Making the decision on whether or not to return a cat to field

February 9, 2017

Is there one best outcome for every cat who comes into a shelter? Should every single cat, or none, be returned to field, no exceptions? Absolutely not, says Holly Sizemore of Best Friends Animal Society in this guest blog post, where she shares guidelines and resources to help you create your shelter’s decision-making process that’s right for your organization and your community — and the cats you care for.

It’s a highly individual process of Identifying the “best” outcome designation or program path for a cat entering a shelter can be tricky business. Conflicts can arise particularly when trying to decide if a sweet, sociable cat should be returned to the field or made available for adoption.

Our responsibility is to make all incoming cats eligible for as many positive outcomes as possible, and then the choice is often between the most expedient outcome and the outcome that we feel is going to be best for the cat. This is when things get tricky.

Determining the best outcome is, obviously, rather subjective. And this determination also requires us to balance the good of the entire population with the good of the individual cat.

The good news is that positive outcomes are just that: positive. Often, our fears around the uncertainty of a cat being returned outdoors are largely unfounded. I believe the reason we feel more confident with an adoption outcome is that we’ve had decades to adjust to the concept. Remember when we all thought open adoptions (less screening, more informing) would result in pets being put at risk? It just didn’t happen, and now most of us accept the open adoption concept as a way to save more lives without risking the health and safety of our feline friends.

When to Return and When Not to Return

Best Friends Animal Society has been fortunate to partner with numerous shelters across the country in operating shelter-based community cat programs — so we’ve grappled with these issues in a variety of settings and at various points in a shelter’s evolution. I’ve seen the unintended consequences of oversimplifying this issue, as well as the implications of over-complicating it. In both circumstances, the intentions have been the same: Everyone wants what is best for the cats and the community.

One oversimplification I’ve seen is instituting a blanket policy that all healthy stray cats, regardless of other considerations, must be returned. But there are situations in which removing a particular cat from the street is truly the best choice. If you don’t allow for ways to make that determination and support alternative positive outcomes in those situations, it can really affect how staff will support (or sabotage) your return-to-field program overall.

So what’s the solution?

Have a robust (but not overly burdensome) intake form (see example from The Animal Foundation in Las Vegas) and process that will gather the information you need to determine if that stray, free-roaming cat is truly at risk by being returned. Train staff so that they understand very clearly that it is their responsibility to provide an evidence-based rationale for any cat for whom they want to request a Do Not Return (DNR) label. And staff should understand that supervisors will ultimately approve or deny any DNR requests.

One thing is for sure: The person who brought in the cat, or who lodged the request for service, should not have the authority to decide if a DNR is appropriate.

Programs that include complainant services can resolve many complainant issues, ensuring that a cat returned to a situation where complaints were lodged isn’t at undue risk. In fact, offering complainant services reduces risks to any and all cats living in that neighborhood. Even without complainant services, we all know that sterilization reduces many of the nuisances and often it is the nuisances that prompt the request for service, not merely the presence of a cat.

If your program is anything like the ones we’ve encountered, you will find that returning the vast majority of stray cats doesn’t pose undue risk. You are simply returning them to the place where they were happily living prior to the time that someone decided to scoop them up. The bottom line is that if staff feel confident that certain criteria are being met, then most fears for the cats’ well-being after being returned will be greatly reduced — and any resistance to returning cats in general will also be reduced. Here are the criteria that should be met:

  • Correct addresses of where the cats reside are being collected.
  • Cats aren’t being returned to truly hazardous situations.
  • Cats are being returned appropriately close to their outdoor home.
  • Cats are correctly designated as outdoor, free-roaming cats upon intake.

Determining the Best Outcome

Best Friends does treat return-to-field (RTF) cats less than four months of age differently, a policy derived after analyzing our many programs over many years — and some consider our policy too restrictive. In some cases, I agree. For instance, in situations in which I’m advising shelter managers who are faced with having to euthanize or return a couple of 14-week-old kittens, I would likely support them in their decision to return the cats (assuming the other criteria above are met), even though that decision wouldn’t follow our policy to the letter.

Sometimes in the early stages of a program, the sheer volume of animals being handled makes it hard to review individual cases in great depth, but the good news is that, as programs progress successfully, it typically becomes possible to spend more time on analyzing individual cases.

Of course, even with great intake information, conflict can still arise over which is better — adoption or RTF — for the sweet, tame guys. I mean, why wouldn’t we always choose adoption over RTF? And what about all the other potential positive outcomes? Shouldn’t we at least give those cats a chance to be adopted, fostered or transferred to another adoption organization?

This is where I tend to over-complicate things, so bear with me for a moment.

Many of the ideas around “pathway determination” delve into some pretty complex systems-thinking concepts. Systems thinking, in laymen’s terms, follows the principle that the complex linkages and interactions within a system need to work together if you want the whole system to function successfully and efficiently.

