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This month, at the height of kitten season, the Humane Society for Southwest Washington put the brakes on cat drop-offs.
Cat overpopulation is a perennial problem, but the moratorium on cat drop-offs was alarming given that the nonprofit moved in 2009 to a new shelter three times bigger than its previous location. It raised the question of whether the push to spay and neuter has been futile.
See cats available for adoption and find out about providing a foster home at Humane Society for Southwest Washington's website.
In fact, that's not the case. Efforts to increase spaying and neutering and decrease the population of unwanted companion animals have been successful, based on a decline in the number of intake animals at the shelter. In 2007, the shelter took in 13,656 animals. By 2011, that number was down to 9,141. Nearly 60 percent of intake animals are cats, according to shelter statistics.
"We believe that increased awareness about the need for altering cats and dogs has contributed to the decline in intake, although we don't have any way to prove this," said Stacey Waddell, the shelter's interim executive director.
The decision to stop taking cat drop-offs was primarily intended to control disease in the shelter and to promote responsible pet ownership, not due to actual lack of space, said Lisa Feder, shelter operations director.
Now, the shelteraccepts cats but only by appointment. There is a screening process, and shelter workers try to find ways to keep animals in homes, if possible, until there is more room for the cats in the shelter.
"When kitten season hits and the number of animals brought to us each day more than doubles, we soon have a situation where many of the felines become ill with upper respiratory infection and other illnesses brought on by the stress of crowding," Waddell said. "And because we are an open-admission shelter that takes in all types of animals, adoptable and unadoptable, we are already at increased risk for the spread of disease. So we've found it necessary to ask citizens to make appointments to surrender a cat in order for us to control the number of felines that are in the shelter at any one time."
Appointments are scheduled one week to 10 days out, Waddell said. The appointments provide an opportunity for education of pet owners and alternate arrangements.
For example, a family that brings in a litter of 6-week-old kittens might be asked if they could keep the kittens for two more weeks when they would be adoptable or suggest the family advertise for homes on their own, if they haven't already done so. In exchange, the shelter might offer free food and cat litter or free vaccinations.
The shelter has capacity for 300 cats but is keeping only about half that amount to control disease. The shelter also has a roster of volunteers who will foster intake animals, which increases the shelter's capacity.
Feder, who has been working in animal shelters for the past 17 years, said
overpopulation has largely been solved for dogs. Cat overpopulation remains a perennial problem but is improving, especially given past numbers. Feder estimated the shelter took in 18,000 animals about 20 years ago. It only takes in half that many now. One reason for the difference in the cat and dog populations is that there are more free-roaming cats and cats without distinct owners. Feder said there's also a general perception that dogs are more valuable than cats; hence, there's a greater willingness to invest in veterinary care for dogs.
Discount spay-and-neuter programs have provided a boost in improving overpopulation, Feder said. Awareness about the need to alter pets is widespread, but given the economic downturn, there's still a segment of pet owners who simply can't afford the procedure.
The shelter has two programs to subsidize the cost of spaying and neutering cats belonging to low-income families. Families on government assistance pay $10 per animal. Low-income families are charged a fee of $33 to neuter and $49 to spay. That's compared with a cost of $100 to $150 at veterinary offices, said Erin Griffin, the shelter's marketing manager. Low income is defined as an annual gross income of no more than $48,900 for a family of four. The programs are paid for with donations and grants.
For information, call 800-345-7729.