Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.
It’s estimated that at least 30 percent of cats who enter our nation’s animal shelters each year don’t make it out alive. Approximately five of every 10 cats brought to a shelter are unowned, free-roaming “community” cats, many of whom are not suitable for adoption into homes. Community cat programs (CCPs), which are based upon the trap-neuter-return (TNR) method of population management, therefore, play a critical role in achieving no-kill status in a shelter and the community it serves. These shelter-based programs offer a commonsense, animal-friendly, effective, and economical alternative to the traditional method of managing community cats (i.e., impoundment followed, in many cases, by lethal injection). TNR is simple: cats are caught, evaluated by veterinarians, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and returned to their original outdoor homes, unable to have kittens.
A CCP’s effectiveness depends on a number of factors, including stakeholder buy-in, program funding, clinic capacity and more. Some of these factors are largely beyond the control of CCP staff, while others are the direct result of the policies and practices they develop and implement. A clear, well-articulated guiding principle can be used to shape these policies and practices to maximize positive outcomes.
This guiding principle serves as a kind of compass for the CCP and those involved, providing clear direction in what can often be a rather chaotic environment. The guiding principle keeps CCP staff and volunteers on the same page and headed in the same direction. Each decision is made with a clear objective in mind. Agreeing on a guiding principle before implementing a program will help avoid misunderstandings and mistakes after the program begins.
For example, Best Friends follows this guiding principle for all of its CCPs:
The best option for an individual cat (given the information available at the time a decision must be made) should be determined by a range of factors, including (in no particular order):
Key factors affecting outcomes
Given the number of factors involved — and the dynamic nature of some of them — determining the best option for a particular cat might appear to be overwhelming. In fact, the process is relatively straightforward, as illustrated in Figure 1. Although various aspects of a CCP will vary from program to program, this basic process remains largely the same.
Program admission. CCPs typically offer a range of positive outcomes regardless of whether a cat was trapped in the field or brought to the shelter as a stray. A mother cat might, for example, be returned while her young kittens are transferred to a rescue group or foster partner until they’re old enough to be adopted. An obviously adoptable cat brought into the shelter as a stray might instead be returned to his outdoor home if holding him at the shelter is considered the greater risk to his welfare. (We know from experience that such cats are often community cats in the most literal sense, with multiple caregivers providing for the cat’s needs and concerned for his well-being.)
Assessing eligibility. Program eligibility generally depends on age and health. Cats eligible for Best Friends’ CCPs, for example, must be:
- Unowned, free-roaming and lacking a traceable microchip
- 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)
- At least 2 months of age and 2 pounds in weight for cats with an identified caregiver
- At least 4 months of age for cats without an identified caregiver
Cats with treatable health issues might also be returned, under the right circumstances — such as if a caregiver provides daily thyroid medication or someone fosters an injured cat until he has recovered.
Freeing up kennel space is a key benefit of CCPs. It allows shelters to care for cats with medical needs who previously would have been killed upon intake.
Assessing context. Determining the best options available to a given cat requires an assessment of two very different contexts: (1) the location from which the cat originated and (2) the shelter environment.
The decision to return a healthy cat to a managed colony with a trusted caregiver is generally quite straightforward. And even if no caregiver has been identified, the typical decision is to return the cat since his healthy condition indicates that he’s receiving adequate food, water and shelter.
It becomes more complicated in situations such as a colony that has been the source of multiple nuisance complaints. If the cat is a good adoption candidate, you can consider things like whether the shelter has space or a foster home is available. The best option could be to return the cat, but also have a CCP staff member or volunteer meet with the complainant — perhaps offering the loan of a humane deterrent. Relocation should be considered only if returning the cat to his original location will put him in immediate danger and no other outcome is possible. See “Returning Cats” and “How to Address Various Complaints” for additional information on these topics.
