Million Cat Challenge aims to reform shelter methods

Veterinarians leading campaign encourage shelters to share tactics

December 31, 2014 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo by Sarah Carey
Dr. Julie Levy is co-founder of the University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program. She holds Bingo, a kitten who was neutered during a program “day of service” at a local animal shelter.

Shelter medicine experts Dr. Julie Levy of the University of Florida and Dr. Kate Hurley of the University of California, Davis, are leading a new campaign called the Million Cat Challenge. The project’s goal is saving lives by improving the techniques shelters use to accept, house and adopt out cats. In an email conversation with the VIN News Service, Levy explains the project genesis and approach.

How did the project originate?

A few years ago, Kate came across a campaign to reduce mistakes resulting in death and harm in human hospitals. At an industry conference, hospital administrators were challenged to save 100,000 patient lives over 18 months. Participating hospitals volunteered to implement one or more proven tactics and to share their data openly. Results were dramatic, and eventually led to saving millions of patients from harm due to medical mistakes.  

Kate tried a similar approach during a meeting with a handful of shelter managers. At the end of her talk, she asked how many fewer cats would be euthanized at their shelters because of what they’d discussed — the answer was over 1,000. We tried the same thing after speaking to an audience of more than 1,000 shelter managers and staff at the Humane Society of the United States Expo in 2013. This time, shelters said they could save over 10,000 cats with the tools they’d learned about.

When we got home from Expo, our email boxes were full from people who were desperate to help cats in their shelters. They were hungry for new opportunities to change how their shelters managed cats.

We thought a national campaign mimicking the Five Million Lives Saved campaign would work for shelters, and the Million Cat Challenge was born.

What is the essential problem the Million Cat Challenge is trying to address?

Many shelters are struggling to meet the needs of cats in their care and of cats in their communities. While euthanasia rates for dogs are plummeting in much of North America, cats are not seeing the same gains.

Shelters frequently lack the facilities and expertise to keep cats healthy and stress-free, and there frequently is an imbalance between the number of cats entering shelters and the number of adopters or rescuers who can take them out. Cats often can be served best by solutions outside of shelters, and shelter facilities and policies can be modified to assure the best outcomes for cats that come into their care.

This project gives us an opportunity to see what is working best for cats in shelters and to share successful tactics with shelters across North America.

Looking at the five initiatives you advocate to meet the goal, you’re asking shelters to make fundamental changes in how they take in, care for, and adopt out cats. For each of the initiatives, will you briefly explain what the conventional approach is, and the changes you’d like to see?

1. Alternatives to intake: In many shelters, especially those that are operated by municipalities, there's a belief that the doors must be open at all times to all animals.

The reality is, many of those animals can be better served with another option. For example, many families give up their beloved pets because they're struggling financially or are facing a housing situation where they cannot keep their pets. It would be far preferable to support these pet owners in keeping their pets through provision of veterinary services, pet food banks, and pet-friendly housing options than to take these pets away from the families that love them.

Similarly, for the large population of community cats that are thriving in their neighborhoods, their outcomes would be better if given birth control and vaccinations than impounded in a shelter with a high euthanasia rate.

2. Managed intake: Uncontrolled intake often leads to a mismatch between a shelter's daily resources and the needs of the animals that are coming in.

Shelters are finding that creating an appointment system for non-emergency intake of animals allows for a smoother process and ensures that animals are coming in when the shelter is prepared for them, and not endangering their lives or the lives of animals already in the shelter.

Can you elaborate on that?  How does drop-off without an appointment endanger the life of the incoming animal or those of shelter inhabitants?

By exposure to shelter diseases, as well as the severe health problems that can result from stress – this is particularly acute for cats. Managing your intake ... can allow a pet to be vaccinated, return home and come back into the shelter after his or her immune system has responded to the vaccines. This protects that pet from diseases that may be present in the shelter but not in the home.

And the rest of the initiatives?

3. Capacity for care: Conventionally, a shelter has viewed its capacity as the number of cages in the shelter, but this has failed to account for staffing needs, veterinary care, space requirements and even the number of adopters visiting the shelter. This can lead to an overcrowded shelter with high disease rates and poor welfare, all of which lead to prolonged stays in the shelter and increased euthanasia rates.

