Alternatives to Intake

Is entering an animal shelter always the best option for a cat?

There will always be cats who need sheltering, but for many cats, there are better, more appropriate alternatives that will serve cat, community, and shelter better. And if the answer is no, shelters have an ample and expanding tool box of alternatives to offer.

Whether helping the finder of an underage litter provide care until the kittens are old enough for adoption, counseling an owner to solve a litter box issue rather than surrendering their beloved pet, providing resources for housing or veterinary care, or assisting a community member in trapping and sterilizing a community cat, alternatives to intake can provide humane, lasting solutions that empower community members as well as freeing shelter capacity to better serve the animals truly in need of admission.

That's why this question should be asked for every cat presented to a shelter: “Is admission to the shelter the best choice for this cat, and the cats already in the shelter, at this moment in time?”

Before we implemented our new policies I was thinking, gosh, do we need to get a portable classroom so we can get extra space? And now, we have space. When an animal comes in that needs help, the staff’s not stressed, we have resources to care for them, and it’s just a whole different outlook. Instead of saying, ‘Oh my gosh, here’s another box of kittens that somebody’s going to dump on us,’ it’s more like, ‘Let’s see what we can do to find a solution for your situation.’

- Tracy Mohr, Animal Services Manager, City of Chico, Calif.,
speaking about implementing alternatives to intake.


Historically, many shelters have taken pride in offering immediate intake for any stray or owner surrendered cat, regardless of the condition of the cat, the number of cats already in the shelter, or the capacity to assure a live outcome for these animals. This has been seen as not only excellent and responsive customer service, but as a preferable alternative to the far more dire fates that could await cats outside the shelter’s walls.

The availability of this service has become an expectation in many communities. The public has been taught that bringing any cat to the shelter, whether stray or a pet they can no longer keep, is not only an easy and low-cost option, it is also the right thing to do for the cat.

In many cases, intake to a shelter is absolutely the right choice. No matter how much progress we make in solving problems related to feline overpopulation, some cats will inevitably require the care that only a shelter can provide. Whether because a cat has abruptly lost her owner, a feral cat cannot safely remain in his current habitat, or a myriad of other reasons, shelter admission will still be the right choice. A safe harbor for sick, injured and orphaned cats, as well as feline victims of cruelty and neglect, serves a vital societal need. However, we now understand that shelter admission may not serve every cat well in every situation:

  • Stray Cats

    Unidentified, lost cats are far more likely to be reunited with their owners if they remain in the neighborhood where they were found than if they are removed and taken to a shelter (1). People who find stray cats can be assisted in locating the owner of the cat rather than bringing it to a shelter where the chances of reclaim are slim.
  • Feral Cats

    Feral cats can be redirected to programs that provide sterilization, vaccination, and return to the location where they were found. This allows healthy un-owned cats to continue thriving in their habitat while stabilizing populations. Nuisance, environmental, and public health risks associated with these cats can be controlled more successfully as well as humanely in most cases by non-lethal means. Such strategies also more closely reflect the preference of the majority of the public, who favor allowing cats to remain where they are if euthanasia is the alternative (2). For shelters prohibited from sterilizing and returning cats, or without the wherewithal to do so, redirecting them to resources in the community provides an alternative to euthanasia. Even for those shelters with the ability to perform surgery and return cats to the field, bypassing the sheltering process can save time and money and allow each organization in the community to focus on their mission. This is especially beneficial if feral cats are subject to a prolonged stray holding period prior to qualifying for release.
  • Owned Cats

    Studies have confirmed that many people who relinquish their pets to shelters are deeply attached to them, but have simply exhausted their own resources to provide care or find solutions other than surrender to a shelter (DiGiacomo, Arluke et al. 1998). Providing support to help owners either keep the animal or safely rehome their pet empowers pet owners and fosters the human-animal bond.
  • Underage Kittens

    Underage kittens are often among the most vulnerable animals in shelters, but also the easiest to rehome if they can be safely cared for until old enough for placement. When a shelter’s foster and nursery capacity is overwhelmed, finders or owners with underage kittens can be supported in caring for these vulnerable youngsters until they are old enough for adoption. You can read about one such program here.

Providing alternatives to intake can be a great choice for shelters that are limited in their capacity to provide humane care or assure live outcomes once a cat is admitted. In most parts of North America there is no legal requirement for shelters to impound every healthy cat presented to them. By providing alternatives to intake for healthy cats, shelters with limited capacity can reserve their efforts for the sick, injured, orphaned and dangerous animals that most need the shelter’s care.

However, even shelters with ample capacity may choose to offer alternatives to intake as a different, and in some cases more effective, way to serve cats and community members. In no way should this be seen as a decrease in the level of service provided. In some cases, it may even require more initial effort to solve a complaint or concern without admitting the cat to the shelter. However, a more humane and lasting solution may thus be arrived at.

1. Chu, K. and W. M. Anderson (2007).
U.S. Public Opinion on Humane Treatment of Stray Cats (PDF).
Bethesda, MD, Alley Cat Allies: 6.

2. DiGiacomo, N., A. Arluke, et al. (1998).
Surrendering pets to shelters: The relinquisher’s perspective.
Anthrozoos 11(1): 41-51. Lord, L. K., T. E. Wittum, et al. (2007). 

3. “Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost cat.”
J Am Vet Med Assoc 230(2): 217-220.

4. Slater, M. R., E. Weiss, et al. (2012). 
“Frequency of Lost Dogs and Cats in the United States and the Methods Used to Locate Them.”  
Animals(2): 301-315.