Globally, the domestic cat (Felis sylvestris catus
) is a popular companion animal, with 18% of UK households [1
], 26% of European households [2
], 35% of USA [3
], 44% of New Zealand [4
] and 29% of Australian households [5
] owning cats. Popularity, and a continuous reproductive cycle with induced ovulation (~2–3 litters per year depending on age, health, number of daylight hours and latitude [6
]), inevitably leads to uncontrolled breeding and abandonment of cats at welfare shelters. For example, from mid-2015 to mid-2016, cats comprised 40% of the total number of animals processed nationally by the Australian Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [13
]; higher than dogs at 33%. The total number of cats euthanized over the same period was nearly three times that of dogs (16,205 cats vs. 5872 dogs). A similar situation occurs in the United States, where a survey of American shelters revealed for the fiscal year 2008–2009 the highest euthanasia rates for cats in a shelter was 71%, compared to 35% for dogs in the same facility [14
While many cats entering shelters are euthanised due to illness, disease or behavioural issues [15
], healthy adult cats are also euthanised due to shelter crowding or financial strain [14
]. A few countries prohibit this by law (e.g., Brazil [17
] and Czech Republic [16
]), but that may create other problems such as crowding or refusal to admit animals to a full shelter. Compared with adult cats, kittens may be more expensive to care for. In addition to requiring multiple vaccinations and more frequent worming than adult cats, there is potential extra nutritional care and associated labour (e.g., feeding every 4 h for kittens that have not been weaned). However, kittens are easier to rehome and can attract higher adoption fees [15
], so they may receive preferential treatment and housing over healthy or resident adult cats during times of crowding. High, on-going euthanasia rates also precipitate stress and poor morale of shelter staff, veterinarians and volunteers [19
]. It is, therefore, in the best interests of both cats and staff that shelters minimise euthanasia rates.
To avoid euthanasia of older but otherwise adoptable cats, shelters may employ a range of strategies including refusing admission of cats during busy periods (e.g., ‘kitten seasons’), and outsourcing cats to other charities, management groups or foster caregivers. Alternatively, shelters may opt to hold adoption-drives wherein typical adoption fees are reduced or waived to achieve higher adult rehoming rates and relieve capacity pressures [21
Waiving adoption fees is the most controversial option, because of concerns that people attracted to low-cost or free adoptions may be less responsible owners who subsequently neglect or rehome cats, or use them for nefarious purposes (e.g., kitten farming, dog baiting). However, in Maine, United States, whether or not adopters paid for their cat had no influence on their emotional attachment to their pet, or their opinion of the shelter [21
]. Similarly, in Queensland, Australia, adopters who paid a discounted fee of $
20 or regular fee ≥$
99 for adult cats, did not differ in their retention of the cat at time of survey. Both groups also had similar self-rated attachment to- and satisfaction with, their cats. They did not differ in their intention to keep the cat, willingness to adopt from the shelter in the future and in caretaking behaviours shown towards the cat (e.g., frequency of petting, worming etc.). However, the authors acknowledged imprecision in the effect estimates in their statistical analyses [22
Given the limited number of studies on the topics of discounted or free adoption-drives and concern over the strength of inference from prior studies, we sought to add further evidence to the literature via a case study of a free-adoption drive at a Western Australian cat shelter that focused on characteristics of adopters (age, gender, history of prior adoptions, source of information about the shelter), fate of cats (retained, deceased, returned to shelter, rehomed privately), compliance of owners with relevant legislation (Western Australian Cat Act 2011), and owner experiences with shelters. We also compared the data from the free-adoption drive with control data from normal-fee adoptions from the same shelter to see if paying adopters differed from free adopters on these points. Although the study was primarily descriptive, based on the limited available literature, we predicted that:
Cat demographics (age, sex and pelage) and fate (e.g., dead, returned) would not differ between the free and normal-fee adopters;
Human demographics (e.g., gender, distance from shelter, average income) would not differ among free and normal-fee adopters; and
Both groups would be equally compliant with the requirements of relevant Western Australian legislation.
