5 Steps to Resolve Conflicts Over Community Cats

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Multiple community cats including a dilute calico and black cat

In the case of community cats (also referred to as free-roaming, stray, or feral cats), some people enjoy the cats' presence in their neighborhood and want to ensure their comfort and safety. Meanwhile, others feel the cats are an unwelcome nuisance and want them promptly removed.

The primary aim of any conflict management technique is to identify a common goal between the parties involved. A common goal — to reduce the number of community cats and mitigate nuisance behaviors created by these cats — exists among people on both sides of the issue. This includes those who want the cats removed as well as cat lovers (and caregivers associated with community cat programs). 

If you're dealing with conflicting regarding community cats in your neighborhood, here are five easy steps to help you resolve the issues.

Step 1: Determine your involvement

First, decide whether engaging with a particular person or conflict makes sense. Prioritize safety first. Avoid engaging with anybody who appears threatening or aggressive. If someone requests that you leave their property, do so immediately.

Step 2: Understand the other person

Avoid making assumptions about people and adopting negative impressions before gathering facts and hearing all sides of the story. Details are important.

Example: Cats have created a legitimate nuisance for a community member. Consider the following script as an example of how to manage the conversation:

Volunteer: "I understand that some cats are creating some problems for you. I’d like to get some more info on specifically what the problem is so that I can help. Can you tell me what’s happening?"

Community member: "They’re going to the bathroom in my flowers and ruining them."

Volunteer: "Well that’s no fun. OK, are the flowers in a garden area or in flower pots? I ask because we have several different solutions for keeping cats out of various types of gardens."

The person might even show you the area, which allows you to gather more information and formulate a solution suited to their particular problem.

Step 3: Influence opinion or behavior 

Work toward gaining trust and finding common ground. Appeal to thoughts and feelings. Politely explain that:

  • Cat caregivers did not create the cat problem in the area. We’re just the people responding to it.
  • Cat caregivers care about community cats, just as people do their own pets. We recognize that the cats have individual needs and personalities, and we care about their quality of life.
  • None of us wants the cats to cause problems for our neighbors. But we also know that simply removing the cats is only a temporary solution that doesn’t actually address the source of the problem.
  • We all want fewer cats on the streets. Lowering the community cat population means better overall welfare for the cats and fewer nuisance behaviors. (Don’t bring up more specific nuisance behaviors (howling, spraying, etc.) unless the person has already referred to them.

Also, provide an explanation of consequences:

  • Any environment offering sufficient food, water, and shelter will eventually attract cats. And when you relocate community cats, space becomes available for more unaltered and unvaccinated cats to quickly move in, reproduce, and recreate the original problem. But through trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR), the cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated, which eliminates the chance for population growth and addresses health concerns for the cats as well as the public.
  • Cats will always be present in the community, one way or another. Through TNVR, you can often receive free or low-cost services and information about humane cat deterrents.
  • Attempting to bait and trap cats sporadically typically results in attracting more cats to the property, rather than fewer, which only adds to the problem. Instead, by working in collaboration with others, you can use more effective methods for keeping the cats away from places where they’re not wanted.

Suggestions for other ways to think about the problem:

  • Acknowledge that it seems odd and counterintuitive that returning the cats to the same area would actually reduce the problems, and then offer further explanation. 
    • For example: "I completely understand that you just want the cats gone and that obviously the cats have caused some issues for you. I was also pretty skeptical about whether TNVR would work when I first heard about it. And that’s the case with most shelters, too. But shelters finally decided to give it a shot when it was obvious that the same people were trapping cats and bringing them in over and over again, year after year. They finally decided that removing and killing the cats wasn’t working. One man I spoke to said he couldn’t believe it actually worked but that after we did TNVR in his neighborhood and gave him some information on how to keep cats out of his yard, he didn’t have to spend time trapping or dealing with cats for the first time in 12 years. He admitted that a cat still wandered through once in a while, but it wasn’t a big deal."
  • Most community cat problems have only four possible solutions, but only one of them will be both convenient for you and ultimately solve your problem:
    • Do nothing (which usually makes matters worse).
    • Repeatedly trap the cats and take them to the shelter (a temporary solution at best).
    • Repeatedly trap the cats and relocate them (often considered abandonment and is illegal).
    • Let us do TNVR and see how it works.

Step 4: Resolve the problem

Make sure to define any future expectations and mutually discuss solutions to the problem. Once you’ve reviewed all the facts with the other person and discussed the issue, map out a customized solution for that individual and ask to discuss it with them.

Be careful to not make any commitments that you might not be able to keep. If you offer to supply someone with a motion-activated sprinkler the following week, for example, make sure you follow through. If in doubt, say that you will work to see whether you can find someone else to follow up. (Sometimes we want to protect the cats so much that we’re inclined to overcommit.)

Be sure to follow up. See how the plan worked, and be prepared to develop a new one if necessary.

Step 5: Recover and go on

Remember that you can never make everybody happy. You will occasionally encounter people who just can’t be satisfied with any solution, and that’s just the way it goes. Put the focus on all of the positive changes that you’ve already created for cats and community members, and then keep moving forward.

Engaging in active listening

Remember you can always express genuine empathy with someone without agreeing with their point of view. So make sure not to accidentally reinforce someone’s beliefs or concerns by using phrases like “I agree” or “Yes, that’s true.” Instead, try rephrasing what someone said using phrases such as:

  • “I hear you saying …”
  • “I understand that …”
  • “I think what you’re saying is …”

Any of the above phrases allow you to demonstrate to the person that you understand and empathize with their concerns — and give you additional time to craft an appropriate response.

Managing yourself during conflict

If things get heated, it can be challenging to stay calm and collected. Here are some suggestions for when you find yourself in the middle of a difficult situation:

  • Think before you speak or act. Be thoughtful and proactive, not reactive.
  • Stay calm and objective (easier said than done). Emotional responses usually lead to more conflict and regrets.
  • Be sincere and up front with the other person. Don’t waste time or avoid addressing the issue.
  • Make sure you’re having a conversation and not lecturing. It’s important that the other person gets a chance to speak as well — preferably earlier in the conversation. Allowing them to speak will help you gain their trust and gives you more information to work with when you respond.
  • Put yourself in their place. You’re more likely to resolve the problem if you’re able to walk in the other person’s shoes for a moment to appreciate their perspective.
  • Be flexible and tolerant. Differences in opinion are what make the world go around. Keep an open mind. Embrace complex situations and think of everything as a learning experience.

Additional resources