Cats – The Underdog of Shelter Adoptions

Guest article by Karen R. Lauderback

The warm months bring "kitten season" when multiple litters of kittens can arrive in a shelter each day.

The “9 lives” that folklore has given to cats sounds like plenty, but it really doesn’t get them far in today’s world.  While the status of dogs as family members has certainly been on the increase and you don’t have to go far to find a “dog person”, the cats still have a way to go.  This is evidenced by statistics from some of our area shelters (Chesapeake Animal Control, Norfolk Animal Care Center, and Virginia Beach Animal Control for the purpose of this article) that show success truly sides with the dogs.

Reclaiming of stray animals:  Stray animals that are brought to animal control either by citizens or humane officers belonged to someone at some point in time.  While 56.5% of dogs were reclaimed by their families in 2009, only 4.3% of stray cats were reunited with their owners.

Adoptions:  Of the total number of dog and cat adoptions, 63.7% of adoptions are of dogs.

Euthanasia:   The “live release rate” (reclaimed by owner, transferred to a rescue group, or adopted) for cats is a mere 25.9%, meaning that the remainder – 74.1% – are put down.  In 2009 this meant about 5,722 cats at these 3 facilities alone, and their percentages fall within the national average.  While it is true that some of the cats in these statistics were technically unadoptable (i.e. feral or too injured/ill), the majority of the cats were adoptable domestic house cats.

Karin (aka Candy Girl), a stray who arrived at a local shelter and has not been reclaimed.

The reality is that a stray cat turned into a shelter has a next to zero chance of being reclaimed by his/her owner, and only about a 1 in 5 chance of leaving the shelter alive.  If a stray cat has no ID but appears in good health and isn’t begging to enter your home, chances are he/she is out for a stroll.  City laws prohibit animals from straying beyond his/her yard, but since this is the fault of the owner and not the cat, why punish the cat when it can be all but impossible to find the owner?

Before taking a stray to animal control, please do everything you can to try to locate the owner:  talk to your neighbors, inform your civic league president, put up fliers, post a “Found” classified in the paper (a basic found ad is free), and file a report at your local shelter (if you live near another city as well, you should report the animal to each animal control).  If you must take the cat to the shelter, and you know people who might be interested in adopting the cat, send them over there.  Post information about the cat (with a photo if possible) on CraigsList, making sure people know the cat is at risk of being put down if not adopted.  The cat may be a really great cat, but you would be surprised at how many great cats are indeed at shelters – with nowhere near enough adopters to speak for each of them.

Abandoned when her person moved out, this cat remains at her home but is being fed and cared for by a neighbor.

Another alternative if you know the cat has been abandoned but are concerned about its chances of adoption at a shelter is to unofficially adopt the cat.  Given a constant food/water supply and a safe place (tool shed, crawl space, or dog house) to retreat when needed, cats can be very self-sufficient.  Take advantage of the street cat/feral cat packages offered by many of our area’s low-cost clinics.

Tostado, a member of a feral colony in Norfolk, sports the clipped ear of an outdoor cat who has been fixed.

Packages are typically around $30 per cat and include spay/neuter, a Rabies vaccine, and eartip (which marks cats as fixed).  Some packages also include a Combo test for FIV and Feline Leukemia.

If you are feeding a stray and are not sure he/she is fixed, as good as your intentions are in seeing the cat has food, in the long term you are not helping that cat or the others in shelters.  Five cats can become twenty in no time, and those are numbers that attract rightful concern from neighbors.  That in turn can lead to all of them being trapped and brought to a shelter.  Do the cats a favor and control the situation as soon as you begin feeding them.  Detailed guides for managing cat colonies can also be found at  Volunteers with ART’s SpayHR program ( can also offer guidance and some limited assistance.

Two of C.M.’s cats enjoy a hot summer afternoon from the comfort of his front porch.

C.M. wasn’t looking for the role of caregiver to cats when he noticed a few had taken up residence in a boat in his backyard.  But their cute antics quickly won him over, and he is now a devoted caregiver.  While recovering from a stroke earlier this year, C.M. found he not only enjoyed watching the cats, but their presence was relaxing and calming for him.  “I don’t want to see anything happen to these cats,” he explains.  “They were there for me when I needed them, and now I’m trying to return the favor.”  He is working with SpayHR to have the cats fixed so their population stabilizes.

While some of you may never be “cat people”, when looking at the data it doesn’t take long to see that we need a different approach to managing cat overpopulation.  Many forward-thinking cities such as Washington DC/Baltimore, Atlantic City, and Chicago are thinking “outside the litterbox” and relaxing their standards about stray cats as long as caregivers are actively working to ensure the population of the cats is controlled through spay/neuter.  In the end, such an approach can mean our shelter’s resources are more wisely used, and that the number of cats put down will not be so astronomical.

And then, just maybe, 9 lives will be enough for the cats after all!

* Data based on 2009 statistics provided by Chesapeake Animal Control, Norfolk Animal Care Center, and Virginia Beach Animal Control to VDACS.

* This article also appears in the August/September edition of PetTails.


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