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What are some things, other than improving housing, that we can do to decrease length of stay for cats?

Published on:  
Dec 30, 2015
Dear Million Cat Challenge, You’re preaching to the choir when it comes to our shelter and the whole humane housing thing. Our cats are either housed in spacious, double-sided condos or group rooms with tons of perches and hiding places. The problem is, we still have a super-long length of stay. Even kittens sometimes seem to grow up in the shelter. And even though the cats are pretty happy here, I know it’s not the same thing as having a home of their own. It seems like most of what you talk about with Capacity for Care decreasing length of stay has to do with the benefits of better housing. But what can we do if we already have great housing? – Trapped in the Slow Lane

Dear Trapped,

I’m so glad you asked that question. Whether you’re in a glossy new facility with great housing or a rickety old building with the usual small cages, there are lots of things shelters can do to decrease length of stay that have nothing to do with housing. Here’s a list to get you started.

Question your quarantine. For most shelters, a routine “intake quarantine” for healthy-appearing cats and kittens is not beneficial. For one thing, quarantine only works if it’s an all-in/all-out situation where no new animals are added during the quarantine period. If new cats continue to trickle in during the quarantine period, risk of disease spread can actually be increased.

Instead, rely on a careful intake exam and daily monitoring to identify any health concerns, and give at least three days for vaccine protection to kick in before you get too relaxed with handling and out-of-cage time. Reserve quarantine for cats and kittens coming in from very high risk situations such as a hoarding case or panleukopenia-endemic transfer partner.

Don’t wait for “booster” vaccines. When it comes to vaccine protection, we’re mostly worried about pankeukopenia, and I have good news: Modified live vaccination for panleukopenia can provide substantial protection for adult cats in 72 hours or less.

The less-good news is that, because of possible interference by maternal antibodies, kittens can’t be assumed to be fully protected by vaccination until they are 4-5 months old. Because maternal antibodies decline over time, we revaccinate every two weeks hoping to get protection into the kitten as soon as possible. Like adult cats, if the vaccine gets past maternal antibodies, the kitten will be protected within about 72 hours. In the meantime, more vaccines don’t make the kitten any safer. All the more reason to get them out of the shelter sooner!

Minimize the stray hold to live outcome for unidentified cats. We know that both cat and cat-owner behavior patterns create issues when it comes to reuniting lost cats with their families. Owners tend to wait longer to even start searching for cats than for dogs, and are much less likely than dog owners to ever call or visit a shelter in search of their pet.  Compounding the problem is the fact that cats tend to hide – sometimes for prolonged periods – before they eventually emerge and approach someone closely enough to be caught and brought to a shelter. By the time the cat shows up at the shelter, an owner may have long since stopped looking.

The best way, then, to help lost cats without ID get back to their owners may be to make sure they don’t come into the shelter in the first place. Work with finders to locate cats’ owners in the neighborhood where they were found, encourage the public to identify cats with strategies like microchip clinics and free ID tags, and speed cats without identification to adoption or return to field. Most especially, waive stray hold times if possible for litters of kittens to get these vulnerable youngsters out as soon as possible.

Return to Field candidates also benefit greatly from short or no holding periods. If feral, these cats will be highly stressed by the shelter environment as well as risky for staff to handle. The sooner they are back in their habitat the happier everyone will be. And for those social strays that qualify for Return to Field, they may well be getting a free ride back home to someone in the community who feeds and cares for them. Even if that person would never have thought to come to the shelter looking for the cat, there may still be a significant human-animal bond that has been maintained by quickly returning the cat to its community home.

Place adoption candidates straight into adoption. Consider putting healthy, friendly, owner-surrendered and unidentified stray cats directly into adoption, even if they’re not ready to go right away. Or if there’s no room on adoption, consider allowing adopters to take a look at cats waiting in holding areas and place a hold if they fall in love. That way you’ll know if a cat has a waiting adopter and you can fast track the cat for spay/neuter services or any other needed care, and he can go home as soon as any legal hold is complete.

Have fewer cats at any one time! I know this one tends to be the hardest to grasp, but the principle behind it is really pretty simple. Policy and even housing not withstanding, the most powerful determinant of length of stay is simply the number of cats waiting for adoption. Think about it. If the barista at Starbucks takes a minute to serve each person in line, and there are five people in line, each person will wait in line an average of five minutes. And if people get in line about as quickly as they are served – about once a minute – the line will remain at five minutes until something comes along to disrupt its equilibrium.  People will just keep joining and leaving the line at a steady state.

Now imagine the barista goes on break for five minutes, but people still keep joining the line every minute. Now when she returns, there will be 10 people in line. Having more people in line doesn’t mean she can work any faster, so she still serves one a minute but the average wait is now 10 minutes – and will remain that way until again, something comes along to change it.

It’s often like that with cats. Say one cat a day on average is adopted and there are 30 cats in the shelter. All things being equal, each cat would have a 1 in 30 chance of adoption each day. If cats are admitted at about the same rate as they’re adopted out, the “line” will remain at 30 cats long, and the average length of stay will be 30 days. No matter what policy is put in place, it will stay 30 days until something comes along to disrupt the rate of adoptions or intake.

But what if the shelter holds a big adoption special and adopts out 15 extra cats in one weekend? Now they only have 15 cats waiting in line. As long as they go back to their baseline state of adopting out at least 1 cat a day afterwards, each cat’s chance of adoption has suddenly doubled: from 1 in 30 to 1 in 15. Now the length of stay on average for each cat will be only 15 days. Voila!

There’s a little more to this than just dropping the number of cats, of course. You still need to have enough cats on hand to provide adopters with plenty of variety to choose from – including some hard luck cases as well as the more typically “highly adoptable” cats and kittens. And you need enough time and space to give each cat the care he or she needs to get ready for adoption. If you want to delve into this further, check out some more of the in depth resources on the Capacity for Care resource page, and feel free to get in touch with questions.

I hope this has given you a few ideas to start with. If you have more questions about any of these, a great place to go is the Million Cat Discussion Group. I’m pretty sure you’ll find shelters there that have tried every one of these strategies and can give you pointers on how it worked for them. If you’re a challenger and haven’t yet signed up for the discussion group, get in touch with us at and let’s fix that! 

Dr. Kate Hurley