Homeless Cats in Canada

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies is depressing reading for cat lovers, and confirms that the situation for homeless cats is even worse than for homeless dogs.

A white cat with a red collar sitting on a windowledge, looking at the garden
Photo: Diane N. Ennis/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The CFHS surveyed organizations that are responsible for homeless cats, such as humane societies, SPCAs, rescues and municipal animal controls, as well as veterinarians. They also conducted a telephone survey of the general public.

They found that 37% of households in Canada have one or more cats, and estimate there are a total of 10.2 million owned cats. In fact, the number of households with cats has been increasing slightly, while the number of households with dogs has gone down a little. Of the cats that are owned, only 80% are spayed or neutered, and this is where things start to go downhill.

Although 25% of Canadians say they are most likely to adopt their next cat from a shelter or rescue, the most common source of a cat (36%) is essentially from an unwanted litter: acquiring a stray, or a cat from a friend or relative, a free cat (e.g. from an advert), or from their own cat’s litter. 

The study found that shelters are almost full.  58% of cats arriving at a shelter are strays, and 22% are owner-surrenders. The main reason people gave for surrendering cats or dogs was issues to do with accommodation (34%). This is similar to the finding of the ASPCA that one of the main reasons for people no longer having a cat or dog is due to housing issues. 
Unfortunately 63% of stray cats arriving at a shelter have no identification, and less than 1% are re-united with their owners (compared to 46% of dogs with no id, and 30% re-united). Only 18.5% of cats surrendered by their owners are already spayed or neutered, and less than half a per-cent of the strays (although not all shelters recorded this information).

Adoptions were given as the best solution, but only 44% of cats arriving at shelters were adopted out; of these, almost half (46%) were kittens. A small number of cats were transferred to other shelters.
The hard fact is that on average 40% of cats entering Canadian shelters are euthanized, as are 14% of dogs. However, the CFHS thinks this is a conservative estimate since not all organizations answered the questions about euthanization. 

The most common reason for a cat to be euthanized is ill-health, either on intake or becoming ill at the shelter, followed by animal behaviour. Cats and kittens are also more likely than dogs or puppies to be euthanized because of a lack of space. 

78% of the organizations surveyed agreed that there is a problem of cat overpopulation. There was a general consensus that adoption was the best solution to this problem, and ‘humane education’ was also seen as important. Amongst shelters, rescues and TNR groups, Trap Neuter and Return was also seen as a successful approach. Veterinarians were less certain about TNR, but were likely to see subsidized spay/neuter clinics as part of the solution. This is good because it contradicts a perception that vets don’t support subsidized clinics, and suggests that vets and shelters could work together more.

The report says, “Shelters are at or near capacity to care for the cats that arrive at their doors. This is exacerbated by the fact that twice as many cats as dogs are being brought in for care. Extrapolating the data provided, it is projected that more than 600,000 homeless cats did not find homes in 2011.”   

These figures are worse than those found in Stavisky et al’s study of homeless pets in the UK, which found that 77% of cats were found homes and 13% were euthanized. The shelters in the UK reported a higher number of owner-surrenders (45%) than in Canada, and a slightly higher rate of re-uniting cats with their owners (1.4%). However, it is difficult to compare the figures directly since in both studies, there were some organizations that did not respond, so they may not show a complete picture.

The report ends with case studies of successful practice, including one from the BC SPCA’s Vancouver Branch. The case study shows how they set a new capacity limit based on adoption rate, and took other measures including setting up PURDA rooms (Post-Upper Respiratory Disease Adoption) and new intake and cleaning procedures.

The problem of cat overpopulation is multi-factorial. Although increasing adoptions was cited as the best solution, on its own it's clearly not enough to solve the problem. I think one of the biggest lessons is for shelters/animal controls, as the number of cats being euthanized is shocking. Since the main reason is illness, measures need to be taken to ensure fewer cats get sick. The fact so many shelters are at capacity may not be helping, and some locations may need to redefine their limit.

The report said many people get their cats from friends, family, as freebies, or take in a stray. Where did your cat come from?

Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (2012) Cats in Canada: A Comprehensive Report on the Cat Overpopulation Crisis. Available online at the CFHS.
AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. 
Stavisky, J., Brennan, M. L., Downes, M., & Dean, R. (2012). Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK: results of a 2010 census. BMC Veterinary Research, 8, 1-10.

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