Makena Yarbrough

Recently, I was tagged in a Facebook post that I’ve seen many times: Found cat.

These posts are usually described the same way: Friendly cat found, I can’t keep him, let me know if you’re missing him. The volume of these tells me two things. One, there are a lot of friendly free-roaming cats around here and two, people really want to rescue them. 

But what if the cat doesn’t need to be rescued. What if the safest place for him is right where he was found?  

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In North Carolina, the weather and close living quarters in urban and suburban areas have created an ideal habitat for free-roaming cats. They are all around us: Sometimes owned and wandering, sometimes feral, and sometimes falling somewhere in-between — being fed by the community, but not quite claimed. We see them at the grocery store and restaurants, and sometimes they find us, looking for food or affection.  

Many well-meaning people assume the safest option for finding a friendly cat living outdoors is to be surrendered to a shelter or a rescue group. They think the cat will then be reunited with its owner or put up for adoption, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.  

Nationally, return-to-owner rates for cats hover around 2%. Cats are intelligent and often understand their neighborhood layout. If they are left alone, they are likely to go home when they’re ready. In fact, one study found that cats are 7 to 10 times more likely to be reunited with their owners when left in their neighborhood than when brought to a shelter.  

Last year around 47,000 dogs and cats were killed in North Carolina’s animal shelters. In the U.S., only California and Texas killed more dogs and cats. And despite dogs and cats entering shelters at nearly equal rates, almost 74% of pets killed were cats. That’s more than two cats for every dog. Most are free-roaming, feral or strays. 

With more than 100,000 cats entering North Carolina shelters every year, and tens of thousands of them never making it out alive, it’s time to rethink the traditional methods of sheltering and move toward a proven method that works: Trap-neuter-vaccinate return (TNR). The concept itself is quite simple. Stray and feral cats are caught, evaluated by veterinarians, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and returned to their original outdoor homes, unable to have kittens.  

TNR ensures the cats’ health and welfare. Once these cats are sterilized and vaccinated, they can live healthy, happy lives in their communities, where caring residents look out for them. Sterilization and vaccination provide a public health benefit to the community, too, a vast improvement over the failed trap-and-kill approach that’s been used for generations. 

Cat lifesaving efforts need to focus on the best possible outcome for individual animals, which includes cats living as community pets. If cats are already at home in our communities, and kittens are being cared for by their mothers, we should leave them be and not attempt to save a life when it could result in ending it. 

Best Friends Animal Society has partnered with animal shelters and other community stakeholders to run large-scale community cat programs for over a decade. These programs are animal-friendly, veterinarian-approved, cost-effective and successful. The improvement in overall cat lifesaving at partner shelters is 12 times greater than those without it. 

Ending the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelters requires a humane approach to caring for stray cats. TNR is the best (and in most cases the only feasible) option on the table. 

Makena Yarbrough is regional director, Mid-Atlantic & Southeast for Best Friends Animal Society.