Determining the capacity for humane care helps shelters understand their overall capacity and how to leverage their resources to move animals through the shelter system as quickly and safely as possible. This leads to healthier and happier populations, increased adoptions, better relationships with the community and, paradoxically, the ability to save more animals over time.

4. Removing barriers to adoption: Traditionally, many shelters have felt understandably protective of the animals they've saved, and have implemented rigorous screening protocols and high adoption fees with the goals of assuring optimal adoption placements.

Over the past several years, shelters have questioned how effective those tactics are, and have learned that trusting the public and replacing long, intrusive applications and high adoption fees with conversations and discounted or free-adoption promotions has resulted in more adopters coming to shelters, (and) without the consequences they once feared.

A series of rigorous studies following up on pet adoptions has demonstrated that this approach increases the number of pet adopters without compromising the well-being of the pets. The studies include:

5. Return to field: Traditionally, feral cats that were brought to shelters were held for a few days and then euthanized because they were not candidates for adoption.

Increasingly, shelters instead are sterilizing and vaccinating healthy stray cats who are in good condition, and returning them to the neighborhoods where they were thriving.

This benefits the community by reducing nuisance behavior exhibited by unneutered cats, and fills a niche previously occupied with an intact, unvaccinated cat with one who is healthy, vaccinated and cannot reproduce.

Communities that have instituted this approach experienced a decrease in complaints related to free-roaming cats, and shelters have recognized an immediate decrease in euthanasia rates as well.

The return-to-field initiative I imagine will be controversial. How do you balance the concerns about feral and outside cats preying on birds and other wildlife with the desire to save cats’ lives?

As we learn more, we increasingly recognize this is a false dilemma. We care about birds and other wildlife, and we care about cats. Through scientifically-based approaches, careful monitoring of data and outcomes, and engaging the community in our efforts, we don't have to choose between them. We can design programs that result in positive outcomes for both. As a recent study documented, fertility control can reduce the population of free-roaming cats.

That's one of our goals with this project, to over time reduce the population of feral cats and thus ease predation stress on sensitive species that may be sharing the same environment.

It’s important to recognize that animal shelters for decades have been collecting and euthanizing millions of cats a year, but populations have not been controlled. Return-to-field programs seek to involve residents in a proactive solution that protects cats, communities and wildlife.

Why is the focus on cats rather than dogs, or both? In what ways is the problem of unwanted cats different from unwanted dogs?

This project is focused on cats because they are at much higher risk of euthanasia than dogs are. In many parts of the country, there is a shortage of dogs available for adoption in shelters, but this is not the case for cats. And while euthanasia rates for dogs are decreasing in many parts of the country, they're often increasing for cats.

Cats also are unique in their ability to reproduce and survive outside of homes, which has created a large population of free-roaming community cats that requires a unique approach.

How many cats die every year in the United States and Canada because they’re unwanted? How solid is that number? How many shelter/rescue cats are adopted every year in the two countries?

These types of questions are always tough to answer because in the U.S. there's no single, comprehensive tracking system for the numbers of animals coming into animal shelters, or what happens to them.

But we do have some data from a wide variety of sources, including Maddie's Fund, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Pet Products Association and others. While none of those has identical numbers, the overall trends are consistent across those sources of data.

For our purposes, we're using the shelter intake figure of 3.4 million cats annually, of which more than half are euthanized.

For Canada, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies just released some new numbers this month. This was 2013 data that reflected numbers from 90 shelters. They've been gathering this data since 1993, when only 28 percent of shelter cats were adopted, and around 60 percent were euthanized that year. In 2013, those numbers are much better. Around 53 percent of the cats coming into those Canadian shelters are adopted, and 37 percent are euthanized. (The other 10 percent remained in the shelter or died of other causes.)

Who may participate in the campaign?

Our Challengers are animal shelters that admit cats and have a brick-and-mortar location. We also utilize support and mentoring from veterinarians and successful shelters that may not be Challengers because they've already reduced intake and euthanasia dramatically, and thus don't have enough room to add to the count. However, that's exactly why they are so important to this mentoring-based program, because they have developed proven tools and strategies that will help those who are still working toward the goal.

