An estimated 30 to 40 million cats live outdoors in the continental United States at any given time. These are bright and intelligent creatures who are no different from your house cat, and the Humane Society of the United States has long advocated for their protection.

However, outdoor cats pose a threat to birds and other wildlife, creatures on whose behalf we also advocate, and it is important that we manage the cat populations humanely, through spay and neuter and other interventions, with the aim of minimizing their impact on wildlife and balancing the needs of the cats and the local wildlife. But managing cats, and demonstrating success over time, requires us to have some data on how many cats are in the community, how many of them are strictly outdoor cats versus owned cats who roam outdoors, or cats who may have been abandoned or lost and who now make their living as best they can.

That is why we are part of a landmark three-year project that has the potential to revolutionize the way the animal welfare field tackles cat overpopulation: the DC Cat Count project. Project participants include the Humane Rescue Alliance, which runs the local DC shelters, PetSmart Charities, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and the HSUS.

Using methods that include camera traps, field surveys and household questionnaires, we plan to get an accurate count of the number of cats in Washington, D.C. and gain an in-depth understanding of the cat population in the area. With the data we collect, the DC Cat Count project will develop practical strategies for managing cats in D.C. to benefit both cats and wildlife, and we hope to extrapolate those strategies to suggest humane cat management strategies across the country. We will also make the resulting data and approaches available to local animal welfare organizations and municipalities across the country so they can use these resources to invest in more effective cat rescue, sheltering, adoption and other humane measures.

The cat population in any area is an interconnected and dynamic network, made up of outdoor cats, an estimated 70 million owned cats, a minority of whom have access to the outdoors, and cats who are surrendered, lost, found, abandoned, rehomed, trapped and returned and who are moving between population segments. The DC Cat Count project will study each of these populations and how they interact with one another and use the data to understand the most effective strategies to work toward humanely reducing the number of cats living outdoors. There are only a limited number of reports of humane cat management and none will have compiled such a comprehensive, integrated assessment of cats in a community, examining all these populations in the same location in the same time frame.

The collaborators on this project all bring different perspectives on outdoor cats, but reducing cat populations humanely is something animal welfare advocates, wildlife scientists, shelter professionals and conservationists all agree on. At the HSUS, we advocate keeping owned cats indoors, maintaining wildlife-friendly backyards, reducing the number of unwanted cat litters through expanded access to spay/neuter services, and employing trap-neuter-return programs to end the breeding of cats already living on the landscape. Fewer cats living outdoors means less of a threat to wildlife. In our fight for all animals, this is a win-win situation.

You can learn more about DC Cat Count and how the project aims to assess D.C.’s cat populations by visiting the project website,