Community Cat Frequently Asked Questions
Community cat programs represent a new way of thinking for many, and we understand that community members have a lot of great questions about this innovative way to care for these cats. We’ve collected some frequently asked questions and responses for you here. If you have additional questions, please submit them to [email protected]
How does San Diego Humane Society’s community cat program work?
The Community Cat Program assesses the unique needs of every community cat entering our care and provides the most beneficial pathway for each animal. Every community cat brought to San Diego Humane Society is examined by a veterinarian (DVM) or registered veterinary technician (RVT). Each one is carefully assessed, and we determine the best pathway for each animal based on a variety of factors, including age, health, body condition, information sourced from the cat’s finder, etc. Studies show that the best approach for healthy community cats is to spay/neuter and vaccinate them, and then quickly return them to their outdoor homes. If an adult community cat is sick or injured, we will assess them to determine if we are able to treat them effectively and return them safely to their outdoor homes. In some cases, when sick or injured cats require more extensive medical care and are not eligible for return outdoors, they will be admitted to the shelter. Kittens under 6 months of age will be individually assessed, and we will determine the best outcome for each one.
What are the benefits of spay/neutering community cats and returning them outdoors?
Returning community cats outdoors is the best outcome for individual cats and for the community. Because the majority of community cats are not suited to life as indoor pets, confinement in a shelter — even for a short period of time — can be extremely stressful and detrimental to their health and quality of life. Additionally, community cats who are returned to their outdoor homes are those who have demonstrated that they are healthy and doing well. There is no benefit to the cat to permanently remove them from where they have been living successfully. The most humane and effective approach for community cats is to spay/neuter and vaccinate them, and return them to their outdoor homes. This approach also stabilizes and reduces community cat populations and minimizes nuisance behaviors (spraying, fighting, noise, etc.). The return of sterilized resident cats also prevents the influx of additional unsterilized cats, and therefore helps to reduce the overall population.
How does spaying/neutering and vaccinating improve the health of community cats?
After being spayed or neutered and vaccinated, cats living in colonies tend to gain weight and live healthier lives. Spayed female cats are less likely to develop breast cancer and will not be at risk for ovarian or uterine cancer, while neutered males will not get testicular cancer. Female cats will also not have to deal with pregnancies, which can be stressful and taxing for any mammal.
Neutering male cats also reduces the risk of injury and infection, since intact males have a natural instinct to fight with other cats. Spaying also means female cats do not go into heat. That means they attract fewer male cats to the area, which reduces fighting and caterwauling.
Additionally, just one round of vaccines received before being returned outdoors can have substantial health benefits for cats and the community, preventing disease and its spread within colonies. A study involving cats in a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program in Florida vaccinated cats against feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), feline herpes virus (FHV), feline calicivirus (FCV), FeLV, and rabies virus (RV) — all common among community cats. Reexamination after 10 weeks showed that the cats had an excellent immune response following vaccination, significantly lowering their risk of disease. Vaccinations at the time of spay/neuter not only protect the health of individual cats, but work to decrease the rates of infectious diseases among outdoor cat communities.
What happens to community cats in animal shelters?
For a community cat, any time spent in an animal shelter (even one as careful to provide a supportive environment as San Diego Humane Society) can lead to severe stress, which can cause mental anguish, behavioral deterioration and increases rates of infectious disease — including upper respiratory infection (URI), feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), ringworm, etc. —that leads to higher rates of death in shelter care and euthanasia. In fact, a study published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal showed that the most significant factor placing cats at risk of developing upper respiratory infection is time spent in a shelter. This includes friendly community cats who, despite being social, do not adjust to living in shelters the way dogs do. As a result, traditional sheltering models do not present the best opportunity for success for community cats.
Are friendly community cats returned outdoors?
Yes. There are multiple reasons to return healthy, friendly cats to the outdoor homes they came from. In addition to helping to stabilize and reduce community cat colonies, this approach allows friendly cats to avoid the stresses associated with the shelter. For even friendly community cats, confinement in a shelter or home environment — even for a short period of time — exposes them to potential illness and can cause extreme stress, which can lead to significant health and welfare problems, including increased rates of death in shelter care and euthanasia.
Additionally, many friendly community cats are social because they do interact frequently with humans in their neighborhoods, including people who may act as their caregivers. While caregiving differs significantly from ownership in the traditional and legal sense of the word, caregivers may provide these cats with food and water, access to their yard, and human interaction and affection — and, in many cases, these caregivers are significantly invested in the cats’ wellbeing. Friendliness in a community cat indicates that they have an outdoor home in which they are thriving. Therefore, regardless of their behavior, the best outcome for healthy community cats is to spay/neuter and vaccinate them, and return them to their outdoor homes.
What about “stray” cats?
In our terminology, stray cats are not community cats. A stray cat has identifiable signs of ownership and has either been abandoned by an owner or lost. If a cat is brought to San Diego Humane Society as a stray with signs of ownership — such as identification tags, a microchip, a collar, or other signs that the cat may be or was once owned — the cat would not be eligible for the Community Cat Program. We scan every cat who comes to our shelter for a microchip. Cats with microchips would be kept in the shelter for the appropriate stray hold period in hopes of reunifying them with their owners. If not reclaimed, we would provide the cat with the best possible outcome, including adoption into a new home. It is important for all pet owners to microchip their pets, especially cats who go outdoors, so shelters are able to contact the owner if their cat is brought to a shelter.
