Shelter How To: Identifying Feral Cats and Reuniting Lost Cats with Owners

Elimination of the mandatory holding periods for stray cats impounded by shelters is part of what I refer to as the war on cats.  Cats deserve the same protections as are provided to dogs at shelters, including a mandatory holding period so their owners can reclaim them.

Groups who participate in the war on cats by promoting the absurd notion that shelters should immediately dump adoptable stray cats back on the streets instead of sheltering them attempt to justify this betrayal by claiming that sheltering cats is hard work.  Granted, reuniting lost cats with their owners is hard work and identifying truly feral cats among the many scared cats at a shelter is also hard work.

I think it’s reasonable to ask how the people actually doing this hard work manage to avoid throwing up their hands and dumping all their stray cats back on the streets.  So I did.  Specifically, I asked three directors of shelters where lifesaving is the priority how cats are determined to be feral vs. socialized and how cats are reunited with owners.  Their responses are below.

Mason, an adoptable cat at UPAWS
Mason, an adoptable cat at UPAWS

Lareina Van Strien, Manager at Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter (UPAWS) in Michigan:

At UPAWS this is not a black and white answer, although it used to be. In the past, if a cat reacted in ways such as climbed the walls of his kennel or the room, refused to use the litter box, charged anyone that came near, avoided touching at all cost, etc, that cat would have been considered feral or semi-social. But we have learned that this black and white categorization does not hold true. We have seen cats that come from loving homes act feral when they arrive, climbing the ways, refusing to be touched for weeks on end and we have seen cats that we know were born outside, that were never touched by a human, that were never fed by a human decide after a few weeks of socialization with staff that they don’t mind humans so very much. So at this time at UPAWS deciding if a cat is feral vs. socialized takes time. We give the cat time to settle in, to adjust, to learn that humans bring food and cookies, we let them get used to our smells and our presence. How long we will do this will depend on the individual animal, their history and their progress. Our decision to label a cat feral, semi-social or socialized is an individual decision, because these cats are individuals. If, after time, we decide a cat is truly feral and will never enjoy the company of humans, we work hard to find that cat placement at a barn or safe environment so that cat has a chance at life in a way that makes that cat happy.

P.S – I happened to have adopted a ‘feral’ kitty for my barn two years ago. This cat we knew for sure was born outside and living in an abandoned building. She stayed at the shelter for over 2 months, getting socialized and used to people, but she was never comfortable and terribly unhappy. So I placed her in my barn. She lived out there all summer and was doing great. But winter came, and it was a horrible winter, so I live-trapped her again and brought her inside. She climbed the walls and hid under the floor for two weeks. But, after talking to my other cats, I guess she decided to come out. And now that summer is here I can’t seem to get her back outside! :) She is a very happy indoor kitty.

We have a variety of ways that we try to reunite cats with their owners. Social media is hugely successful in getting pets home. We try to build our facebook following to make sure we are reaching as many people as possible. We take clear pictures of the newly arrived stray and post it on facebook right away. We ask people to share share share! We also have a wonderful group in the community that runs a facebook page called Lost Paws of the U.P. They work very hard to reunite owners and pets. They follow lost ads on craigs list, social media and in the paper and they work to match them up with found pets. They are hugely successfully and very diligent. At UPAWS we also take lost reports. We make sure to get as much info as possible and we look at ever stray animal and compare it to those reports. We encourage owns to be sure to come into the shelter and look, to make posters for their area, to post on social media and to look for their cat frequently. We report all our strays to the local paper ever night and we also make sure to post our strays on our website. We also microchip all our cats that are adopted and leave UPAWS and we send all our adopted cats out with break-away collar.

Daytona, an adoptable cat at the HS
Daytona, an adoptable cat at the HS of Fremont Co

Doug Rae, director of the Humane Society of Fremont Co in Colorado:

We treat all animals as individuals. This applies to cats, dogs, bunnies, hamsters, ferrets, birds, whatever we get. Just as we work to make dogs safe that appear “aggressive” in appearance, we do the same for cats. It’s been my experience that some cats are overly stressed when entering a shelter (living in a small cage maybe for the first time in their life), meaning their immune system becomes compromised, making life even worse for a scared kittie. So we give cats the necessary time to become accustomed to the shelter, to our staff, and to our volunteers. It might be a day or two, it might be a week, it might be longer. Like dogs, we give cats the time and space they need to feel safe so we can see who they truly are.

If the cat is not responsive to the time and space we give them or to our efforts to socialize with them, then we have a much better idea on the cats temperament. But again, that determination is never made on intake. Not even with a cat that appears feral on intake. To tag any animal as being this or that, or to place an animal into a black or white temperament test on intake, is not fair to the cat or to our life-saving community committed to saving lives.