Evidence consistent with these predictions would provide further support for shelter managers to proceed with greater confidence to use free adoptions in order to relieve accommodation and resource pressures during peak periods. In contrast, lack of support for our predictions would suggest reconsideration of free adoptions as a viable strategy for decreasing euthanasia.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Context
The Cat Haven shelter in Perth, Western Australia (WA), is the state’s largest recipient of feral, stray and surrendered cats, processing >4000 cats per year. These cats come mainly from across the 30 local government jurisdictions in Perth (~1.95 million people in 2016 [23
]), but small numbers do come from outside the Perth metropolitan area. In accordance with the Australian Cat Action Plan for cat management ([24
] developed by Getting2Zero), the Cat Haven has a long-term goal of zero euthanasia, excepting those animals which will never be rehomeable because of factors such as terminal illness or lack of socialisation. During 2014 and 2015 weekly euthanasias fluctuated seasonally, but for adult and mature cats were mainly in the range 2–22 and 0–21 for kittens. Despite having year-round discounted prices for cats over one year of age, an extremely busy 2014–2015 kitten season left the shelter stretched beyond capacity. A decision was made to trial a three-day adoption-drive where adult cats (≥1 year) would be given away for free.
The Cat Haven desexes and microchips all cats prior to adoption, so we focused on other facets of animal husbandry likely to vary among owners: fitting collars, council registration, and whether or not cats were permitted to roam freely. The Cat Haven provides all cat adopters with a booklet of information on basic cat behaviours and tips for assimilating them into new homes; possible illnesses, and worming and vaccination routines. The Cat Haven has an adoption process that includes verifying photographic identification and address, and a right to refuse service to uncooperative customers.
The legal context within Western Australia changed in 2011 with the passage of the Cat Act [25
], which requires WA cat owners to ensure that by six months of age all cats are desexed, microchipped, wearing a collar and registered with the owner’s local municipal council. While the Cat Act (2011) does not mandate restricting cats to their owners’ property, we take the provision of fines, trapping and euthanasia of nuisance animals as an implication that owners should not permit their cats to roam. As such, the Cat Haven distributes leaflets on the WA Cat Act regulations and requirements for responsible cat ownership to adopters, and sends a notice of adoption to the adopter’s local council so that cat legislation may be monitored and enforced.
2.2. Data Collection
In February 2015, a week-long advertising campaign promoted the ‘free adult cat adoption-drive’ via Cat Haven’s website, social media pages, local newspapers, radio and television-news programmes. Free cats included ‘Adults’ (1–7 years old), and ‘Matures’ (>7 years). Kittens remained available for adoption at their regular year-round prices. Over the three day long-weekend (28th February–2nd March), 137 free cats were adopted (118 adult and 19 mature). Of these, the 100 cat adopters who had provided useable contact details were approached 6–12 months after adoption, using emails, postal letters, and telephone interviews (n = 50, 25, and 25 respectively) depending on personal details voluntarily provided at time of adoption.
A larger post-adoption study using the same survey was carried out between December 2014 and May 2015. A further 120 randomly-selected people (as the largest manageable sample size for our team) who adopted adult or mature cats for a ‘normal-fee’ ($50–$180) during this period, were contacted and their responses compared with those of free cat adopters. Subjects were selected using random number protocols. Normal-fee adopters were contacted 3–18 months post-adoption using emails, postal letters, and telephone interviews (n = 45, 50, and 25 respectively).
To gauge the Cat Haven’s perception of the event, we invited the CEO to comment on experiences over the weekend, and asked specifically about euthanasia and financial implications of the free adoption-drive. In order to assess how rates of adult/mature cat adoption over the free weekend differed from normal weeks of the year in 2015, the total weekly number of adoptions was plotted using the ggplot2 package within R version 3.1.1 [26
]. The total weekly number of kitten adoptions was also plotted for comparison, as were adoptions over the course of 2014. Euthanasia data for the years 2014 and 2015 were provided by the Cat Haven as a context for assessing the potential effect of the free weekend on euthanasia rates.
2.3. Questionnaire Design and Owner Demographics
Surveys for owners adopting free or normal-fee cats were identical (Appendix A Table A1
). Surveys focused on the husbandry and fate of adopted cats, the gender of the adopters, their adoption history with cat shelters and means of learning about the Cat Haven shelter. Demographic information for adopter suburbs was obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics ([23
], see results), in preference to producing a longer, less user-friendly questionnaire if this information was requested directly from adopters.
