THE BLOG
01/04/2016 04:10 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

A New Way to Save Shelter Cats

When animal shelters try to improve their live release rates, finding homes for cats is often the biggest problem they face. In recent years more and more shelters have been turning to a program called Return to Field (RTF) to get cats out of the shelter alive.

RTF is sometimes confused with trap-neuter-return (TNR), but it is a very different concept. TNR is for feral cats, and typically involves feral cat caregivers catching cats, sterilizing them, and returning them to their colonies. RTF, by contrast, is a program aimed at cats who are picked up by animal control as strays or are brought to the municipal shelter by individuals. RTF can apply to any cat, feral or tame. It is an evolving concept and is not implemented in exactly the same way by every shelter, but the basic idea is to give the cat a health check and vaccinations and sterilize it, and then, if it is healthy and appears to be doing well, it is returned to where it was found.

RTF was developed to help cats get back home from the shelter, whether their home is a colony or a neighborhood or a specific house. It recognizes the fact that "home" for a cat can be a very different thing than home for a dog. Many owned cats spend part of their time outdoors and tend to roam. They may even have multiple houses they visit. They may disappear for days at a time. They have people who love them and take care of them, but it is a more casual arrangement than a home for a dog.

If such a cat is picked up by animal control or by a neighbor and taken to the shelter, the owner may not think to look for the cat for several days, until after the hold period has expired. Studies have shown that such cats are far more likely to get back home if they are left where they are than if they are taken to the shelter. The number of cats reclaimed by their owners from shelters is tiny - typically in single digits. Even a shelter that does its best to return cats to owners may have a success rate of only one cat out of fifty.

One option for cats would be for animal control to never pick up a healthy cat. The problem with this approach is that it allows unsterilized cats who are roaming to continue to breed. RTF provides the best of both worlds. It gives cats their best chance to return to their homes, and it also makes sure the cats are healthy, have their vaccinations, and will not be having kittens.

What about cats who are truly lost from their homes and cannot find their way back? Or who are injured or sick? Cats who come into the shelter in poor condition are not candidates for RTF, but RTF can still benefit them indirectly. With healthy cats being returned to their home territories, the shelter will have more time and resources to devote to rehabilitating cats who need the help. Those cats can be adopted out to new homes when they are healthy.

RTF was a key concept in the Feral Freedom program in Jacksonville, Florida, where it first gained national attention and was a major component in getting the city of Jacksonville to No Kill status. It has also been a part of the Operation Catnip program at the University of Florida for many years and was used by other programs as well.

In the last two years RTF has spread like wildfire thanks to an initiative called the Million Cat Challenge. The Challenge was launched by two shelter veterinarians, Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy. It is a joint program of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida. In addition to RTF, the Challenge recommends four other programs: managed admission, alternatives to admission, managing capacity, and removing barriers to adoption.

The Challenge aims to save one million shelter cats within five years, from 2014 through 2018. So far it has enrolled 323 shelters. One million cats is a very ambitious goal, but the Challenge is on track to meet or exceed its target. The participating shelters have saved almost 400,000 cats in 2014 and 2015 - an incredible number.

Unlike some No Kill programs, the Challenge does not insist that its participants must adopt all of its initiatives. The shelters can implement as few or as many of the five initiatives as they want. Another advantage is that the initiatives do not require a lot of skills or money. And the initiatives benefit all the animals in a shelter, not just cats, because they result in shelter staff having more time and space to work on getting animals out alive.

One reason for the success of the Challenge is that its program appeals to the traditional shelter establishment as well as No Kill shelters. Its list of supporting organizations and sponsors shows the breadth of its acceptance. The fact that the RTF concept has gained such rapid and wide support indicates that it is a paradigm change in cat sheltering that is here to stay.