As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, there was a prevailing notion among animal advocates that people who gave up their pets were acting irresponsibly. A number of studies suggested that people relinquished their cats largely because of behavior problems, and that if they just stuck it out and tended to the issues more conscientiously, there would be significantly less pet surrender — and less euthanasia for cats in situations where a new home couldn’t be found. There was a stigma attached to pet surrender — the person giving up a cat was “bad.”
But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, extensive interviews showed that people are generally in great moral distress about having to give up a pet and that it is often about a change in their own situations rather than about a cat they consider “defective” and simply want to get rid of. Some people fall below the poverty line and can no longer afford to feed a cat, let alone pay for its medical care. Or they move to an apartment that doesn’t allow pets, or move in with someone who is allergic to cats.
Many times people take in a second or third cat as a humane gesture and then find that no matter how gradually they introduce the new cat to the others and no matter how much they work to provide lots of window seats and spaces for the pets to cozy away by themselves, they are unable to facilitate a harmonious coexistence. Cats are not being surrendered simply because they scratched up furniture.
The findings led shelters and others involved in animal welfare to shift toward a more compassionate view. The fact that fewer cats today have to be euthanized each year than in the 1980s and 90s also allows animal advocates to feel less anxious when someone says they can no longer take care of a pet.
Tufts veterinarian Emily McCobb, DVM, is all for the shift in approach. “We believe that having a pet cat is a lifelong commitment,” says Dr. McCobb, who is director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine as well as the school’s assistant director for Animals and Public Policy. “But we also know that life circumstances can change. People lose jobs, get divorced, get deployed. They may have to re-home a cat for a variety of reasons, behavior issues included, and we should not stigmatize someone who truly feels their cat would be better off in a new place or simply can no longer take care of their cat. People are really broken up by the time they arrive at the decision to re-home an animal.”
In fact, the doctor says, people often wait too long out of a sense of mortification about not being able to properly care for their pet even though they feel very bonded to it.
Shelter as resource
Shelters are not only taking a more compassionate view of people who feel they need to give up a cat. They also view their work now as stepping up to help pets stay with their people if at all possible.
For instance, if you go to a shelter today and say you have to give up your cat because you can no longer afford to feed her, the staff might respond, “Well, what if we found a way to help you get food?”
“A lot of shelters run food banks,” Dr. McCobb says. “Especially during the pandemic, with many losing their jobs, they’ve been helping people with pet food.”
A shelter might also be able to provide vaccines at reduced cost for people who are having trouble making ends meet, Dr. McCobb says. “Or if a new landlord requires neutering for an animal to be allowed to remain in an apartment, it might be able to provide the neutering for a reduced fee.
“It’s more of a conversation now,” she explains, “not, ‘Let me take this burden from you and resent you for it.’”
A shelter may even be able to help you find a qualified animal behaviorist for help with behavior problems like scratching furniture or urinating outside the litter box or to explain that medicine might be an option for some overly anxious cats. In some cases, if a cat simply cannot stay with its owner, a shelter may be able to work something out so that the current family is able to foster the cat until a new family is found. That way, the animal doesn’t have to spend time in a facility.
In other words, Dr. McCobb says, shelters today are places pet owners can have a relationship with. It’s not just where you go to get a pet or give one up. “It’s not a bad or scary place,” she says. “Shelters are there to respond to the needs of the community and should be the first resource you call when you have a challenge.”
That said, “re-homing a cat does remain a last resort,” Dr. McCobb explains. Yes, there’s a lot a shelter might be able to do to help you keep the animal you have come to love — and who has come to love you — when you think it won’t be possible. “But you shouldn’t feel guilty if your home can no longer be the right place,” she states. “If in the end you need to relinquish your pet, your local shelter will work judgment-free to find the best possible outcome.”