2.4. Statistical Analyses
Differences in response rates between free and normal-fee adopters were assessed using the interface for comparing proportions in the online resource VassarStats [28
]. Basic demographics of cats adopted for free or for payment were tabulated, noting sex, age in months, pelage, and fate after adoption. Similarly, the demographics of owners adopting cats (free vs. paid) were tabulated, noting gender, adoption history, knowledge of Cat Haven, and a range of characteristics of their suburb (e.g., distance from shelter, population density, mean salary [23
]) as potential indicators of socio-economic status. Based on the people who responded, this resulted in a data matrix of 151 cats and 141 unique households. All subsequent statistical analyses of these variables used lme4 and ggplot2 packages within R version 3.1.1 [26
To assess associations between adoption fee (free vs. paid), cat attributes (age category, sex, pelage, adoption fate), and adopter attributes (gender, adoption history with shelters, means of learning about Cat Haven), count data were assessed using two-tailed Fisher exact probability tests or chi-square contingency tables. For suburb-scale data, Student t-tests were used to compare suburb data (e.g., average income) with adoption fee. The sequential Bonferroni correction was applied to the t-test data to ensure a significance level of 0.05 across the full range of tests [30
The two mandatory legislative variables (collars and registration) and whether cats roam beyond adopter residences, were all assessed using mixed-effect hierarchal models. The dependent variable in each case was binary (compliant or not compliant) and the predictors were whether the adoption was free or paid, age of the cat in months, cat sex, gender of the adopter, and whether or not they had adopted from a shelter before. We applied a mixed-model approach because 10 pairs of cats were adopted into the same households. Therefore, the household was treated as a random effect. Effects with p-values between 0.01 and 0.05 were considered as offering modest significance and effects with p < 0.01 as offering stronger evidence of a difference. Given the range of times post-adoption when questionnaires were administered, Fisher exact tests were used to assess any effect of number of months cats were owned at time of survey (<6 months, <12 months, <18 months) against compliance with collar, registration and roaming variables. Sequential Bonferroni corrections were applied because of the multiple tests.
2.5. Ethics Approval
This research was carried out in accordance with Murdoch University’s Human Ethics Approval 2014–099.
In keeping with our predictions, demographics of cats adopted did not differ between free and normal-fee adoptions. Both groups adopted cats of similar age, gender and pelage. Comparison of the fate of cats adopted for free or for a fee, revealed that the majority of cats were alive and retained by their original adopters (93% for free cats, 96% for normal-fee cats). These findings closely parallel those of an Australian study (state of Queensland [22
]) which found that 6–12 months after adoption 91% of $
20 cats (n
= 126) and 90% of ≥$
= 17) cats were alive and retained by the original adopter.
Post-adoption, the incidences of medical and behavioural problems were also nearly identical, leaving 77% of both free- and normal-fee cats alive and well. Treatable medical problems developed in only 7% of free, and 6.5% of normal-fee cats (e.g., diarrhoea, skin rash, haematuria), with 80% of unwell cats receiving veterinary treatment, regardless of adoption fee. Including the three cats returned to the Cat Haven, only 16.5% of free, and 18% of normal-fee cats were reported as having any enduring behavioural problems, with free cats mainly shy or hiding in fear (33%), and normal-fee cats mainly aggressive towards owners or destructive (43%). Problem behaviours can be common in cats [31
], and cats are frequently surrendered or returned to shelters if they do not rapidly adjust to their new home, or display antisocial, destructive or inappropriate elimination behaviours [33
]. For example, over the course of one year, 33% of cat owners cited behaviour problems as reasons for surrendering their cats to 12 animal shelters in the USA (n
= 2168 [36
]). The near-identical low incidence of reported behavioural problems in free and normal-fee cats is consistent with owners in the two groups perceiving the behaviour of their cats similarly, some of which may be natural behaviour that needs appropriate redirection [37
Overall, there is no evidence that adoption fee influences the selection of cats or their fate with their new owners. Perception of behavioural problems, which is an acknowledged risk for return of adopted cats to a shelter, was also similar between the two groups and likely contributed to the similar fates of cats in both groups.
4.1. Do Free Adoption-Drives Attract a Different Group of Adopters?
The care that pet cats receive from owners may be influenced by owner features such as age, income, gender, education, previous experience owning pets, presence of children, and number of emotional bonds with friends [38
]. However, we found that both free and normal-fee adopters were similar across 12 different demographic variables constructed from ABS suburb-scale data. Where the two groups did differ was in their experience adopting from shelters, with more first-time adopters visiting the Cat Haven during the free adult adoption-drive. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the groups also differed in how they initially learned of the Cat Haven’s existence, with free adopters learning about the shelter from media promotions of the free adoption-drive, and normal-fee adopters learning through word-of-mouth. Given that pet cats have extended life expectancies (~15 years for indoor cats and 10 years for outdoor cats [40
]), and that this may limit the number of experienced cat owners who are available to adopt, attracting first-time adopters must be a priority for shelters wishing to decrease euthanasia of healthy cats.
