Why Shelters Don’t Work for Cats

Do cats in public animal shelters seem unadoptable? They might be under stress. Cats need these key things while awaiting adoptions in shelters.


Nobody can deny that shelters – at least the city-run animal control types – are scary places for any homeless pet. But it’s worse for cats. In the United States, up to 71% of cats that enter “open admission” (aka kill) shelters are euthanized, as opposed to 56% of dogs. These numbers are way too high in both cases, but there is a reason that the percentage of cats is so much higher: most cats present horribly in a shelter environment. It’s nearly impossible to get even a hint of a cat’s true personality there, and otherwise-adoptable cats are often passed over because of this.


It’s not like this dilemma isn’t being addressed. There are city shelters out there that are working to make their environment better suited to their feline population. But the issues, like the cats themselves, are complex, and the solution must come from many different angles, from the cats’ surroundings, to enrichment, to interaction with people and other cats. Workers and volunteers need to be educated. And as if all this wasn’t enough, there is no one-size-fits-all-cats fix. Cats vary so widely in personality that what works for one can traumatize another.


The problem begins with the intake process. It’s often very difficult to tell whether a cat is socialized and frightened, or feral. The clues are subtle and it’s easy to mistake one for the other. Even if a cat manages to present a friendly face when brought into a shelter, the small cold cages stacked one on top of the other, the lack of privacy, and the lack of human interaction is spirit-killing. When a cat is scared and unhappy, he will withdraw, and if he feels threatened, even a good-natured cat may hiss or strike out. Stressed out cats also more susceptible to whatever bug is floating around the shelter, and a bad URI can sicken a cat to the point of dying or being euthanized.

A traditional shelter environment is terrible for cats. Cats need space. They need private, safe spaces to hide when they’re feeling insecure and to use the litter box. They need a room with levels, and frequent human interaction and play or petting time. Some cats enjoy living in groups while others prefer to keep to themselves. Ideally, cats need foster situations to take them out of the shelter environment completely. On the more health-driven side of things, ringworm wards are needed. Cats with ringworm can’t be housed with other cats or adopted until it clears up, which takes weeks, and this puts the cat at risk of being put down to make room for more animals. Neonatal kittens are another group that are at risk of euthanasia unless the shelter has a neonatal kitten ward. Addressing these issues are also lifesavers.

One of the most important parts of helping shelter cats is human interaction. Cats come into shelters for dozens of reasons. They are found on the streets. They are relinquished by companions, or the family of a deceased companion. They may even come from a hoarding situation. They may have suffered cruelty, or perhaps just being abandoned is cruelty enough to damage them. For these cats, forming human connections is crucial to their adjustment, not only to their present situation, but to their future adoptive families. Over a decade ago, Joan Miller, a former CFA judge and expert on all things cat, offered many suggestions on handling shelter cats in a Maddie’s fund article, and the information is just as timely now.

The traditional shelter system has worked against cats’ needs for decades, and change is slow. If that change is happening in your town, that’s great. If your city shelter is still working with the old fashioned model, maybe it’s time to figure out what can be done to change it.

What’s the city shelter like in your area? Is anything being done to improve it?

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