Most of us interact with, or have an influence on, only a small part of the sheltering “system” in which we work, so that can make it difficult for us to make informed decisions that will balance what is best for a particular animal and what is best for the entire “system.” Thankfully, the Million Cat Challenge has some great resources related to topics such as fast-tracking, capacity for care and intake diversion. These resources embody systems-thinking concepts specifically geared to help shelters think and act holistically.

But back to adoption versus RTF. I believe the critical question to ask in making the choice is this:

Taking into account current trends (e.g., seasonal considerations, recent hoarding bust) and our current shelter population, is there a high likelihood of an adoption or transfer outcome for this cat without putting another life at risk?

If the answer is no, then the RTF-eligible cat should be returned, despite his sweet temperament (or lack thereof).

Framing the question this way allows you to consider the ever-changing factors within your shelter or community. For example, a super-sweet, jowly, slightly beat-up yet charismatic adult black tomcat may be a shoo-in for adoption if he arrives in December, when your shelter’s live release rate is over 90 percent, you have plenty of empty cages, and you have some cool holiday adoption promotions in the works. But if that very same Mr. Tom arrives in July, your best option is likely to fast-track him to RTF. After all, your shelter is bursting at the seams and Mr. Tom is competing with grundles of cute, cuddly kittens for the same adoptive homes.

Shelters that employ population rounds are in a really great position to routinely ask, “What can we do for you that can help you and the rest of the animals here today?” Live release or operation managers often perform a coordinating role between various departments and population rounds staff.

While it might seem like a big investment, the payoff of population rounds can be tremendous in reducing bottlenecks, increasing efficiencies and increasing positive outcomes. An example of how this can work: During rounds, you find a cat who was put into adoptions, but who was eligible for RTF. She has been languishing for a couple weeks now, and meanwhile your capacity has dropped. Suddenly she (or someone else) is at risk for euthanasia. Fast-track that cat for RTF.

If your shelter still struggles with disease issues (i.e., if holding the cat in adoptions for a week or two puts that cat at high risk for getting sick), then fast-tracking the cat for RTF at the time of intake clearly is the preferred positive outcome.

Full disclosure: I learned the “to return or not to return” lesson very organically.

Back in the 1990s, I co-founded the first TNR group in the state of Utah. Our group also did adoptions. Because we were desperate for volunteers and because adoption slots were very limited, I almost always returned the cats I TNR’d and gave the adoption slots to our volunteers. Psychologically, it was very hard for me to do that — and yet, by and large, the cats I returned did great, and so eventually I became more comfortable. Sadly, there were a few tragedies, but none of us can prevent the occasional tragedy, and those same occasional tragedies happen in the adoption arena as well.

I once returned a cat who was FIV-positive. (He was healthy and happy and got along well with the other couple of cats in the area, but that was back in the day when we thought testing every cat was necessary.) For weeks, I grappled with guilt and fear. I had no other options for the guy, so I returned him. (These days, I wouldn’t even second-guess that decision.)

Nine years later, I got a call from a woman who had lived in the neighborhood for about a year. The little FIV-positive guy had gotten a URI, and this woman had taken him to the vet, whereupon they found his microchip. (We didn’t usually microchip our community cats because we felt the scarce resources were better spent on sterilizing, but for this guy, I just had to because I was overwrought with anxiety.) I explained to the lady that he was a community cat, and she was so thrilled to hear that he didn’t have another home because she had grown quite attached and wanted to give him one. Gus, as his kind new person named him, lived with her happily, indoors, for another six years.

For more information on guidelines for shelter-based community cat programs, check out the Best Friends Community Cat Programs Handbook.


Holly Sizemore currently acts as Chief National Programs Officer for Best Friends Animal Society. In her role she oversees Best Friend’s Sanctuary Animal Care and National Programs Divisions.

Holly has volunteered and worked in many different animal welfare arenas, ranging from small all-volunteer grassroots groups to large-scale public-private partnership efforts. Holly has specialized in designing and implementing shelter-focused community cat programs that combine municipal return-to-field programs with targeted community TNR. 

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  1. I have this battle everyday. There’s no black and white, just trying to meet in the middle in a plan for what’s best for each kitty.

    Comment by Alana canupp — February 9, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

  2. I’m trying to make this decision now. It’s getting into very cold weather and where this older mom was trapped with her kittens is at a service station at a highway junction. There was apparently a small colony behind here but construction has scared away any cats that may have been there. Momcat seemed very scared but I could touch her at first but now she’s getting a bit aggressive. (The kittens are coming around) We don’t know if she’s feral or got dumped. I’m getting her spayed and eartipped this week then will keep her in a large cage to see if I can tame her. It’s a tough situation!

    Comment by Linda Titus — December 3, 2017 @ 9:16 am

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