Dear Million Cat Challenge,
We have a 7-day holding time for strays. Is that too long a period for Return to Field? – Restless in the Shelter
Required hold times were originally established to give owners a chance to find their pets if they ended up at the shelter. That has worked out better for dogs, who are more likely to have identification tags or to have owners who worry if they’ve been missing for a few hours.
Cats, on the other hand, rarely have identification, and cat owners often don’t worry if they have not seen Tabby around for a few days. More importantly, a lot of felines are “community cats,” meaning they belong in the neighborhood, but don’t necessarily have someone who would know to the check at the shelter if they have not been seen.
Ironically, lost pet cats are 13 times more likely to return home on their own than to be reunited with their owners through a shelter. Keeping cats close to home reunites more families than taking cats to shelters.
Most people who reclaim their cats do so in the first three days. Extending the hold period adds risks for shelter-acquired disease, crowding, and stress without substantially increasing a cat’s chances of being reclaimed. In fact, long hold periods reduce a shelter’s flexibility for quick live outcomes, and may paradoxically increase euthanasia in overwhelmed shelters.
However, if you’re stuck with a 7-day stray holding period for now, you can still release cats to the location they come from after this time period (you will be able to tell that the cats have not forgotten where they live when you go to release them).
If there is an owner, the cats in the Return to Field Program are more likely to get back to them when they’re returned to their habitat than they are sitting in a cage in a shelter, so it’s really a win/win/win.
In the long-term, it’s worth updating the local ordinance to make it easier for cats to leave the shelter as soon as possible. Some progressive code changes include exempting community cats from hold periods altogether (they are not considered stray or owned, but have their own category), allowing neutering during the hold period, or having a short hold for live outcomes and a longer hold period for euthanasia.
Reducing the required hold period for community cats reduces costs for the shelter, reduces stress for the cat, and lowers disease risk and crowding in the shelter overall so the friendly cats on adoption track also have a better chance. Check out this summary of municipal codes from Alley Cat Allies.
Dr. Julie Levy