San Diego County is home to an estimated 300,000-500,000 free-roaming, unowned “community cats." Caring for community cats, while working to stabilize and ultimately reduce their numbers, is one of the most complex issues facing animal shelters today. It’s one that leading animal welfare organizations, veterinarians and researchers are committed to finding new and progressive solutions to address.
In 2021, San Diego Humane Society will launch a comprehensive community cat program that was developed with a simple, clear goal in mind: We want to help cats. We want to create the best, most compassionate outcome for every animal in San Diego County, just as we’ve been committed to doing for more than 140 years.
What is a community cat?
“Community cats” are free-roaming, outdoor cats with no identifiable signs of ownership. These cats are found all over the world. Community cats can be feral or friendly, young or old. Here in San Diego County, they live in our urban areas, parks, canyons, backyards and beach communities. It’s likely that they reside in your neighborhood, and you may not even know it.
Why aren’t traditional sheltering methods working for community cats?
The traditional shelter model was originally developed to care for dogs and livestock, and simply does not meet the unique needs of cats. As a result, shelters do not provide the best option for cats, and statistics demonstrate that: Nationally, cats admitted to shelters have only a 2% chance of being reunited with an owner, and a nearly 50% chance of being euthanized in a shelter.
In shelter environments, community cats who are accustomed to roaming miles each day are confined to small habitats in highly populated indoor spaces, which can lead to extreme stress and illness — which then results in significantly higher rates of death and euthanasia. In California in 2019, 9% of dogs who entered shelters were lost, euthanized or died, compared to 25% of cats.
Additionally, despite the use of traditional sheltering methods and the work of many people and organizations dedicated to caring for animals, the volume of cats entering shelters continues to increase. In 2019, nearly 2.3 million cats entered shelters nationwide, up from 2.2 million the previous year. During our 2020 fiscal year (July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020), 21,648 cats entered shelters in San Diego County alone.
As we seek alternate solutions for community cats, it is important to note that cats live and thrive outdoors all over the world — in Africa, Asia, Australia, South America and beyond. In fact, North America is the only continent in which keeping indoor-only cats has become common practice. Even in the United States, keeping indoor cats as pets only became popular after 1947, with the invention of cat litter, and then became more commonplace in the 1970s when shelters advocated for keeping cats indoors in an effort to control population. Additionally, cats — unlike their canine counterparts — have DNA that has remained unchanged for the past 4 million years. The feline pets we keep today are still virtually identical to those who have thrived outside for millions of years! According to National Geographic, a study that compared the DNA of cats throughout history shows that no major differences exist between the genetic makeup of wild and domestic cats. As a result, they remain perfectly capable of thriving in the wild.
All of these facts demand that we challenge old ways of thinking and find innovative solutions that are in the best interest of community cats.
A New Solution: Comprehensive Community Cat Programs
San Diego Humane Society and other leading animal welfare organizations are creating comprehensive community cat programs to best meet the needs of individual cats while helping to reduce population over time. The focus of these programs is to do what’s best for community cats by spay/neutering, vaccinating and returning healthy community cats to their outdoor homes.
Supporters of these programs include a wide range of veterinarians, shelter experts and leading animal welfare organizations — including Alley Cat Allies, American Pets Alive, the ASPCA, Best Friends, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis, and Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida. In addition to being what’s best for individual cats, spaying/neutering community cats and returning them outdoors is the only approach proven to reduce their population numbers over time. While programs that care for community cats may have slight variations and go by different names, including Spay/Neuter Return (SNR), Trap/Neuter Return (TNR) or Return to Field (RTF), they are all focused on the same thing: ensuring the best outcomes for healthy, unowned, outdoor cats.
The community cat program that San Diego Humane Society will launch in 2021 relies on years of scientific research, as well as discussion and debate among those in the animal welfare community who have dedicated their lives to doing what’s best for animals. Community cats entering the program will be spayed/neutered, vaccinated and quickly returned to their outdoor homes. This program will only apply to healthy cats, and those with easily treatable conditions, who demonstrate they are doing well living outside. It does not apply to cats who are unhealthy, show signs of having been recently abandoned, were relinquished by their owners, or were found in a location that presented an immediate danger. In most cases, it will also not apply to kittens under 6 months of age.
By developing a community cat program, we are taking the next step in our commitment to doing what’s best for the cats who need us. And that requires solutions that are innovative and push us to evolve how we think about our role in caring for animals in need!