Pet Points: 5 ways to ensure cats have 9 lives

Saving a single stray cat can cost a shelter hundreds of dollars. Sometimes, if the animal is ill or injured, the cost can be thousands, and shelters across the nation are full of cats. Pet overpopulation has been a problem for at least my entire professional career spanning four decades.

The canine overpopulation problem has seen some decrease. Encouraging responsible pet ownership and spay/neuter programs are starting to pay off, and many shelters now are moving to end euthanasia of adoptable healthy dogs. Local shelters and some rescue groups are doing a magnificent job of caring for stray animals, but the story is quite different in other areas. These shelters are still faced with the problem of admitting more healthy dogs and cats than they can find homes for.

The feline population has proven to be the most difficult to control. Two veterinarians have started a new campaign to help save cats. Julie Levy at the University of Florida and Kate Hurley at the University of California, Davis, have set out to save 1 million cats by sharing best practices at shelters. Their program is modeled after one in human medicine that aims to reduce medical mistakes.

Their brainstorm started with a meeting of shelter managers. By discussing best practice techniques, the hope is to help struggling shelters meet the needs of cats in their care. Not every shelter in the nation has the facilities and expertise to keep cats healthy for adoption. The program is now sharing successful tactics with shelters across the country.

The Million Cat Challenge has five initiatives that can change the way cats are cared for. The first is finding alternatives for shelter cat intakes. Some cats are better served by supporting families with resources rather than admitting the pet into a shelter. Help with veterinary services, pet food banks and and pet-friendly housing options can keep a pet in a home. Cats with behavior problems, for example, can be treated.

Managing intake may help a shelter keep pets healthier. Vaccinating a pet and waiting for immunity to develop before admittance into a shelter may stop cats from spreading upper respiratory and other diseases.

The capacity of a shelter may not be just the cage space. The capacity for care may depend on staff, volunteers and veterinary services available. In Western Pennsylvania, two deficient animal care facilities have been shut recently.

Removing barriers to adoption should also be considered. Some rescue groups and shelters have very stringent adoption requirements. We often get calls at our veterinary office with specific questions about past pet care given by terrific clients. I heard a lecture suggesting comprehensive background checks prior to adoption that resembled criminal investigations rather than shelter adoption references. Some rescue groups make it difficult to pass the screening process. Research has shown that a less strict adoption policy can work.

The final initiative is the most controversial. After trapping, neutering and vaccinating feral cats, some shelters release them near where they were caught. Some believe they should attempt to place them in “forever” homes. This stray cat issue is complex, and a consensus of animal lovers would be impossible.

The control of the cat population is elusive. The Million Cat Challenge will need the assistance of a multitude of entities. The public needs to change attitudes about outdoor cats. Shelters, rescue groups, animal control officers, licensing agencies, government, agriculture, the media and the veterinary community must all work in harmony to make progress on the needless destruction of cats. Perhaps, together, we can save more than a million.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.