Can’t community cats just be removed or relocated?
No. Removal or relocation efforts for community cats are ineffective, dangerous for the cats and simply not feasible. Community cats live in an area because the resources — food, water, shelter — are there to support them. These resources may or may not be provided by humans. Data show that rounding up the cats and bringing them to shelters, rescues or sanctuaries does not solve the issue of cat overpopulation, because new cats will continue to fill the spaces in communities created by removed cats, as long as there is resource availability. Additionally, there is not enough room anywhere for all the cats who would need to be rounded up — where would we put the hundreds of thousands of community cats in San Diego County alone? Relocation is also not a viable option. It is very important that cats know their environment and are aware of any threats and resources in the area for their own protection — and there is simply nowhere to put them that would be responsible and reasonable.
How does returning community cats outdoors impact wildlife?
The focus of community cat programs is bringing down the number of community cats, which will be beneficial to wildlife. When a spayed or neutered community cat returns to a colony, it no longer reproduces and helps suppress the litter sizes of other cats by continuing to use available resources. This approach is the only method proven to reduce cat colony sizes over time, which also benefits wildlife. While cats are efficient hunters, and some community members express concern over their impact on birds and other wildlife, it is important to note that outdoor cats also play an important role in managing the population of rodents that eat bird eggs. There is also data to suggest that sterilizing cats reduces their desire to hunt. As a result, the removal of community cats from an outdoor area would not necessarily create a benefit for, or reduction in the predation of, birds. Additionally, community cats are often sustained by a caregiver who feeds them regularly, or by scavenging rather than hunting for food.
Why not just eradicate community cats?
Some people suggest that euthanizing all the community cats would be the most effective way to reduce population and protect wildlife. While San Diego Humane Society would never euthanize a healthy animal, and the vast majority of community members would be opposed to euthanizing the hundreds of thousands of community cats in San Diego County alone, the scientific fact is that eradicating community cats is impossible. Neither San Diego Humane Society nor any other group could effectively euthanize all the community cats before new cats had moved into the area. The population would continue to be supplemented even as cats were removed. We are fortunate that the most compassionate thing to do — sterilizing community cats and returning them outdoors — is also the most effective.
Studies show that litter-bearing mammals breed in proportion to the available food in the environment. Removing one cat from the population does not reduce the population because the food source remains, and the other cats will continue to reproduce. Additionally, cats from other areas will quickly move into areas from which cats have been removed. As one example, an attempt was made to eradicate cats on Marion Island in South Africa in the 1980s. The island is 129 square miles and is largely uninhabited. The eradication effort took more than 15 years and tens of millions of dollars. Even if eradication were desirable or effective — and it has been proven that it is not — such a project could never be carried out in a county as large and populous as San Diego, where there are an estimated 300K-500K community cats.
Is it legal to release cats in California?
Yes. The Community Cat Program does not conflict with California law — in fact, it aligns closely with California’s public policy regarding animals. California’s anti-cruelty laws are designed to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering in animals, as well as abandonment of animals by their owners. Community cats have no owner, and the vast majority of community cats are healthy and benefit from being sterilized, vaccinated and returned to the location where they were found. The Community Cat Program benefits humans and animals alike by achieving crucial goals such as saving cat lives, providing humane treatment in accordance with California state policy, minimizing reproduction, reducing nuisance concerns, improving wildlife protection and reducing financial expense. The Community Cat Program does not release cats into environmentally sensitive habitats or areas where releases are prohibited by law.
How do I know if a cat has already been spayed/neutered?
Look for an ear-tip (a notch in one of the cat’s ears)! An ear-tip, performed in a sterile setting while the cat is anesthetized and being spayed/neutered, is a universal indicator that a community cat has been spayed/ neutered and vaccinated, and ensures that cats who have already been spayed/neutered are not subjected to additional trips to the shelter.
Have programs like Community Cat Program been successful in other communities?
Yes. This approach is grounded in decades of research and backed by supporting data. Communities worldwide have implemented strategic efforts to spay/neuter community cats and return them to their outdoor homes and experienced the following outcomes, which indicate the success of these efforts in reducing litter numbers and sizes:
- San Jose Animal Care and Services saw the number of felines brought to their shelter decrease by 29% after four years.
- The Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Virginia saw a 58% decrease in the number of bottle-fed kittens arriving at their shelter after one year.
- At the University of Florida, the number of community cats on campus declined by 66% during an 11-year study. Additionally, no new kittens were born after the first four years.
- In Rome, Italy, similar efforts saw community cat colony size decrease between 16 and 32% over a 10-year period.
- At Texas A&M University, 123 cats were neutered in the first year of their program operations, and no new litters of kittens were produced the following year.
- A 23-year study of a targeted program to trap, spay/neuter and return cats outdoors in the Ocean Reef Community of Key Largo, Florida, showed a 55% decline in the free-roaming cat population.
- A study of telephone complaints related to free-roaming cats in five cities in Israel found that complaints related to cats’ aggressive behavior, invasion of human facilities, injuries and distress significantly correlated to complaints about kittens and reproduction. These findings imply an association between cat welfare impairment and reproduction intensity.
- In the city of Rishon LeZion in Israel, a 2012-2014 study of free-roaming cats found that a higher ratio of neutered cats in the geographic population correlated with fewer emaciated and thin adult cats. This suggests that neutering favorably impacts the health of community cats.