Shelter Cats at Grave Risk if Determined Feral

Today is National Feral Cat Day.  One of the many risks that cats face from shelters is the risk of being determined feral.  In too many shelters, this is an automatic death sentence.  Truly feral cats should not be impounded by animal control unless it is for neuter and vaccination with the intention of prompt return of the cat to the area where he was trapped.

One of the numerous problems associated with the impound of trapped cats is that the shelter takes on the responsibility of categorizing the cat for disposition (feral, semi-feral, friendly).  There are no nationally accepted standards for making this determination and practices vary from evaluation by shelter staff after an adjustment period to immediate disposition decisions made in the field by the officer on call while the cat is still in the trap.

From a 2010 paper entitled “A survey of the methods used in shelter and rescue programs to identify feral and frightened pet cats” and published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery:

When any cat enters an unfamiliar environment such as an animal shelter or other welfare agency, however, it is prone to displaying fearful behavior. Even well-socialized pet cats can become fearfully aggressive or motivated to withdraw or escape. As a result, it can initially be very difficult to accurately determine which cats are feral and which cats have the potential to be reclaimed or adopted as a pet. There are currently no validated methods of differentiating the various categories of cats upon intake to animal sheltering or other welfare agencies.
While fearful pet cats can, upon shelter intake, experience high stress levels and, therefore, appear behaviorally similar to feral cats, they may begin to display more characteristic behavior after several days or weeks in the shelter when their stress levels begin to subside.
Of the 288 respondents [of the roughly 500 total] who indicated that a cat they previously thought to be feral was subsequently found not to be feral, this discovery was most frequently cited as due to: the cat’s behavior changing after it had time to settle in or acclimate (mentioned by 144 or 50% of respondents), the cat began to display tolerant, social or affiliative behavior in response to human contact or handling (65 or 23%), the cat began to offer social behavior when humans were nearby (vocalization, blinking, solicitation, approach) (56 or 19%), and the cat’s behavior was different when it was assessed in a quieter, less stressful or more familiar environment (40 or 14%).

The problem with a policy of death for all feral cats at a shelter is that it violates the cat’s most basic right:  the right to live.  The problem is compounded when friendly cats are incorrectly identified as feral when they are behaving normally in response to the stress of being trapped and impounded.

Cat ID #09122012-256, Tag #193, at the Columbus pound in Georgia.

Cat ID #09122012-256 was trapped and impounded by animal control in Columbus, GA on September 12.  While the pound claims to follow the 5 day stray holding period law, it was determined within 24 hours that this trapped cat was too aggressive to live, despite a volunteer describing him as “easy to pet”.  He was killed on September 13 for exhibiting typical behavior seen in trapped cats.

Records on cat ID #09122012-256, Tag #193 at the Columbus pound, obtained via FOIA request. (click to enlarge)

Two months ago in South Dakota, an owned cat named Poobs was trapped by a cat hating neighbor.  She was healthy and current on her vaccinations.  But she was understandably upset in the trap.  The officer who picked her up from the cat hating neighbor determined on the spot that she was too aggressive to live.  He shot her to death in the trap.

Last month, a municipality in PA hired an ACO to trap feral cats for killing.  Area cat owners began noticing their pets going missing.  Apparently the ACO was killing all cats caught in traps, including residents’ pets.  Outraged owners attended the Borough Council meeting for answers but the ACO was a no show, which was fine with community leaders:

“I had asked him to come and he declined his appearance,” said Christine Cardinale, the North Charleroi Borough attorney. “He’s not here tonight.”

Instead of discussing the fact that both feral cats and owned pets have the right to live, the council appeared defiant when faced with angry cat owners:

“If you were so interested, you would have found out about why we’re starting to trap,” said one council member.

As a compromise, the council said it will pass an ordinance giving owners 10 days to reclaim their pets.  But that does not address the fact that feral cats have a right to live nor does it address the ACO’s apparent lack of interest in even attempting to determine whether the cats he’s trapped are feral or owned pets.

