A Note From Matthew Pepper on the Challenges of Cats in Shelters

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Growing up, my family had an amazing cat, Pogo, named for his nightly routine of jumping from the floor to the top of the bunk bed that I shared as a child with my brother, Josh. He was simply amazing. He passed away many years ago, living to be almost 20, and was, in my humble opinion, the very definition of a “perfect cat.” He was also, however, absolutely nothing like my really cool dog, Bruce. They were both great companions, but different in most every way.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that cats and dogs are different. Their personalities are different. Their needs and wants can also be different. Jokingly, we say that cats should have fired their PR firm years ago, as they don’t seem to command the full respect as does “Man’s Best Friend.” Cats and dogs are two different animals, literally and figuratively.

Sadly, and with all seriousness, the placement rate for cats in animal shelters across the country is dramatically less than for dogs. And while these rates vary from state to state, community to community, this fact remains consistent. There are several factors that impact the placement rates for cats.

One significant and problematic factor facing stray cats in shelters is their reclaim rate. The fact that you are reading this via the Michigan Humane Society’s blog would lead one to believe you have a passion, or at least an affinity, for animals. Likely, if your cat went missing, you would immediately begin looking for it. Unfortunately, that is clearly not the case with the overwhelming majority of people in communities across the country, including here in Michigan. Now, this does not necessarily mean that most people don’t love their cats, but rather that cats are simply, on average, thought of in a much different manner than dogs.

Research, including a study conducted by Ohio State University, tells us that, unquestionably, most people don’t come looking for their missing cat – and those who do begin their search long after any reasonable stray holding period has expired. This is a heartbreaking reality, but a reality nonetheless. Affirmation of this reality can be found at MHS, where less than 1% of stray cats brought to us every year are reclaimed by their owners; for the most recent year, 0.88% percent to be exact.

The Michigan Humane Society has not euthanized any healthy dogs or cats in more than five years. Stop and think about that. Five years. This, in the face of tens of thousands of animals brought to MHS every year as a large, fully open admission shelter. In and of itself, this is a true accomplishment worthy of celebration. Even more importantly, we recently have reached the milestone of eliminating the euthanasia of treatable dogs. That is, 100% placement of all healthy and treatable dogs!

Relative to cats, we place 100% of the healthy cats in our care. And, over the past 12 months, MHS has adopted out 63% of all the treatable cats we cared for. This is in many ways an impressive accomplishment considering the extremely high number of cats brought to MHS, as well as the high volume of cats we provide significant medical care for. Yet, we continually strive for 100% placement of treatable cats while struggling to meet the needs of cats that fall from the healthy spectrum into that of treatable, primarily because of medical issues that arise while they are in the shelter.

We have already identified that cats and dogs are different. So too are the differences between the two species within a shelter. What makes dogs sick in shelters are issues like their proximity to other animals and exposure to disease factors within the shelter. What makes cats sick is stress. Cats are very susceptible to environmental stresses, which include specific housing conditions, olfactory stimulation, and general activities within a shelter. Furthermore, MOST cats are already harboring the virus that is the most common cause of Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) – and stress suppresses their immune system and facilitates this common illness. A major source of stress for cats in a shelter is they are often in visual or audible (i.e. barking) contact with dogs. The reality is that despite our tremendous care and enrichment programs, shelters are still very stressful places for animals, especially cats.

Many recent studies, most notably Dr. Kate Hurley’s from the UC-Davis Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, indicate stress in cats as the primary determinant for them getting sick; and most importantly, that stress can be linked to housing and length of stay. Our veterinarians have confirmed that cats, on average, get sick around the 4th or 5th day of stay. Again, this is a product of stress causing a disease, most likely already incubating, to manifest itself despite the amazing level of care provided by the team at MHS. The crystal clear reality is that the longer a cat remains in a shelter, beginning immediately upon entering the facility, the less its chances for placement.

There is a direct correlation between stress levels and length of stay in a shelter with the health of a cat. Therefore, as an animal welfare community, we must address the length of stay of cats in order to significantly impact opportunities for their placement and a high quality of life.

There is no single action that will make this happen. Given the dynamics and clear undeniable statistical evidence pertaining to cats in shelters, we must rethink how we handle, treat and hold cats for placement. We must, above all, reduce the length of stay in shelters to increase opportunities at life. We have to address the standards of care and the philosophy held by cat owners in our community to impact reclaim rates. At MHS, every animal matters, and we are committed to meeting these complex challenges with innovative solutions.

– Matthew Pepper, President and CEO

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4 thoughts on “A Note From Matthew Pepper on the Challenges of Cats in Shelters

  1. You folks should be very proud of your accomplishments. I wish there were more Humane Societies/shelters like yours across the United States, yours is a shining examine of what ALL shelters and Humane Societies should be like. Throughout CA and NY and particularly in the South, the shelters are nothing but slaughter houses. No one really tries to save the thousands of innocent animals, except the rescues and the Humane Societies, and I am not quite certain of all Humane Societies. Congratulations on your accomplishments.

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