Sweet 16 for Life-Saving Team

The Portland area can proudly claim to be among the safest in the nation for homeless pets. With unprecedented high save rates and steadily-shrinking euthanasia rates, the community is fighting back the epidemic pet overpopulation and overcrowded shelters that still claim the lives of more than three million animals every year in the US. 

Across the country, shelter euthanasia rates are significantly higher for cats than for dogs, and Portland is no different. But Portland-area cats have notable, formidable, and highly determined allies in the fight to see fewer and fewer of them die in local shelters.  Specifically, the region boasts the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland and its 10 member organizations, including Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood, which is the largest guaranteed-adoption cats-only shelter in the Pacific Northwest. 

Tucked into an unassuming building in a suburban industrial park, Cat Adoption Team, or CAT, turns 16 this month.  When CAT opened its doors in 1998 with 35 adoptable felines, cats entering other local shelters had less than a 50% chance of leaving alive.  “That’s really the way it is in pretty much every community, even those that are doing well with dogs;” says CAT Executive Director Karen Green.  “Almost universally cats are behind dogs in save rates.”  Jumping feet-first into the area of greatest need, CAT vowed to shelter only cats, and to save every healthy or treatable feline in their care.  Within two years the shelter had adopted out 1,000 cats. 

In 2006 – the same year CAT celebrated its 10,000th adoption – the shelter joined nine other founding organizations to launch The Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland.  The Alliance intentionally dubbed itself ASAP to underscore the urgency of its mission.  Aggressively working a strategic mix of spay/neuter programs, education, outreach, and adoption promotions, ASAP hopes to end euthanasia of all healthy or treatable animals in area shelters.  Member shelters agree to email or call each other to network animals that previously would have been euthanized for space, health, or behavioral reasons.  CAT – with its on-site veterinary clinic, network of foster providers, and feline-only environment – often can take felines who are doing poorly in other settings and help them get adopted. 

The majority of CAT’s felines come from other organizations.  “In 2013, over one-third of our cats came from Multnomah County Animal Shelter,” says Green.  “About 85% came from shelters throughout the area and beyond, including over 300 from Willamette Humane in Salem.” Although Salem sits outside of ASAP’s geographic reach, Portland-area efforts have been successful enough that shelters occasionally have room to relieve overburdened shelters in communities without the networking power of an organization like ASAP.

Now, as area shelters gear up to celebrate June as Adopt-a-Cat Month, CAT’s Sherwood shelter might as well be Party Central. Community-wide, shelters now save 87% of the cats they receive. The big push for adoptions and spay/neuter are paying off.  CAT provides over 3,000 spay/neuter surgeries and 2,500 adoptions a year.  The shelter has nine remote adoption locations, a cat food bank, 600 active volunteers, and 100 foster homes.

Having nearly doubled the save rate for shelter cats in just a few years, ASAP’s ultimate goal of eliminating unnecessary euthanasia feels within reach.  It will happen, says Green, but the next 4% increase in the save rate might take as much effort as the first 40% boost.  “It’s addressing those last few harder-to-help cats now.  We’ve saved the healthy cats and dogs.  Now we’ve raised the bar and we’re saving the ones that have treatable health or behavior problems.”

Sitting at her desk with her office cat Fuchsia purring beside her, Green says this 10-year-old black cat is one example of the rescues that will take more effort and resources.  Fuchsia was adopted through CAT when she was young and came back to the shelter years later when her adopter died.  “At her age, she’s really low-maintenance.  I think the best fit for a lot of people is a low-maintenance cat versus a young and crazy cat that’s going to be knocking things down and climbing up curtains and pant legs.”  But many adopters are drawn to kittens and pass up the middle-aged and older cats.  “So it’s about changing things in the community to find those opportunities for cats,” she says.

Getting the save rate closer to 100% will also require investment in treating illnesses and behavioral problems.  Most conditions are treatable, but can overtax a shelter’s human or financial resources.  For example, it can take four weeks to treat ringworm.  “That’s extremely time-consuming and expensive; last year we treated 60 cats for ringworm even though our designated ringworm room has space for only five cats.”  If shelters can invest the weeks of treatment, however, cats can go on to live full, healthy lives.  Still others will live long and happy feline lives if they find adopters who can administer daily insulin for their diabetes or treat similar chronic but manageable conditions.

Buying these cats the time they need will require more community support, Green says.  More people opening their homes to foster pets would provide them the precious time to complete a course of antibiotics for a respiratory infection, wean a litter of kittens, or take a break from the stress of shelter life – all of which help make the animals more adoptable.  Shelters will need to provide more comfortable environments as well, which requires a healthy supply of shelter volunteers and likely means more financial support for capital improvements.

Green’s current project is making shelter improvements such as adding portals that allow cats to move from one kennel to another.  “We need to find a way of giving the care they need so you see them in a less stressful environment,” she says.  Soon each cat will have an individual behavior plan.  For younger, more active cats, the plan might include regular playtime that involves jumping and tumbling after enticing toys.  Others might be soothed by regular lap time or brushing and grooming sessions.  “We see these sassy cats that get swatty in the shelter.”

Green points out that grumpy cats are likely to get passed up by adopters, but they usually have completely different personalities in a less stressful environment.  “If people take a chance and adopt them, they report back later and say they never see that behavior at home.”  For most health and behavioral problems, reducing stress and creating shelter environments where cats can do better and stay longer is the key to saving more lives.

While year-round work focuses on putting more adult cats into adoptive homes, June also marks the beginning of kitten season.  “If you don’t work in this field, you might not recognize what a problem it is.  Because cats are pretty seasonal breeders, cat rescue is a fairly seasonal business.  Not that there aren’t cats needing help the rest of the year, but during that time of year, the shelters need more help from the community, more donations, more volunteers, more foster providers.”

Kitten season is the reason that National Adopt-a-Cat month falls in June each year, raising awareness and working to draw more adopters into local shelters.  Even with Portland’s highly successful delivery of spay/neuter services throughout the community, annual kitten season brings too many deliveries of its own, and shelters have their individual strategies for the season.  At CAT, the last Saturday in June is Kitten Palooza.  At the Sherwood shelter, CAT will showcase 75-100 kittens in the group’s largest adoption event of the year.  Even kittens who aren’t yet old enough to go home can meet their future families and be pre-adopted during the event.

The kitten adoption blitz helps manage the shelter crowding and increased illness rates that typically accompany kitten season, and helps reserve shelter and staffing resources for the harder-to-save adult cats who need more time to meet their future adopters.  The strategies are labor-intensive and time-consuming, but they’re working.  Still, says Green, “We can do better than an 87% save rate with Portland cats. There are more lives to be saved.”

Michelle Blake lives and writes in Salem with three big dogs, three cats, and one very patient husband. She serves on the Oregon State Council of The Humane Society of the United States and is active with Fences for Fido, which builds fenced yards to free dogs from chains.