We have a lost and found Facebook page that received intakes (dogs and cats) are posted on to try and have the cat reclaimed by it’s owner. This posting happens at the time of intake.

An adoptable cat at the Allegany Co Animal Shelter, as pictured on Facebook.
An adoptable cat at the Allegany Co Animal Shelter, as pictured on Facebook.

Peter Masloch, director of the Allegany Co Animal Shelter in Maryland:

It is not always easy to determine by intake if a cat is feral or not. Many cats are scared when coming to the shelter. We had several cases where we thought a cat was feral but then after several days it turned out the cat actually was very lovely. I know that many shelters are doing so called “behavior tests” on cats. We don’t do that. The most important factor is time. If we receive a new cat and we are not sure if it is a feral cat or just a scared cat, we just give the cat time to adjust. Usually after 3 or 4 days we can tell if a cat is truly feral or not. If she is feral, we get her spayed/neutered and then out of the shelter as soon as possible.
There just is no “one fits all solution”, at least not for us. Pets are individuals and every pet reacts different when entering the shelter

The Allegany County Animal Shelter has 3 different Facebook pages:

Usually we post all stray animals we take in on our Lost & Found Facebook page. People from our community also can post to our page if they lost their pet or even found a pet. This page has become extremely helpful to re-unite pets with their owners.

However, the owner return rate for cats is much lower than the owner return rate for dogs. In our County cats are considered free roaming animals and people often don’t come and look for their cat if she doesn’t come back home. But we also had some nice success stories with cats.

It sounds like the recipe for success here is patience, effort and community partnership.  There is no reason any facility accepting cats couldn’t follow the models of those that successfully shelter cats.  And there is no excuse for shelter staff dumping adoptable cats back on the streets instead of doing their jobs.  Mandatory holding periods are a necessary protection for all stray shelter pets and cats are no less deserving of this protection than dogs.

(Thank you Lareina, Doug and Peter for sharing how you help cats at your shelters.)

14 thoughts on “Shelter How To: Identifying Feral Cats and Reuniting Lost Cats with Owners

  1. Actually, I would consider dumping an adoptable cat back out on the street a better solution than what most shelters do to cats–which is kill them as fast as possible. Many shelters are trying to get the mandatory holding time abolished for cats, so they can kill them faster. And many shelters just ignore the mandatory holding time, and kill them anyway, especially if they have even the most minor health problem, or are the least bit aggressive.

    As a nation, we are starting to turn the corner on shelters taking dogs lives seriously and starting to value them as they should be valued (though I agree we have a ways to go). But even some shelters that are live returning most of their dogs often aren’t nearly as diligent about cats. Here are a couple of interesting articles recently published on the effects of shelter cat intakes before and after a TNR program was established. Try to read both, because they tie into each other:

      1. Yes, and that was my point. Unfortunately, abandoning cats on the street is a step up from what most shelters do, which is kill them without even giving them a chance.

  2. So, the answer to a broken shelter system is to bypass it, apparently. And tragically, that will be an improvement for MANY cats.

    But what about the friendly lost cat who doesn’t know how to fend for himself and isn’t even from that neighborhood? Do we condemn an owned and wanted pet to starve/freeze/die by misadventure because the shelter system sucks? Then we can all pat ourselves on the back and say, “Yep, at least we didn’t kill him in the shelter! Hooray!”

    There has got to be a better way.

    1. I know what you are saying, Mikken. It’s just funny because this post is exactly about the “better way” as described by three shelter directors/managers.

      I do think there might be effective ways to match-up lost pets with found pets that are not used by even good shelters. I think about it when I see Facebook posts from the “Lost Pets” for my area and I think, “I could have sworn I saw a picture of a cat like that on a previous post like 2 weeks ago” or “I think one of my other animal buddies may have sent out a post about a lost husky” but then finding that post is next to impossible. So I think Facebook is only so effective but without the ability to search for pictures it’s difficult to check anything but the most recent posts. Don’t know what the best solution is, though.

  3. I guess one of the key words in this is “Mandatory” in “Mandatory hold times”. Under most state laws, if an animal comes into the shelter, it must be held for the “mandatory” time period (usually 3-7 days depending on the state).

    I think (hope) that all of us can agree that killing cats immediately upon entering a shelter (or anytime really) is wrong. However, I’d like to think that we can all understand that keeping a truly feral cat in a kennel for 7 days surrounded by people, activity, and other cats causes a lot of unnecessary stress, and often disease in the cats.

