Intake of Cats and Kittens

Stray cats, like these two felines in a humane cat trap, enter programs for ferals in various ways.

Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.


While some of the cats entering Best Friends’ community cat programs (CCPs) are pulled from shelter intake, many more are found in the community as a result of calls from concerned citizens and door-to-door neighborhood canvassing. Either way, the process begins with intake.

Obviously, each CCP is different, with policies and practices appropriate for its particular context. Nevertheless, there are a number of factors related to the intake process that every CCP must consider carefully in order to maximize lifesaving efforts. This section provides a general overview of key factors related to the intake of cats and kittens, based on the policies and practices in place for Best Friends’ CCPs.

The intake process

Cats enter the program in one of the following ways:

  • Shelter intake (e.g., field services officers or residents turning in strays)
  • Trapping efforts conducted by CCP staff and volunteers
  • Residents bringing cats either to the shelter or to CCP partner veterinary clinics

Again, the details of how each CCP handles these different intake routes will vary. However, the basic steps involved are generally similar.

Intake forms. If the cat comes through the shelter intake process as a stray, the individual bringing the cat in is asked to complete a standard intake form, which documents critical information about the cat (e.g., description of the cat, location where he was found). Field services officers, CCP staff and veterinary staff at partner clinics may or may not use this standard intake form, but will generally record much of the same information. Regardless of the form(s) used, it’s very important that this critical information is captured at the time a cat first enters the shelter and/or CCP system. (See the appendix for an example of an intake form.)

It’s also very important that each cat be scanned for a microchip during intake, and that every effort is made to locate the owners of microchipped cats.

Database entry. Information from the intake form must be transferred to a database, which will then be used to track the cat until an outcome (e.g., return-to-field, foster, transfer to a rescue organization) is finalized. The cat will be assigned a unique identification number at this time. The database will also be used to generate periodic reports documenting a CCP’s performance. (See “Data and Statistics” for additional information.)

ID card. Key information (e.g., cat identification number, trap number, intended outcome) is recorded on an ID card, which is then attached to the trap. (There’s an example of an ID card in the appendix.) The ID card will be associated with that particular cat throughout the rest of the intake process, surgery (perhaps via a paper collar) and recovery. This procedure ensures that cats are not mixed up. Note: In some cases, this information is recorded on a clinic form, which then accompanies the cat through the process. (See the clinic form example in the appendix.)

Evaluation. Staff will evaluate each cat based on eligibility criteria (see below) and recommend appropriate outcomes accordingly.

Holding area. Once a cat has been evaluated and determined to be eligible for the CCP, she is placed in a covered trap in a quiet, temperature-controlled holding area to await surgery. In some programs, surgeries are performed at the shelter, in which case cats are housed at the shelter before surgery (and also afterward, during recovery). Otherwise, surgeries are performed off-site at partner clinics. In such programs, cats are housed in a dedicated area for CCP cats. The same area is often used for post-surgery recovery, although some partner clinics provide space within their clinics for this purpose.

For additional information, please see “Housing Cats and Kittens.”


Every eligible cat who comes through Best Friends’ CCPs is sterilized, vaccinated against rabies and several other diseases,[1] ear-tipped, treated for any detectable medical needs and returned to the location where he or she was trapped. Cats eligible for the program must be:

  1. Ownerless, free-roaming and lacking a traceable microchip
  2. Of a healthy weight (a good indicator that they have someone in their neighborhood feeding and caring for them) and injury-free (as determined by veterinary staff[2])
  3. At least two months of age and two pounds in weight[3]

Role of field services officers

Field services officers (often called animal control officers or ACOs) typically find themselves on the “front lines” (e.g., fielding complaint calls, addressing nuisance complaints in the field) of animal control activities. And while it’s unusual for ACOs to pick up healthy cats (since many communities have no legal requirement for shelters to admit and care for such cats), this practice varies by community. Actively impounding cats is obviously at odds with the basic philosophy and approach of our CCPs (or any return-to-field program), and is also likely to create tension between field services and shelter staff.