We also are enrolling supporting organizations, including veterinary clinics, spay/neuter and trap-neuter-release programs, rescue groups and other animal-welfare organizations.

When did your count toward one million cats begin, and how do you know whether a given cat counts toward the goal?

The goal of the Million Cat Challenge is to save the lives of one million cats in North America over a five-year period that began Jan. 1, 2014. (Only shelters in the United States and Canada are participating currently, but those in Mexico are welcome.) Lives saved will be counted by two methods: reduction in euthanasia and increase in live release.

At enrollment, data is collected for the baseline year (2012) along with estimates for the current calendar year. At the beginning of each year, participating shelters report actual values for the previous calendar year and update their estimates for the new year.

Our methodology is explained in more detail on our website.

How many shelters are participating to date? How many are possible?

As of Dec. 23, 113 animal shelters have enrolled, with others currently in the data-verifying process. They represent 111,845 additional cats' lives saved over the baseline year of 2012.

The total number of animal shelters in the U.S. is estimated to be around 13,600. This includes private shelters both with and without animal-control contracts, and municipal animal control shelters.

We do not have that number for Canada, but the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is aware of 172 humane societies or SPCAs that shelter animals. This does not include municipal shelters.

What does the project cost? Who is paying?

For shelters, there is no cost to participate in the campaign. It's a community of shelter workers and shelter veterinarians who have come together to share winning strategies.

The opportunity for Kate and me to devote most of our time to this, and for creating the online community and resource website, is made possible by an educational grant of nearly $1.8 million from Maddie's Fund, $30,000 from the Paul and Lea Levine Foundation and support from individual donors.

What is the role for private-practice veterinarians and the public?

We are receiving offers of support and help from private practices all over the country. That makes sense, because many veterinarians in private practice are already volunteering doing spay/neuter, running adoption programs out of their clinics, working or volunteering in shelters and doing animal rescue themselves.

At our university shelter-medicine programs, our direct link to animal shelters is usually via the veterinary services department, which is working on disease control, rehabilitation and preventive care. Successful implementation of the Million Cat Challenge is going to depend on veterinarians working in shelters, as well as their colleagues in communities who are helping shelters and rescue groups.

There's also a public-health component as regards free-roaming cats. Having a greater proportion of community cats being managed and vaccinated and ending their cycle of reproduction is a step forward in reducing zoonotic disease and other threats to public health. Our colleagues in practice are playing a key role in serving community cats and the residents who care for them, helping to keep cats out of shelters in the first place.

We're also excited to include innovations in collaboration with private practice veterinarians as part of the strategies our participants can utilize. For example, (there is) a pilot program in Portland, Oregon, called the CATalyst Connection, where the cats adopted from the Portland Humane Society are set up for their first veterinary visit with a private practice veterinarian in the community at the point of adoption.

They transfer the pet's medical records to the veterinarian at the same time, so there's an immediate start to the lifelong care of that pet and a relationship with the veterinarian.

While only animal shelters will be contributing their animal intake and disposition statistics as we count toward one million cats saved, we know they cannot accomplish this audacious goal alone. The shelters will need the support of veterinarians, rescue groups, spay/neuter clinics, industry, consultants, municipalities, charitable foundations and more to get to the finish line.

For community members, we hope they'll follow the Challenge on social media, sign up for our newsletter, and let the shelters in their communities know about the Challenge and its five initiatives.
What happens after one million cats are counted?

We'll have a big party!

We actually suspect we'll hit our one million goal before the end of five years. One million is a large number, but it doesn't reflect anything close to all the cats who are entering shelters and being euthanized each year.

The 5 Million Lives Challenge had a similar experience, where it was so successful it exceeded their original goals many-fold. We hope to have the same experience with the Million Cat Challenge. We have certainly had a very enthusiastic response from shelters that are eager to change their approach to cats.

One of the reasons we're so optimistic is that the tools for saving cats are coming from the staff members and veterinarians in the shelters themselves. This is very much of an information-sharing and mentoring project. We expect we'll learn about more tools that haven't been reported yet that can be shared with the shelter community, and grow our numbers even more. The end game is that cats won't be euthanized for animal control anymore, but only to end suffering.

This story has been changed to remove a reference to an online resource is that is no longer available.

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