Cats deserve better.  Any cat brought to a shelter in this country should be afforded basic protections – including protection of the right to live.  Decisions on whether to designate an impounded cat for TNR or adoption should be made only after the animal has had sufficient time to adjust to the shelter environment.  Not every cat in a trap is feral but every cat deserves to live.

(Thank you Clarice for sending me links, as always, to Stefani for alerting me to the cat killed at the Columbus pound and to Vox Felina for the study on identifying feral cats in shelters.)

27 thoughts on “Shelter Cats at Grave Risk if Determined Feral

  1. From the “Lifesaving Matrix for animal shelter cats and dogs” (usually part of the euthanasia policy):

    Feral cats are savable or non-savable depending on their medical condition only. For purposes of providing accurate data, a shelter may subcategorize feral cats as “feral cats” and then further break them out into savable and non-savable based on their medical condition. A feral cat with no known medical conditions, for example, is considered “feral cat/healthy.” A feral cat with a respiratory infection is considered “feral cat/treatable.” Both of these conditions are savable.

    In order to achieve No Kill, a shelter or community must “zero out” deaths in these categories as well, usually through Trap-Neuter-Release/Return programs.

    1. in addition to working with rescues and fosters to increase live outcomes, shelters can recruit colony caregivers — people with space and resources to take healthy or treatable, and fixed, feral cats from the shelter if they cannot be returned to where they were picked up

  2. As the caregiver to a feral cat (there have been others, but only one right now) I know that he is just fine where he is and the thought that he would be killed just for being fearful of people makes me sad and angry. As the owner of 4 indoor only cats, I can guarantee that 3 of the 4 would not be social with anyone strange if trapped or put into a cage in a “shelter”. And they would most likely be killed, too.

    Bottom line is that CATS DESERVE TO LIVE! It makes me sick to read what is happening to so many of them through no fault of their own. They are just being who they are, but for some reason, it seems easier for some to kill cats than dogs.

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    Oh, and to my feral boy, Tommy, Happy Feral Cat Day! Even though I can’t touch you or pet you or do all those things I’d love to be able to do, I’m glad you trust me enough to consider this “home”.

    1. Right on, db! My two “ferals” who live on my deck were both VERY feral-seeming at first. It took months of tending to them, talking to them, providing safe shelter, etc. before they started to trust me. Now they’re both love bugs, who also love and trust the dogs.

      But remove them from their home and I can guarantee that they will both look very feral once again.

  3. What sticks out most in my mind is the assessment on the GA cat’s kennel card and reason for its death – “very aggressive – can’t clean cage…” I’ve worked in good and bad shelters, the bad ones don’t make the effort to properly train employees (even vet services) on animal handling and behavior resulting in bad behavior assessments and inability to provide proper medical care. If you’re dedicated to the animals you find a way to fix the problem and don’t just eliminate the animal.

  4. Couldnt agree more. Its really sad, especially in 2012, that strays are better off being strays than if they come in contact with a police officer or shelter, for the most part.

      1. There are good officers and bad ones… I don’t believe that all of them are bad! Ok so this whole article was about “tame” cats being termed “feral”, if owners would microchip their cats this problem would be solved. Also if TNR programs would microchip their colony cats then they would be identifiable. It just makes sense. My personal cats are microchipped even though they dont go outside. I could only imagine how my kitty would act in a trap. We as pet owners have to take some responsibility for our pets ending up in the hands of animal control services. Also promoting more spay neuter would help decrease animals going into these facilities… Just saying

      2. If your pet strays, you have absolutely no control over whether or not she’s found by good people. Ergo, it behooves us to hold ALL public employees including animal control and police officers accountable for their policies and practices.

        Also, this post isn’t just about stray pet cats mistaken for ferals. It’s also about how deadly most animal control services are for ferals – for ALL cats – which is WHY pet cats are at such risk.

        Neither chips nor sterilization of pet cats will change crappy animal control policies or practices, nor bad animal laws and regulations, nor will it weed out bad ACOs and police. So, as I commented on another recent post here – it’s past time we stopped shaming our neighbors and started shaming our local governments.

        Bottom line: ALL cats deserve a chance, not just those with reasonably well-off and responsible owners or caretakers who happen to be lucky enough to be picked up when stray by someone who gives a damn.