For a CCP to be effective, it’s important that the only cats impounded by field services staff are, as a rule, unhealthy and/or injured. Similarly, any healthy ear-tipped cats captured by field services staff should be released immediately. Of course, exceptions (e.g., a cat whose welfare is seriously threatened due to specific circumstances) will occur, though there should be very few of these. And in some cases, field services staff provide transport for CCP cats, in which case the cats are considered spay/neuter patients rather than impounds.

Commercial trappers

In many communities, it’s possible to find pest control or wildlife removal companies that will remove “feral” cats for a fee. Cats caught by these commercial trappers are often brought to the local shelter, where, like so many cats (especially those determined to be “feral”), they are killed.

However, shelters are typically under no obligation to accept cats from commercial trappers, and doing so is incompatible with CCP philosophy.

Cats in traps

CCP staff often loan traps to residents participating in the community cat program, and will provide any necessary training as well. Some of our CCPs allow residents to bring trapped cats only to our partner veterinary clinics, while other programs allow trapped cats to be taken to the shelter for surgery (not for impound).

Cats brought to the clinics will obviously be recognized as CCP cats. For cats brought into the shelter, however, it’s very important that they are clearly designated as CCP cats and treated accordingly. Historically, many shelters have automatically assumed that cats in traps — typically brought in by residents frustrated with cats on their property — were feral, which often means a shorter holding time and a poor chance of making it out alive. (Best Friends’ CCP shelters accept cats in traps from such residents but provide positive outcomes instead.)

Obviously it’s best if positive outcomes (e.g., adoption, CCP, working cat program) are sought for all cats brought to the shelter in traps. And the intake of such cats should also serve as an indication that more cats are likely in need of sterilization at or near the trapping location, thus triggering a prompt response (e.g., trapping, distributing door hangers) from CCP staff. For additional information, please see “Community Outreach and Engagement.”

Intervention programs

By offering various forms of assistance (e.g., dog or cat food, consultation with an animal behaviorist), shelter-based intervention programs can be very effective at helping people keep their pets in their homes rather than surrendering them to the local shelter. Such programs are becoming increasingly common in communities across the country.

Although intervention programs typically focus on pets, they offer an opportunity to save the lives of community cats as well. For example, residents may be surrendering a litter of kittens or young cats born to a stray they’ve been feeding. Again, such instances should trigger a prompt response (e.g., trapping, distributing door hangers) from CCP staff. For additional information, please see “Community Outreach and Engagement.”

Surrender fees

Some shelters that allow residents to surrender cats in traps charge a fee for the service, in an attempt to deter such costly practices (both in terms of lives and tax dollars). No doubt these fees are effective at reducing intake, but may not necessarily reduce the overall lifesaving in a community. The same cats might end up in a nearby shelter that has no surrender fee, or residents who learn of the fee only after they’ve trapped a cat might choose to dump the cat across town instead — a clear violation of animal cruelty statutes prohibiting abandonment.

For residents frustrated with cats on their property, but unwilling to pay for their removal, the CCP’s free services might be a very appealing alternative.

Neonatal kittens

As noted in the “Eligibility” section above, kittens must be at least two months of age and two pounds in weight before they are eligible for our program. And the younger the kittens, the more important it is to identify a caregiver before they are returned to where they were found.

Historically, kittens too young to eat on their own usually have been killed if brought to a shelter, because they demand more resources than shelters can typically provide, especially during kitten season, when such resources are stretched even thinner than usual. Although this practice is unfortunately still the case in many shelters, some more progressive shelters — including many of our CCP partners — have created kitten nurseries and networks of foster homes. These programs, some of which (depending on their scale) can be implemented with surprisingly little in the way of facilities or equipment, can contribute significantly to a CCP’s overall lifesaving. Such programs are also enormously popular with CCP and shelter staff, volunteers, the public and the media.

For additional information, please see “Kitten Nurseries.”

Additional resources


The 28 chapters that make up the CCP Handbook fall into three sections, as follows:




[1] The FVRCP vaccine, sometimes called the distemper vaccine, protects against feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia (also known as feline distemper).

[2] Injured cats are treated by veterinary staff and returned only after sufficient recovery.

[3] Minimum weight required for vaccination against rabies varies by state. We cannot vaccinate underweight kittens against rabies, but we’re happy to vaccinate these kittens once they have reached that threshold and the caregiver brings them to one of our partner veterinary clinics.

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