The stray-hold debate for cats: One shelter director’s perspective

February 28, 2017

In a recent discussion on the Million Cat Challenge YahooGroup prompted by questions from Challenge co-founder Dr. Julie Levy, Sue Cosby-Jennings, former executive director of the Animal Care & Control Team of Philadelphia, shared her experience with stray holds. Her focus was on their impact on cats in her large, open admission shelter that had limited options for regulating intake, and she graciously allowed us to publish her comments here.

Although I’m no longer actively running an animal shelter, the question of cats and stray holds is one that I dealt with extensively 11 or 12 years ago, before we even did Shelter/Neuter/Return (SNR).

In early 2005 I was working as a COO at a shelter where the holding time for cats was 72 hours. The total intake for the facility at the time was somewhere around 18,000-20,000 cats annually (although recordkeeping and the computer system were less than ideal, I can confirm it was a lot of cats).

What we learned in examining how we took in and handled cats was that there was no state or local law requiring that cats be held for any stray period. The self-imposed stray period had ended up creating a massive amount of cats “on hold” on any given day. As more cats came in, we euthanized healthy cats up for adoption to free up space to “hold” cats, even those who would never be reclaimed like the ones who were obviously outdoor-livers. These were often cats who if we had SNR as a concept at the time we would have passed through surgery and released immediately – the ones who were very unlikely to adapt to a home.

Because of our high volume and high velocity of incoming animals, we experienced the challenges and failures of hold times in a way I had never experienced at smaller shelters. Everything was magnified. Everything was condensed. There were days when every cat in the building was “on hold” despite filling rooms and rooms with them. Healthy, adoptable, friendly, and owner-surrendered cats would go straight to the euthanasia room. It was worse than bad.

We made the decision to end – not reduce, but end – the self-imposed practice of holding all cats, and instead hold only those with obvious signs of ownership such as a collar, even without an ID tag. And we held those for a longer perdiod, between 5-10 days. So we essentially eliminated hold times for nearly all cats while extending holds for those who had the best chance at being reclaimed.

Sadly, we did not yet put two and two together and realize the TNR we supported could be converted into SNR. However, a positive change immediately occurred in that we were able to pass through highly adoptable cats immediately. As I mentioned, the software system (and the data that went into it) were sorely lacking, but our adoptions shot up and our RTO remained essentially the same – nearly nothing.

This change in policy also dramatically decreased length of stay for cats in the building and increased length of stay for healthy, friendly, owner-surrendered cats. It allowed us to pass cats through rapidly to adoption, and avoid illness wherever possible. We had been holding cats for no good reason. And it was killing both the ones we held, and the ones we didn’t.

As to the practical aspects of a bifurcated hold period for cats, we were already used to holding dogs with ID for longer periods of time. We simply adapted the procedure to cats. At the time it was a note on the cage card and in the animal record, but with new software we were able to list the specific type of hold for each animal.

After that time I became a passionate advocate for reduced and eliminated hold times for cats. Once “Feral Freedom” emerged, it furthered my passion to allow cats the opportunity to stay out of the shelter system, touching their toes in the building for as few minutes as possible – if they had to at all. Although it took many years of effort, as well as new ideas and concepts for saving lives to come to the forefront, eliminating arbitrary hold times allowed us to make the greatest possible lifesaving improvements.

Our shelter was different from most, certainly in part because of its volume. Some shelters do have the ability to house all of the strays they receive for the hold time required without running out of cages. And some shelters can house them humanely, without emotional stress, and keep them healthy throughout, regardless of their personality type. And some shelters had a greater RTO rate than we had ever achieved.

But for shelters that struggle under the weight of ineffective hold times, who have the ability to reduce or remove them, I encourage you to pilot it if you’re not convinced. Perhaps just starting in your most difficult of seasons, or for a week, or a month, if allowed by law. Just imagine the time and space you’ll have to help those who really need you!

One of my greatest regrets is that we did not have the ability to do a better job of recording the effects of our changes with data. We faced tremendous struggles with no good answers and not too many role models to reach out to for advice in 2004/2005. So I tell this story in part to encourage your organization to track and test all that you can both before and after you make a significant change like removing hold times, reach out to shelters who are doing things very different from you and learn from them, so in the end you’ll be able to tell a better story of your own!

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1 Comment »

  1. We have no hold time now with cats with no identification- tags or microchip.

    Comment by Alana canupp — March 2, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

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