      3. But can you honestly blame county commissions when we are the ones who voted them in.. I have volunteered in a shelter and have seen the sheer volume of just stuff that is given “over the counter” as the aco’s call it. In this particular shelter what is dumped off bu these shameless neighbors is causing a lot of the problems. Spay neuter will help decrease the numbers coming in and there is always access to free programs acros the country! As a spay neuter advocate I have seen the differences! In Asheville when the humane alliance opened and started doing high volume high quality spy neuter it took them under 10 years to see a huge difference in numbers but it happened. When the numbers are lower I would think that it would make it easier to work with feral cats and aggressive dogs. It is our responsibility as a community to stop blaming everyone else and start taking responsibility for litters that aren’t planned.. Most of the cat population each year is from first time moms or a study by Julie Levy from Florida university says. She is awesome and I am glad she has done so much research on feral cats.

      4. Anne, it doesnt matter if a cat is spayed when its killed because it is “too feral” to be taken out of the crate. It also doesnt matter if a dog is neutered when a shelter decides to kill it “for space” when there are 100s of other open cages, like Memphis Animal Shelter (MAS) does. MSN (mandatory spay/neutering) wont solve everything. A dedicated shelter leader who will take responsibility and decide to do what he is actually paid to do- SHELTER animals- will. If you cant see that then I don’t know what to tell you.

      5. Can I honestly blame county commissions? Absolutely, yes. They’re the ones with the authority and responsibility, and knowing there’s a need for basic humane standards for animal services isn’t exactly rocket science.

        I voted for human beings. Not robots. Not office plants. Not oysters. I expect them to use their brains and resources to benefit the community, and that includes its animals.

        Also, short answer – s/n does help, but it’s not a cure-all, and it has squat to do with kill rates. Seriously. Christie Keith has rather a good post on it here:

      6. @anne-
        Microchipping won’t change a thing. Ear tipping is the international standard for a TNR cat. And they are constantly trapped and killed because killing is what animal controls do.
        I suggest you do some research on how many scans it takes to be lucky to find a chip- a cat in a trap can not have a 4 way scan to find the chip- and I doubt if the majority of ACOs or the elected officials represented in this article give a shit- they just want them gone!

      7. I understand you voted for people so I guess we have to vote in the ones that want to make changes! How could spay and neuter not make a difference? That is crazy talk! Also feral cats are ear tipped that I understand but I was referring to “owned” cats. I have worked with several TNR programs that do microchip.., I have volunteered many hours over the past 10 years doing my part in hell trying to make a difference. I guess trying to educate instead of bashing uneducated people would help more. I volunteered at an animal control in nc for several months and saw suffering in both the animals and humans. The humans try their best with the money they are given and it is never enough. I guess I have to see it from both sides. I have seen acos handle animals with more care than some vets. I have watched them foster a kitten because it was the right thing to do. I have watched them work tiredlessly to find rescues. I know bad things go on but they go on everywhere. Pet stores, puppy mills, vet hospitals and yes animal controls. I just wish that all of us could come together and take a stand to make this important instead of always trying to tear each other apart. There are no wrong answers or right ones. Talk a walk in someone else’s shoes before you rip them up.

    1. Anne, microchipping is helpful, but it won’t solve most of the problems.

      Increasing the return to owner rate for lost cats and dogs can help a lot, but there must be leadership to make changes and there must be awareness of the barriers if they are to be overcome (see “Think Lost, Not Stray”, by pet detective Kat Albrecht, .

      There are MANY ways to increase the live release rate of shelter pets. (See a summary in Christie Keith’s article, )

      An attitude change help save lives:

      “When shelter staff and volunteers say a pet was “dumped” or otherwise smear the surrendering party, they are delivering a double blow to the animals.” See

      We need to base decisions on evidence and facts.
      “A Pet Overpopulation Survey”,

      “Can You Neuter Your Way Out of Killing?” See

      Is No Kill really possible? Independent blog tracking the growing number of no-kill COMMUNITIES: see