    I just think that somewhere in this discussion has to be the reality that for many cats, releasing them back into the wild quickly is the best thing for the cats. It’s not always about shelters being lazy. Or not wanting to do the work. Or “the war on cats”, it’s about somehow removing this “Mandatory” prison sentence for cats that would clearly benefit from not being at the shelter (even a good shelter) and that not everyone who wants to abolish “mandatory” hates cats and wants to kill them quickly.

    1. I guess what I”m saying is that I completely agree with Peter’s comments about there being no “one size fits all solution” for cats and treating cats as individuals — but “mandatory” often doesn’t allow for that.

  4. Are you referring to Feral Freedom Programs?

    If so, we need to eliminate mandatory holding times to expedite the community cats enrolled in the program to get fixed and returned to their home in the neighborhood.

    Not every stray brought in is enrolled in the program.. Declawed cats, emaciated cats, cats with any means of identification like collar or tags or chip, injured cats are not enrolled in the program. Healthy cats with no means of identification are enrolled.

    “Nationally, reclaim rates for cats of 2% or less are commonly reported. This is probably the result of two factors: many cats entering shelters as “strays” are actually community cats with no owner to come looking for them, and when pet cats do become lost, owners are unlikely to look for their cat at a shelter. One study found that lost cats were over 13 times more likely to be reunited with their owners by non-shelter means than by a visit or call to a shelter, with “returning home on their own” accounting for over 60% of found cats : (citation support: Lord, L.K., et al., Search and identification methods that owners use to find a lost cat. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2007. 230(2): p. 217-20.).
    13 times more likely. Why wouldn’t we implement the most effective means of reuniting cats with their family? We’re just taking a slight detour to the spay clinic to get them fixed first.
    this is a nice overview of the Feral Freedom program and the research that supports it.
    However, eliminating mandatory hold periods without implementing Feral Freedom is reckless and inhumane.

  5. Well, my county has no hold time for cats.

    Any cat that came into my shelter in a trap was put straight into the gas chamber – you know, so the trapper could have his traps back.

    Yes, my shelter functioned as a cat disposal service.

    Would those cats have been better on the streets? Absolutely, no question.

    But the truth is that even owned, friendly, declawed cats went into that gas chamber, too. Why? Because many (most?) shelters treat cats like vermin. Like a thing to be disposed of. If someone happens to come in and claim their cat, okay, we get reclaim fees, so that’s good, but we’re not going to actually do anything to encourage it. So yeah, RTOs for cats were very low. ARE very low.

    But instead of trying to increase RTOs, we’re just going to throw up our hands and say, “They’re better off on the streets.” (Which is sadly in many cases true).

    And the ramifications of this is that some cats who should have been returned to their people will instead be adopted out to other people. Some cats who should have been returned to their people will now wander the streets, confused and hungry. I live in NE Ohio. The winters here are hard on cats. Do we dump “healthy, apparently unowned” cats back out in the snow?

    I much prefer the methodology of the three shelters in the post above. Compassionate care with a real effort to get lost cats home and feral cats out of the shelter.

    1. Nobody is arguing that shelters SHOULDN”T actually shelter cats in need. Obviously, treating cats as valuable family members when it is clear they used to be owned, and TNRing them when they obviously aren’t, is what the majority of the public prefers. However, there are a frightening number of shelters that operate in the manner of the shelter you describe–while they at least do the minimum required for dogs, they essentially operate as a cat disposal facility. In this case, yes, those cats would be much better off on the streets, alive. At least then they would have a chance to make it back home, or find a new family. Cats are surprisingly resilient. A friend of mine who lives in northern Illinois had her back door blown open during a particularly bad storm one winter not long ago—when she got home, all 5 of her cats were outside. While she managed to get 4 back inside, a particularly shy one was gone. She left her garage door cracked with cat food out, and she and her husband would see him occasionally. 6 WEEKS LATER, they managed to trap him in the garage, catch him, and bring him back inside. In the middle of a northern Illinois winter, this SHORTHAIRED, INDOOR ONLY ALL HIS LIFE cat managed to survive, and make it home. So, yes, if the choice at your shelter is death or life on the streets, I would prefer they allow the cat their chances on the street.

      1. But this system seems to be geared towards, “Oh well, we suck at sheltering cats, so let’s just not do it”.

        Yes, it’s better than killing them out of hand, but why does the only choice have to be killing or dumping them back out on the street? If these three shelters in the post can do it differently (with what’s best for the cats as individuals the top priority), why can’t others?

        And cats can be incredibly resilient – or not. Depends on the cat. I found one this year after the snow had melted – his body was well preserved, but he clearly died in the winter cold. I brought the body to the vet and had him scanned for a chip (none), but they were happy to hold him for three days while I searched for his owner.

        If I can work hard to find the owner of a dead cat, why can’t shelters work hard to find owners of the living ones?

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