does it work? – Skeptical but trying to be open-minded

Dear Skeptical,

First of all, I love your signature line, and second of all, thanks for asking a question that I know is on a lot of people’s minds when they first hear about Capacity for Care (C4C). 

I think C4C’s biggest PR problem is that it just sounds too good to be true. It’s probably not a coincidence that when the folks over at Animal Sheltering magazine wrote about this, the article was entitled “What’s Your Magic Number?”
How could we have fewer cats, less work, lower costs, and save more lives? That seems about as likely as some foreign prince actually transferring a million dollars into your bank account as promised in that email, right?

It may be that you’ll need to see this at work for yourself, either at your own shelter or another shelter you can relate to. If so, we can certainly put you in touch with shelters of all kinds that have successfully implemented C4C. But in the meantime, let’s see if I can lay out a few principles that may help to clarify how this works.

1. Length of stay (LOS) determines how many cats you can care for over time. Care for 20 cats at a time for 30 days each to a live outcome and you’ll save 20 cats a month.

Care for 10 cats at a time for 15 days each to the same outcome, and you still save about 20 cats a month by cycling through two sets of ten.

Care for 10 cats at a time for just 10 days each, and suddenly you’re saving 30 a month.
So that’s the basic principle of C4C:  If you can drop length of stay to live outcome by a combination of great care and proactive management, you can save more cats over time while housing fewer cats at a time.

2. Good housing profoundly affects LOS. If your shelter already has awesome housing for cats from the moment they come in to the shelter to the moment they leave, then this may not pertain to you. But if you have any cage/condo housing that is single compartment and/or smaller than about 9 square feet of floor space, or group housing where cats have less than 18 square feet of floor space apiece, read on.

  • Housing strongly affects risk of feline upper respiratory infection. Upper respiratory infection contributes greatly to increased length of stay.
  • Housing strongly affects stress and normal expression of behavior. Cats who are less stressed can be accurately evaluated sooner (by five days or more), placed on a path to the right outcome, and are more likely to show the friendly, outgoing behavior that studies tell us most adopters prefer[1].
  • Housing impacts staff time, and staff time impacts cats’ health, behavior, and chances for adoption. Cats make less mess in housing that is large enough and double compartment to keep litter separate from eating and sleeping areas, and it’s much quicker and easier to clean. And staff who spend less time on cleaning can spend more time getting to know each cat, giving him or her any needed medical care or behavioral enrichment, talking with adopters, and moving all cats safely through the shelter.

3. Fewer cats in the shelter, as long as there are enough to provide adopters with plenty of choices, will automatically lower length of stay and sustain it in an ongoing fashion. I know this part can be hard to wrap one’s mind around, but really, it’s simple math: if on average 1 cat a day is adopted and 30 cats are waiting for adoption on any given day, on average each cat will stay 30 days. If instead 15 cats are waiting at any one time for that one adoption, on average each cat will stay 15 days. So C4C is something you only have to get to one time, and then it will tend to sustain itself – at least until something comes along, like a big hoarding case or a sudden wave of kittens, that throws it off again. But all you need to do is get back to your ideal set point, and you will roll right back to your new lower length of stay.

Finally, here’s the really fun part: volunteers and adopters love seeing happy, healthy cats just as much as we do. Capacity for Care tends to increase community engagement as well as lowering costs.

And what does lower costs plus higher engagement mean? It means more opportunity to educate the public, more resources to keep cats out of the shelter in the first place, and a better chance to provide truly great care to each cat that does come in. And that’s the real magic of Capacity for Care.

1. Fantuzzi, J.M., K.A. Miller, and E. Weiss, Factors relevant to adoption of cats in an animal shelter. J Appl Anim Welf Sci, 2010. 13(2): pg. 174-9. 
Dr. Kate Hurley