  5. We micro chip feral cats (as we do with all the other pets in our shelter) when we spay/neuter them but this is more or less for our own records. We quiet often take in stray pets that were micro chipped but the micro chip never was registered or the registration was expired. Means it was pretty much useless. Micro chipping only is one part, encouraging people to register and maintain registration is another part. Here is the good thing, a shelter that is using PetPoint software can have microchips for free. The microchip is registered within our database but it still needs to be registered with a 3rd party in order to make it possible for us to find a pet owner.
    Spay/Neuter for cats is a long term solution to help a shelter to lower intake numbers special during kitty season. We are a No Kill shelter and we believe that spay/neuter will help to lower those intake numbers. Of course, it is not the ultimate answer to the problem but it is a step in the right direction.

  6. In Utopia NO KILL is acheivable. In this world it is never going to happen, until we educate the public. You can all sit up on your hill and believe that it is all animal controls fault. That they are just killing to kill. I went to hear the founder “Mike Arms” of The Helen Woodward animal center about a year ago. He read us a story about a ACO that Used to spend his paycheck feeding the dogs that were slated to die cheeseburgers and just hanging out with each one. I think that maybe “Society” has chosen to pick out the 1 out of 100 ACO’s that maybe dont care. They harden after years of dealing with abuse and stupid people. Imagine if you had to pick up starved dogs, bait dogs, hoarding situation dogs and cats, fighting dogs and last but not least just I dont want him/her anymore pets. I have seen my fair share of healthy pets in a shelter situation given up just because he was too big or he sheds to much or he has medical problems. I know there is no easy answer but like I have said several times. Maybe instead of sitting behind your computers bad mouthing animal control and state, city and county governments maybe you should fight for whats right. Every time you post a bad picture or slam an animal control, their adoption numbers drop. I have seen it with my own eyes. The public takes direction from people like yourselves. for instance. “Oh wait, they are miss handling animals i am not going to adopt from there!” Well you just sentenced animals to die. It happens more than you think. We cannot adopt ourselves out of this problem and there is no way that a shelter that was built in 1960 is going to be able to deal with the amount of animals that are being left and picked up. You also have to deal with public health in rural areas. I worked as a Vet tech (RVT) in a rural area during a Rabies lockdown. Did i hate it ABSOLUTELY!! WHy must nice animals die because we have had 50 cases of rabies in less than a year? That was totally government called! I stood in a commission meeting trying to help many others make this stop. For 3 years in this rural animal control, everything died in a gas chamber that wasnt currently vaccinated. Even the ACOs in that county showed up. At the risk of losing their jobs. It is a harsh reality and i live it everyday. I see the internal battles, i have seen feral cats exit the building because they were microchipped. I have seen ACC ship a dog across the country because its owner had moved and the dog got lost along the way. I think maybe pointing out some of the good things animal control does should be at least mentioned on here. I am sorry this is so long and mostly off topic but it is the truth. I want a better life for all animals and i know the only way to achieve this is by working together. We have to put our differences behind and move forward. Let’s build a better America for it’s humans and animals alike! :)

    1. What do you mean with “No Kill is Utopia”? What about the almost 70 No Kill shelter? Some of the largest animal shelter in the US are No Kill shelters (Washoe County, NV and Austin, TX). I helped changing a shelter from a 20% life release rate to a 94% life release rate. How is THAT Utopia??? And yes, you CAN adopt your way out of killing.

    2. Wow Anne, you really have hold of the wrong end of the stick, here.

      Your mindset is firmly in the “blame the public” mode and that’s not a good place to be.

      Bottom line – animals die in shelters because shelter workers kill them. Not because the public is stupid, not because people are irresponsible, not because there aren’t enough homes for them all, etc. Every single shelter in this country could stop killing now, today if they chose to. If they implemented the proven steps of the NKE and opened their doors and their minds to the public and the possibilities. If they stopped acting as an adversary of the community and instead ENGAGED the community to help them stop killing. To help them get animals into homes, to help them educate, provide low cost s/n, foster, market, etc.

      No shelter can do it by itself and I think that’s where the confusion comes from – you MUST be willing to ACTIVELY ENGAGE the community around you if you are serious about ending the killing.

