As people who love and empathize with animals, seeing cats—and particularly kittens—outdoors tempts us to launch into action to find ways to help them. This compassion is a good impulse, but we must always remember that what we do should be in the cats’ best interest. And science and best practices show us that even though we might want to bring a cat or kittens indoors, that is frequently not the best course of action.
Cats who live outdoors are called “community cats.” They may be friendly or feral. Spayed or unaltered. Claimed by someone or not. Community cats can raise a number of questions. How best to help these outdoor cats should be guided by science, professional experience, and compassion.
Animal protection is constantly evolving and improving. We are continually learning and striving to apply new evidence-based findings to help animals as best we can. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to saving and improving the welfare of cats have come to agree on a few things.
First of all, Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is the only humane and effective approach for outdoor cats. This means trapping unaltered cats, spaying/neutering them, vaccinating them against rabies and feline-specific diseases, and returning them to their outdoor homes. TNR allows the cat to live out her life without reproducing, while reducing calls to animal services and creating a healthier population.
Cats can and do live healthy lives outdoors. The outdoor cats that we bring into our spay/neuter clinics generally have good body condition–meaning they are not underweight–and can live many years. The outdoors is the community cat’s natural home. Cats have thrived outdoors, without human intervention, for thousands of years. It is only in the last few decades that any cats have lived indoors.
Feral cats are stressed by being indoors. Feral cats are not socialized to people and do not like being confined. The only reason to bring a community cat into a shelter is to spay or neuter her and then return her to her outdoor home.
We have also learned that just as it is best not to intervene with baby birds or bunnies, it is best to leave feral kittens with their mothers in their outdoor homes until the kittens are no longer nursing. Keeping a feral mother cat in the shelter for an extended period is inhumane and misguided. It causes significant stress that can lead to serious health problems for both the mother and her litter. Therefore, our new policy is to not impound feral nursing mother cats and their babies. Feral mothers know how to protect their babies in their outdoor homes and we see community cats continuing to thrive in areas of the country where no animal protection organization is intervening.
When we allow feral mothers and kittens to remain in their accustomed habitat instead of confining them in the shelter, we have an opportunity to support the mother cat and her family in ways that are aligned with her needs. This can include ensuring that shelter is available should she choose to use it, and most importantly, when the kittens are old enough to be weaned, ensuring that mother and offspring are spayed/neutered. At that point social kittens can be placed for adoption while feral kittens can be returned to the area where they were found.
Those mother cats and kittens who do need extra care from us due to health problems or dangers caused by their surroundings will not be turned away. We will make sure they get the care they need.
The driving force behind what we do is our compassion for animals. As animal protection professionals, we count on the passion of the whole community to make life better for animals and the people who love them. We inform our policy decisions by gathering the best available data, experience, and research, in addition to valued input from the community. We are constantly working toward the best approach for protection and positive outcomes for all of the animals that we serve. With these ideas guiding everything we do, we can work together to do the most good for all the cats in our communities.
Dr. Jennifer Scarlett is president of the San Francisco SPCA. Becky Robinson is president and founder of Alley Cat Allies. Dr. Kate Hurley is a shelter medicine expert.