Million Cat March
Rethinking cats and their needs helped shelters save more than 2 million feline lives. They’re not stopping there
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Being in a shelter is stressful — at best — for cats. Stress plus crowding leads to illness. And when there are too many cats and too few homes, euthanasia is often the outcome. But two veterinarians, in partnership with shelters, are working to change that equation.
Five years ago, Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy challenged themselves — and shelters — to save a million cats over a five-year period. By 2018, more than a year early, a million cats had found new lives outside of shelters. Since then, more than a million additional cats have followed in their pawprints.
The secret? Providing cats with more secure, healthful and comfortable living quarters, and recognizing that some cats do best living on their own or working a job instead of being housecats.
Dr. Hurley is the director of the University of California, Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, and Dr. Levy is a professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida. One of the key initiatives of the Million Cat Challenge, as they called their campaign, is “capacity for care.” That means not just avoiding overcrowding, but also providing conditions that let cats be cats.
To be happy and healthy, cats need freedom from fear and distress, freedom from illness and disease, and freedom to express normal behavior. Sometimes meeting those needs is as simple as installing portals — little round doorways — to combine two cages into one unit. Portals allow cats to have separate areas for sleeping and eating, away from litter boxes. For cats, that’s huge.
“We designed that as an intervention to reduce upper respiratory infection, and we’ve heard from shelters that have reduced it by 90% or more,” Dr. Hurley says. “Upper respiratory infection is a stress-induced disease in cats, so those kinds of reductions speak to not just the health of the cats, but to their mental well-being.”
The difference is visible. Cats play more and scratch to mark their space. It’s still a small area, but because the cats are happier, they look better and stay healthier. That means they find homes more quickly. Preventing overcrowding by managing when and how many cats come in is also key. Foster homes, behavior counseling and trap-neuter-return programs for feral cats are among the solutions that keep cats out of shelters.
Feral cats are among those at greatest risk in shelters. Not every cat who lands in a shelter has lived life as an indoor pet — or wants to. Some have grown up outdoors and are savvy at caring for themselves, sometimes with a little help from humans who feed them and make sure they have shelter from inclement weather.
When those cats are brought to shelters, they aren’t going to suddenly enjoy being around humans or appreciate the opportunity to live indoors. Ensuring that they are healthy; vaccinating them (even once can potentially protect them for a lifetime); treating them for parasites or wounds; spaying or neutering them so they can’t add to feline population numbers; and returning them where they came from is one way to help these cats leave shelters alive.
“We loan traps and pay 100% of spay/neuter costs, plus rabies vaccine, if people agree to allow the cats to remain on their property afterward,” says Dee Dee Drake, executive director of Calaveras Humane Society in California.
Placing feral cats on farms as barn cats or in warehouses, distilleries and other businesses where rats and mice may be a problem is another solution. That allows them to lead independent lives without having to interact with humans or be confined indoors. “I think trap-neuter-return is more and more widely practiced and accessible, and I think that’s a hugely positive trend,” Dr. Hurley says.