This example illustrates the larger point: Many (often interrelated) factors must be taken into account when working toward positive outcomes. A shelter’s capacity is just one of the most obvious ones; if admitting one more cat means another cat’s “time is up,” then staff need to consider other options. Other shelter policies might be less obvious as factors to be considered. A lengthy stray holding period, for example, can be a barrier to moving eligible cats quickly through the shelter and back to their outdoor homes.
Figure 1. Key factors involved in determining the best outcome for each cat
These factors, and many more, must be weighed carefully in order for those involved (CCP staff and volunteers, shelter staff and volunteers, field services officers, members of local TNR and rescue groups, etc.) to identify and provide the best option for an individual cat.
Positive outcomes. Among the possible positive outcomes are:
- Return-to-field (for the majority of cats)
- Adoption through the shelter or its foster network
- Transfer to a rescue group through the CCP or shelter partners
- Barn cat or "working cat" programs relocation (only if returning a cat will put him in immediate danger and no other outcome is possible)
Note: Euthanasia can be considered a positive outcome if it is used to truly relieve an animal’s irremediable suffering or unacceptable quality of life.
The process in practice. As this section of the CCP Handbook makes clear, the process to ensure a positive outcome for each and every program cat involves a number of decisions. Often, these decisions must be made quickly, and they are based upon limited information. The thought of taking on such a challenge can be unsettling. But, with some experience, a deep commitment to lifesaving and a good understanding of quality of life, staff and volunteers will find that many of these decisions are actually quite straightforward, especially as the organization accrues and applies critical knowledge about the program, the shelter and the community they serve (see below). And the basic process lends itself to “evolution,” as creative problem-solving expands the range of possibilities leading to positive outcomes.
Knowledge is power
To make the decisions necessary to save more lives — and to do so in a timely manner, amid the daily pressures of a CCP — staff and volunteers must have a solid understanding not only of the CCP, but also of how the shelter operates and interacts with the community it serves. A detailed analysis of some of the shelter’s key metrics, going back two or three years, is a good start. Questions to ask include:
- What is the current live release rate for cats and kittens (and overall)?
- How has it changed (or not changed) over the past couple of years?
- What are the annual intake numbers?
- How many feline intakes are neonatal kittens?
- When does kitten season typically begin and end?
- Which neighborhoods in the community are the most significant sources of kittens each year?
- What is the shelter’s average length of stay for cats and kittens? How does this vary seasonally?
- What other lifesaving programs does the shelter have in place?
- How do local and state laws and regulations (e.g., specific holding time for strays) affect lifesaving programs?
- Does the shelter accept cats from commercial trappers (i.e., private companies that offer “feral cat” removal services to residents for a fee)? If so, how many?
Although the idea of analyzing data makes some people uncomfortable, a careful review of the shelter’s key statistics is absolutely essential to understanding its current performance and future progress. This understanding also helps staff and volunteers to develop policies and processes that maximize positive outcomes. “Empty the shelter” promotions, for example, might be scheduled to coincide with the peak of kitten season, thereby freeing up precious kennel space. Or it might be decided — again, based on the data — that a kitten nursery is the most effective way to save more lives during the program’s first year. (See “Kitten Nurseries” for additional information on this topic.)
Moreover, the institutional knowledge developed over the course of regular data reviews and reporting is invaluable in helping staff and volunteers make lifesaving decisions quickly and with confidence, thereby improving the CCP’s overall success. Lessons learned are applied, and some surprises can be anticipated and even planned for. When kitten season is just around the corner, for example, staff and volunteers know that kennel space available this week may be unavailable next week, and they can make decisions accordingly. (See “Data and Statistics” for additional information on this topic.)
- Best Friends’ community cats page
- "FAQs About Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)"
- “Making the decision on whether or not to return a cat to field”
 Minimum weight required for vaccination against rabies varies by state. Minimum weight required for vaccination against rabies varies by state. Reasonable efforts should be made to either hold underweight kittens (e.g., at the shelter or in foster homes) or return them to the clinic for this vaccination once the kittens have reached the designated age requirement.
 For example, euthanasia is considered the best option for a cat who cannot be given his required medication and for whom there is no other positive outcome (e.g., sanctuary).
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