      In the meantime, shelters where animals are abused, are needlessly killed day after day, yes, they MUST be called out. Because they aren’t doing their jobs and the community needs to know it. THAT’S how change happens.

    3. “I want a better life for all animals and i know the only way to achieve this is by working together. We have to put our differences behind and move forward. Let’s build a better America for it’s humans and animals alike! :)”

      I couldn’t agree more with this, Anne. I can’t wait for the day when any animal “issues” comes up, it’s the exception rather than the rule (meaning it’s more rare to hear about MAS killing an animal than hearing about them saving one). But I feel like in this country we are focused more on stupid things and things we’ve already fought a long time ago that just need to move on from. *sigh*

      1. Thank you Jessica! I hate when people say i have grasped the wrong end of the stick. Why cant we hold the stick together. We are all in the hell hole together. I have dedicated my life to the Spay/neuter cause. I hate when people say “that is not going to make a difference” OF COURSE IT WILL!
        Unless we push for more spay neuter this problem is never going to end. I have been to more public forums than probably more of you people posting on here. I have watched healthy animals die because “rescues” want to save them all. I am sorry if most of you dont agree but there are some dogs and cats that should die. An agressive dog or cat is going to take up space in a no kill shelter while healthy ones die in a kill shelter. Am i saying that all dogs/cats that show agressive tendencies in a shelter situation are aggressive outside of a shelter? NO I am not. I understand more than anyone that a dog /cat displays different behavior. My dog is aggressive when kenneled.
        I just think if we sterp back and look at the bigger picture that all of us have to fight TOGETHER to make a difference. Picking each other apart and tearing each other down ISNT SAVING ANIMALS!
        I work in a community where animal control and the local rescues and Humane society work together to make a difference and slowly but surely we are.
        EDUCATION is the key here. Society as a whole is irresponsible. For anyone to say they arent is living in UTOPIA.
        Instead of posting about how awful kill shelters are maybe we should point out that shelters are very up front when people “drop” off their dogs. I have heard them with my own ears tell someone we cannot guarantee your dog will be adopted out. There is a good chance they will be euthanized and most people just say oh well.
        Here is a “For Instance” I was volunteering yesterday at my local shelter when a couple came in carrying a chihuahua. Their reason for bringing it to the shelter.. “We were told she wouldnt be over 5 pounds and she is 20.”
        That my friends is a common thing. She walked out of there carrying her 500 dollar coach bag and climbed into her beamer without a care. She was told her dog maybe KILLED and she DIDNT CARE! Now if you want to tell me society isnt at fault then you really are living in fantasy world.

      2. Hi Anne,

        You’re welcome. Here’s what I will have to say about this. It sounds like you are really trying to save the animals in your care. I think that’s a wonderful thing. You see irresponsible owners and you try to do what you can to change that and help the animals. Again, I think that is great. But because your one shelter is trying the best they can with the situation that they have, doesn’t mean all shelters are. I’ve been on this blog for about a year now and I can not believe the stories I’ve heard about dogs being killed for no reason at all when there are plenty of empty cages left (not to mention other things, but that’s neither here nor there). We hear about it MAS nearly every single day. So basically what I’m saying is, is that you’re doing the responsible thing at your shelter and that’s great, but just because your shelter tries to do what it can with what they’ve been dealt and feel like overpopulation is the problem, that doesn’t mean that’s the case for all shelters. If I own a shelter and I can hold 200 cages, then I don’t start even thinking about killing anything until I’ve had 201 animals. And even then, I will try to do all I can to adopt them out, whether that means better marketing, off-side adoptions, what have you. Does that make sense? If you still disagree then I don’t know what to tell you, but that’s how I see it and more than likely how Shirley (blog owner) sees it too.

  7. I hate to think about what might happen to my cat Scout if he were ever impounded. He is friendly to people he knows, but is very fearful in new situations and becomes aggressive (such as at the vet). If he ended up in the pound, he would definitely growl, swat and hiss for a few days. Yet, he is a sweet, cuddlebug when he’s not scared.

    Although all cats are supposedly held at our local impounds (Fargo ND) for three business days, if the cat shows any aggression it can be killed on the spot.

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