How Cats End Up in Shelters – What You Can Do About It

It’s our mission here at Cold Nose College to keep dogs and cats in their forever homes through training and education. I’ve been fortunate to work with some lovely cat guardians who have been struggling with helping dogs and cats co-exist peacefully, as well as some recent cat-cat aggression issues. Fortunately the cats in these homes benefited from positive training and behavior modification techniques and were able to stay in the warmth and comfort of their existing homes.

Other cats are not so lucky. According to the ASPCA shelter intake and surrender statistics of the 7.6 million companion animals surrendered to shelters each year, 3.4 million are cats and of the 2.7 million animals euthanized each year, 1.4 million of those are cats.

So how do cats end up in shelters? I have my own beliefs from listening to clients and from discussions with shelter staff and my top two reasons are:

Inappropriate Elimination

Yes, those litterbox issues. Cat urine is stinky! Many people will first assume that a cat not using their litterbox is a behavior issue. While it certainly can be, oftentimes it’s related to a medical issue. Case in point, our own cat, Molly. Just three weeks ago when I hopped out of bed and was headed to the kitchen to put on the coffee (yes, I worship that first cup!), I noticed Molly in the “tail up urination position” next to a chair in our living room. It was difficult to see exactly what was going on because I was sleepy-eyed and lights were dim. Upon further investigation I found she did indeed dribble some urine next to the chair. As I moved into the kitchen to prepare her food, she did the same thing next to the kitchen counter. This was a very new behavior for Molly and I assumed a urinary tract infection. A quick call to the vet and an examination that same day proved my thoughts correct. Antibiotics to the rescue and she’s back to using the litter box appropriately. If there’s a sudden change in your cat’s behavior, see your vet. Suspect a medical issue first. If I had gone down the path of suspecting a behavior issue, all the behavior modification in the world wouldn’t have made a difference – it was a medical issue.

Cat – Cat Aggression

It’s difficult to live with two cats who don’t get along well. Hard for the humans, terribly stressful for the cats. It’s usually the newest cat added to the home that ends up in the shelter, so taking the time to make slow and steady introductions will help prevent conflicts (same things applies to dog and cat introductions).

I recently worked with some clients to help their existing cat learn to get along with a new young stray cat they adopted. The new cat was very shy and the existing cat was not at all happy about the newcomer. We implemented daily training for each cat (which included name recognition, targeting and “go to mat” exercises), management techniques (arranging the home so that the cats were unable to aggress toward one another), counter conditioning (making good things happen in the presence of one another) and daily mental stimulation (cat toys and cat puzzles) which were effective in bringing about a peaceful lifestyle for these two cats and their dedicated guardians.

In doing further research, I found additional reasons for surrendering cats to shelters. Dr. Marty Becker suggests that allergies, moving, costs, litterbox issues and not getting along are the top five reasons cats are given up for adoption. There are also a variety of research studies which point to some of the same reasons listed in Dr. Becker’s article.

What’s important is to know that these issues can be treated and solved with the help of a positive trainer and the help of your local veterinarian so that you and your cat can continue to live a happy, long life together.

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. and Europe.


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