Homeless Cats: Lessons from Australia

The lessons we can learn from a study of homeless cats in Australia.

A pretty calico cat sat on a cushion, looking at the camera
Photo: joyfuldesigns/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Although there are many un-owned cats, surprisingly little is known about the cats taken in by shelters and rescues. Without this information, it is difficult to design strategies to tackle the problem. A study in the Australian Journal of Veterinary Medicine by Alberthsson et al investigates the source and characteristics of cats admitted to RSPCA shelters in Queensland from July 2006 to June 2008.

All eleven RSPCA shelters in Queensland took part. During this time period, a total of 33,736 cats were admitted. Of these, 54% were kittens, defined as three months or under.

The source of the cats was defined as brought in by a person, which included owner surrenders and cats that people had found as strays, or brought in by a member of staff. The vast majority (85%) were brought in by the public.

The sad outcome is that 65% of the cats were euthanized. There were significant variations between shelters in euthanasia rates. While the researchers point out that socioeconomic factors of the area in which a shelter is located may influence euthanasia rates, a policy of transferring cats between shelters could solve this.

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In addition, it is likely that there are differences in policy and practise between the different shelters, and it is important to find out what works at the shelters with lower euthanasia rates. Indeed, the ASPCA Partnership program in the US, that takes a community approach to improving euthanasia rates, has been very successful (Weiss et al 2013).

The biggest risk factor for euthanasia was being considered to be feral. However the researchers point out that this is assessed on admission, at a point when the cat is likely very stressed. A different method for assessing it (or a delay in assessment) might result in more cats being deemed adoptable.

Other risk factors for euthanasia include being a Domestic Short-hair or Longhair. Those cats with medium hair, purebreds and other breeds were less likely to be euthanized. 

Kittens were less likely to be euthanized than cats, but because more kittens were brought in, the total number of kittens euthanized was higher. This suggests that strategies aimed specifically at reducing the number of kittens taken in at shelters would be useful. Because most other studies define kittens as six months or under, it is hard to compare these numbers with other countries/shelters.

Thirteen per cent of the cats had been spayed or neutered before coming in to the shelters, but amongst owner surrenders the number is 34%. The report says the majority of owned cats in Australia are spayed or neutered, suggesting that those arriving at shelters are a particular subset of the overall feline population. 

Shelters have different record-keeping systems, and sometimes records were not kept in a helpful way. For example, in this study microchip numbers were often recorded without noting whether it was a pre-existing microchip or one that the shelter had implanted. Shelters can be very busy places and staff are often pushed for time, but good record-keeping is important to allow tracking of outcomes.

The authors suggest one way to reduce the number of un-owned cats would be for vets to routinely spay or neuter at an early age, instead of at six months as is widely practised. What do you think?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Alberthsen C, Rand JS, Bennett PC, Paterson M, Lawrie M, & Morton JM (2013). Cat admissions to RSPCA shelters in Queensland, Australia: description of cats and risk factors for euthanasia after entry. Australian veterinary journal, 91 (1-2), 35-42 PMID: 23356370  
Weiss E, Patronek G, Slater M, Garrison L, & Medicus K (2013). Community partnering as a tool for improving live release rate in animal shelters in the United States. Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 16 (3), 221-38 PMID: 23795686

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