Guest Post: Why Lost Cats are Rarely Found at Shelters

The American Humane Association estimates that over 10 million dogs and cats are lost or stolen each year and that a whopping 1 in 3 pets will be lost at some point in their lives. Nobody knows how many of those end up at shelters, but the ASPCA statistics show that of the 3.4 million cats brought into public shelters each year, 1.4 are euthanized and only about 2% are reunited with their owners. The reunification rates for dogs are much higher at 25 – 30% . How can we use this information to get more cats home?

Why is it so low for cats?

  • When cats are lost in an unfamiliar area, they hunker down and hide in silence. A cat who comes to his name inside the house, will typically not respond outside. This is a survival instinct; they’re scared and don’t want to attract predators to their location. Cats that hide don’t get taken to shelters because nobody knows where they are.
  • Cats are far less likely to allow a stranger to approach them and take them to safety. It can take days, weeks or even months to coax a lost or stray cat into allowing handling. Some end up needing to be trapped. By the time cats like this end up at a shelter, their owners have often stopped looking.
  • Cats are less likely than their canine counterparts to sport a collar with identification. Without visible identification, they are less likely to be identified as a lost cat with a potential owner.

How do cat owners reduce chances of shelter recovery?

  • Not microchipping: Home Again Microchips reports that Less than 25% of cats are microchipped. Of those micro chipped cats, only 58% have been registered in a microchip database with owner contact information.
  • Only checking the shelter just a few times: Owners often check the local shelters right after their cat goes missing, but rarely do they continue checking for the weeks or months needed. Lost cat behaviors make it more likely for the cat to end up at a shelter long after it went missing.
  • Checking the wrong shelter: Cats can end up at a shelter that is different from the one checked by their owner. Owners need to check and post their cat as missing at all local shelters.
  • Having unrealistic assumptions: If the shelters have been notified, owners assume that the shelter will notify them if a similar cat comes in. That may happen if the cat is unique looking or if the cat is brought in soon after the report, but few shelters are going to call every time a black cat or tabby or tuxedo comes in. There are simply too many.
  • Giving up: Grief avoidance leads some owners to just give up and go on with their life. Psychologically, it is easier for owners to conclude that their cat is dead, but it doesn’t help the cat when they show up the shelter months later and nobody is looking for them.

How do finders of cats reduce shelter recovery?

Desensitization: Free roaming cats are all around us, and so a new cat in the neighborhood may not be identified as lost. For some, stray cats are just part of the landscape and their presence isn’t noticed unless the population gets too high or they become a nuisance.

Stray cat mentality: Finders fail to notify all local shelters when they see an unfamiliar cat because they assume it’s not owned. About a third of the owned cats in the United States were obtained as strays, and in many cases the finders made no effort to notify shelters or scan for a chip.

Rehoming too fast: Finders assume that an owner will be found in a day or two if the cat has a home. When this doesn’t happen, the cat may be given away or posted for adoption on Craigslist or other social media sites. The reality is that it can often take weeks or even months to find an cat’s owner.

Shelter phobia: People who find cats often state that they are afraid that the cat will be killed if they take it to a shelter. While this is true in many areas, most shelters allow finders to post animals online on the shelter site or maintain a “found cat” book or poster board in the shelter. Posting the cat as found and then fostering the cat greatly increases the chance of it being reunited with his owner.

How do shelters reduce owner recovery?

Limited resources = limited holding time: Most shelters will hold strays for 3 days or more, but after that the cat is put up for adoption. Given the limited space, most shelters lack the resources to hold them longer.

Shelter staff training: Shelters workers may lack the time or technical skill to post found cats online. There is no central registry for lost cats or found cats, and so it is difficult to train staff to use the ever-changing social media, neighborhood groups, or classified sites that are popular in a certain area.

Cat assessment in stressful environments: Most shelters are not equipped to assess or hold scared or feral cats. Shelters are often noisy and stressful places for cats. Since lost cats often take on feral behaviors in order to survive, they may be misidentified as feral and either killed or inappropriately placed as barn cats.

What can we do to improve these numbers? Educate!

  • People need to notify all local shelters as soon as a cat is lost or found. For many people, the shelter is the only place they will think to look. Language or technical barriers may prevent them from using online sites for pet recovery. Help the shelters find the owners by letting them know when you have lost or found a cat.
  • In metropolitan areas, it can be difficult to determine which shelter takes animals from which area. Take time to educate yourself on the jurisdiction of all local shelters. Then make this information accessible to all. Post it online and share it among all your local rescue and lost and found pet groups. People won’t find their cat if they go to the wrong shelter.
  • Many cat lovers want to help, but don’t have the ability to get out and do the physical work of searching for a cat. Seek volunteers to check shelter listings online and pair them with lost and found pet listings online.
  • Encourage your shelter and tech-friendly cat lovers to help with shelter intake listings and posting. The timely online posting of lost and found cats will get more cats home.
  • Spread the word on microchipping. Find low-cost microchipping opportunities in your community and make sure low-income pet owners know how to access this resource. Every cat microchipped will help raise the shelter reunification rate.
  • Volunteer at your local shelter. Most are tax-payer funded and they can accomplish more with your help. Be the solution instead of the critic because THAT is what helps the cats.
  • Two years later, the rescuer gets a call: “I’m so sorry. We’re moving across country and cannot take Bitsy, and I remembered you said you’d always take her back.” The problem was a prolonged road trip, too hard on a cat who would be confined to a carrier for most of six weeks. The rescuer offered to not only foster for the 6 weeks, but to PAY THE AIRFARE to reunite Bitsy with her family, but her family said, “It’s just not going to work, but it just kills us to give her up.”

Reprinted with permission from Nancy Wahl, Community Cats Coalition. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced. Copyright March 20, 2016.

The mission of Community Cats Coalition, located in the Pacific Northwest, is to enhance the lives of community cats by promoting spay and neuter and providing training and mentorship in Trap-Neuter-Return. Education is their number one goal and to that end it publishes a variety of posts on Facebook related to community cats. A Best of Facebook can be found at the CCC website.

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