Over the last half-decade, 20,000 stray or lost cats a year have been seen by the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) associated with the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Operations Center at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave. in North Philadelphia.
About one-third of these cats have entered the center having an owner and the remaining two-thirds come in as strays.
“There is a large population of un-owned or free-roaming cats in most communities, but particularly here in Philadelphia,” says Michael Moyer, the Rosenthal Director of Shelter Animal Medicine in the Penn School of Veterinary Medicine. “By contrast, only about half of the dogs entering the shelter are stray, so there is a significant increase in the number of free-roaming cats as compared to stray dogs.”
Led by Moyer, Penn Vet’s Shelter Animal Medicine Program, which was established in 2006, takes fourth-year Vet School students into area shelters to provide spay and neutering services for both dogs and cats. The program is most closely associated with the ACCT, but has also been hosted by the Montgomery County SPCA, the Chester County SPCA and the Monmouth County SPCA in New Jersey.
Students in the program offer surgical services, examine the circumstances of dogs and cats in shelters, perform medical assessments, population management, forensics—in the case of animal cruelty—outbreak management and disease recognition.
“While the animals in the shelter are the ones at highest risk, once those animals are adopted, they return to the community,” Moyer says. “And they may be at a higher risk for certain things than a pet obtained by another source. We need to be aware of the community as a whole, not just the animals inside the building.”
The Current sat down with Moyer to discuss the truth about cats and dogs, and how we can all be more like Bob Barker and help control the pet population.
Q. Where does the disparity between dogs and cats in the ACCT Center come from?
A. Cats are more successful living as a free-roaming animal. They’re well-adapted to surviving in those circumstances. We are culturally accustomed to seeing cats outside. It doesn’t startle us if we walk by somebody’s house and there is a cat sitting on the porch or in the alley. Whereas if we saw a dog running loose without an owner nearby, we would think that something was wrong.
Q. How important is adoption in helping to solve the city’s cat problem?
A. Community adoption is the part that could most easily change the dynamic. It would not take an unimaginable number of people to adopt from a shelter in order to double or triple the live exit rate for cats. We know that there are at least as many people looking for cats as there are cats entering shelters, but it’s a distribution and supply mismatch. The supply is in one zip code in North Philadelphia and the people looking for cats are all over the Greater Philadelphia Region.
Q. You mentioned that shelters can be very stressful for cats, much more so than dogs. Why don’t cats do well in shelters?
A. I think they’re much more neophobic, fear of new things, than dogs in general. We also tend to house them inadequately because we have designed cages that merely contain, but do not adequately house cats. The space requirements, for example, have been grossly underestimated. One of the best correlations with health in a shelter is the amount of square footage that the cats have. If they have an adequate sized cage, then their rates of disease drop significantly.
It would not take an unimaginable number of people to adopt from a shelter in order to double or triple the live exit rate for cats."
Q. You told the Philadelphia Daily News that you used to think that cats were better off in shelters than out in the elements, but you have since changed your mind. It sounds like shelters are so bad for cats that they are better off out in the street.
A. If we look at the risk for death entering a shelter at a certain time of year—and it’s going to vary based on the shelter because some shelters have more success at placing cats than others—I think each shelter needs to look at what it’s providing cats in terms of husbandry, cage space and an opportunity to leave by way of adoption. They have to look at all those and decide whether that’s a better outlook than a cat surviving on its own outside, which is clearly less than ideal. Clearly, we don’t want cats to be homeless and living on the streets and being victims of accidents and weather. Nevertheless, there are shelters in this country whose euthanasia rate for cats exceeds 85 percent, and I cannot imagine an outdoor environment that is 85 percent fatal to cats in the short term. If you gave me the same number of cats and we distributed them, I can’t imagine a place that I could send them that would be 85 percent fatal. That sounds really harsh and I don’t mean to pin the blame on the shelters. It is the nature of this gigantic influx of cats that exhausts and depletes all shelter resources during cat season, which is March or April through September.
Q. There are a lot of flyers for lost cats in West Philadelphia. Do you have any advice for people who have lost a cat?
A. It’s interesting because my students ask about this. If you’re living in West Philadelphia and you lost a cat, where would you look for it? You’d put up posters; you’d call around. Would it occur to you that your cat could be in North Philadelphia? It’s not obvious that your cat would be there, so I think people need to call animal control and report their cat. They will be told to visit the shelter daily to look for their cat because there is no adequate way to describe a cat. If your cat is an orange tabby, I bet there are 15 orange tabby cats in that shelter right now. There are about 250 to 300 cats in the shelter at this time of year and it’s very hard to adequately describe them by any criteria. Even the best photograph is not going to be good enough to reliably identify your cat, so they’re going to advise you to go and take a look. I certainly like the idea of advertising locally with posters, letting people in the neighborhood know.
One of the simplest ways to get your cat back is to have a collar with ID on it and add to that a microchip. They scan for microchips at all shelters. The owner reclaim rate for cats is dismal. It’s .6 percent in Philadelphia.
Q. Are you a cat person or a dog person?
A. My bias in terms of interaction has always been towards dogs, but I have both. And I think cats are smarter.
Originally published on April 21, 2011