In recent years, new research has changed traditional advice around how to help cats found outside. Some of the cats may have homes and know how to reach them. Some may be “community cats” cared for by several local families, and their home is exactly where they are. These cats, especially when they are part of a large group, benefit from health checks and sterilization before ultimately being returned to their outdoor home. Keeping your own cats inside is, of course, better for wild birds and other animals who may fall prey to cats outdoors, and for their sakes, we encourage keeping felines inside. But when it comes to considering what’s best for any given cat already found outside, the issue becomes complicated. Danielle Bays, the senior analyst for cat protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States, works with animal shelters, cat advocates, policymakers and other stakeholders to broaden support for community cat programs nationwide and to improve the welfare of all cats. In this guest blog, Danielle discusses the nuances that can stem from what seems like a simple question: How can I help this cat?

As a professional cat person, one of the most common questions I get is, “How can I help this cat?” For many of us who feel a connection to animals, our natural inclination may be to scoop the cat up and bring him inside. But we now have a heightened understanding of cats and their behaviors, and it turns out that the impulse to bring the cat inside may not actually be the right thing to do.

A very brief history of our lives with cats

Cats living indoors is a very recent part of our long history coexisting with domestic cats, considering that cat domestication began 12,000 years ago, and Kitty Litter wasn’t invented until 1947. This feline version of indoor plumbing was a game-changer for cat ownership; Bloomberg News rightly placed Kitty Litter on its list of the most disruptive ideas in history.

In just a few (human) generations, keeping cats indoors became the norm. Today, an estimated 67% of cats in the U.S. are kept indoors, with another 24% spending time both indoors and outdoors, according to surveys by the American Pet Products Association.

Soon enough, a cat being outdoors was seen as a cry for help. Taking these cats to a shelter was once what most animal welfare organizations preached for decades. But we are due for another disruptive idea: Not every stray cat needs to be rescued, and for those who can use some help, taking the cat to your local shelter may not be the best approach.

What the research shows

The reality is that reclaim rates for stray cats in most communities across the country teeter at about 5%. This means that for every 100 stray cats brought to a shelter, only five are actually reunited with their families. Those cats tend to have microchips with up-to-date contact information.

Studies have shown that cats are more likely to get back home if they don’t enter the shelter. Some cats will find their way home after a few days of roaming the neighborhood. Others get back home with the help of community members who knock on doors and post fliers to identify where the cat lives and get him back home. Or maybe they learn that the cat is home and lives on the block cared for by several residents. Before you shuttle that stray cat to the shelter, put your detective hat on and talk to the people who live on that block.

Most lost cats are found only a few houses away from where they live. It’s no surprise that bringing lost cats to a shelter miles away decreases their chances of getting home. Some people may not know which shelter in their area to call to find their cat. The shelter a town or two over may be inaccessible if they don’t have transportation or can’t get off work during business hours. Many cat owners don’t start to worry until after their cats are gone several days, and it may be nearly a week before they contact their shelter. By then, it may be too late: The cats’ stray hold, the legal amount of time a shelter must keep a stray, may have passed and the cats have been adopted to new families. It’s heartbreaking for the people and stressful for the cats.

Innovative approaches

To address these and other issues, Rhode Island established new procedures for when found cats are turned over to animal shelters in a town other than where the cat was found. We worked on the final language for the new rules with the state veterinarian. Now a description of the cat is shared with the animal control agency or police department of the town where the cat was found, and finders must attest they were allowed to be on the property they took the cat from.

Other animal welfare agencies are also taking proactive approaches. For example, the Massachusetts SPCA now boasts a whopping 34% reunification rate for adult cats, in large part by changing the narrative about stray cats. In the old way of thinking, all those unclaimed cats must be unwanted, abandoned or have irresponsible owners, and the cats deserve better. There is more emphasis on rehoming stray cats than reuniting them with their caregivers. As we move to a more evidence-based approach to sheltering, we find no data to support the notion these cats are homeless and unwanted. Once we stop creating a negative scenario around each cat, we can focus on getting that cat back to the family who loves him. That’s what the MSPCA is doing by considering a “stray cat” simply a cat whose story is currently unknown to the shelter. By engaging the community and doing a bit of detective work, the MSPCA is uncovering those stories and seeing reunification stats soar well above the national average.

Another part of changing the narrative is recognizing that many cats considered “lost” are not lost at all. They know exactly where they are. West Valley Humane Society in Caldwell, Idaho, found that to be true. Like most shelters, the staff didn’t have the capacity to canvass all the homes in areas where cats were found to see if they could identify their families. So essentially, they let the cats do the work themselves. With a reunification rate of less than 1%, they began diverting many of the healthy stray cats who come into their shelter to their community cat program, where the cats are sterilized, vaccinated and returned to where they were found. As an experiment, West Valley staff took the extra step of placing a collar on each cat they returned outdoors, with instructions for the cat’s caretaker to give them a call. People called. They found 70% of the cats lived within five houses of where they were found and another 17% within a quarter-mile. By letting the cats make their way back home, they boosted their reunification rate to over 85% in one year.

These programs are just a few of the many stellar programs we have highlighted at our annual Animal Care Expo, the largest training and networking event for those working in animal sheltering and rescue.

How you can help cats

I grew up with cats living outdoors. Neither of my parents grew up with pets, yet my brother and I convinced them that we should add one to the family. We started with goldfish and then moved on to a cat when a neighbor’s cat had kittens. This was the mid-1970s, a few years before Bob Barker started ending every episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to spay or neuter your pet. It also was a time when keeping cats exclusively indoors-only was far from the norm. So, while Tac (that’s cat spelled backward), my first kitten, got neutered, he lived primarily outdoors. I think back to Tac, who one day just didn’t come home. Maybe he fell victim to one of the dangers lurking outdoors in my quiet suburban neighborhood, or maybe he was “rescued” by a well-intentioned person who felt he needed their help.

Tac’s disappearance broke my 6-year-old heart, of course. And like many people, I still struggle with the impulse to keep cats safe at home, recognizing that’s not an option for the millions of community cats across the country. Cats are fascinating and complex animals, which means it can be tricky deciding how to best help the one you’ve just met. I hope you can help spread the word about these simple steps to help figure out what a cat found outside may actually need. You can also distribute our Can you help this cat? brochure in your community.