4.2. Does Adoption Fee Influence Legislative Compliance?
Adopters of free and normal-fee cats did not significantly differ in their legislative compliance. Both groups were as likely to place collars on cats (69% free vs. 65% normal-fee), register them with local municipal councils (75% vs. 81%), and allow cats to roam outside and beyond their residence boundary (53% vs. 55%). The high compliance with registration may reflect Cat Haven’s legal responsibility to notify local councils with details of adoptions, as well as the shelter’s efforts to communicate the responsibilities of all cat owners. Registration is not free (fees vary between municipalities), so cost might be a factor in determining whether or not owners register their animals. However, there was no statistically significant difference in the proportion of cats registered between free and normal-fee adopters.
All Australian states and the Australian Capital Territory have legislation governing aspects of cat ownership, but there is little data on compliance and much of that suggests that compliance is variable and low. For example, in 2001 approximately 500,000 dogs and cats were microchipped in New South Wales under legislative requirements, but only 200,000 animals were registered [41
]. In one Victorian municipality only 15% of households registered a cat, substantially below the national cat ownership estimate of 26% of households [42
]. In relation to confinement of pet cats, many owners appear to make a decision about husbandry based on what they believe is best for their cat’s welfare, and do not always comply with legislation that they feel compromises welfare [43
]. Welfare considerations may also apply when owners choose whether or not fit a collar, because of perceptions that collars are hazardous to cats despite data showing that the risk is low and the benefits of simple identification high [44
]. Overall, decisions about compliance are complex and the modest compliance noted in our samples may or may not be representative of national trends.
4.3. Why Are Free Adoptions Good for Cats?
Preventing euthanasia of healthy adult cats is an obvious, immediate positive outcome of reducing crowding by offering occasional free adult cat adoption-drives [15
]. Moving adult and mature cats through shelter systems quickly also benefits general welfare by minimising exposure to diseases such as upper respiratory tract infections or ringworm [47
], and to unpredictable, sustained or novel stimuli such as handing by visitors [52
], that can cause stress-related urinary tract infections [53
], and behavioural issues such as abnormal eating or grooming [54
]; elimination [55
]; and hypervigilance [53
]. Furthermore, because many factors influence the likelihood of adoption including cat sex (e.g., males preferred [15
]), appearance (e.g., rare breeds preferred, prejudices against darker coat patterns [18
]), and perceptions of cat personality (e.g., playfulness and willingness to interact with people increases adoptions [58
]); in a free adoption scenario where cats are being rapidly rehomed, the less popular animals may have a better chance of selection.
Pet cats surrendered to shelters have higher stress scores than stray cats, and this can negatively affect their health, length of stay and increase chances of euthanasia [61
]. If cats enter an adoption-surrender cycle they may become traumatised and deemed unsuitable for rehoming. If free cat adoption-drives are used in times of crowding (or in anticipation of them) and are accompanied by rigorous pre-adoption counselling (as practised by the Cat Haven in this study) and supported by post-adoption advice or follow-up, then there is no reason to predict that free adult cats will be surrendered more readily than those sold for a fee.
4.4. Why Are Free Adoptions Good for Shelters?
Rehoming adult cats will reduce euthanasia rates and the associated risk of staff suffering ‘trauma fatigue’ [19
]. Foster carers, who are often a pivotal resource relied on by animal shelters to help deal with burgeoning numbers of unwanted and juvenile animals [62
], are also relieved when all surrendered animals can be accommodated within the shelter. Overall, shelters offering free adoptions will save the cost of long-term housing and provision of environmental enrichment for animals with lower adoption potential. Resources may then be redirected towards costs of caring for kittens or public education programs that may reduce abandonment of cats (e.g., increasing community desexing rates of cats). Furthermore, Cat Haven CEO R. Robinson noted “the weekend was a remarkable success. Adopters made generous donations, and bought quality food, and accessories for the cats they adopted.”
Free adoption-drives afford shelters with further opportunities to educate new, and experienced adopters, prior to point-of-sale. This education in the form of pre-adoption counselling, is crucial to breaking adoption-return cycles and reducing euthanasia. While many shelters routinely provide take-home leaflet information about cat behaviour, disease and responsible ownership, shelters are often unable to counsel potential adopters about their motivations for adopting, and what pet would be most suitable for their lifestyle. Yet, adoptions frequently fail as a result of unrealistic owner expectations about the role a cat will play in the family and of its temperament [64
]. According to Podberscek [67
] (p. 368), “Sometimes simple education about why an animal behaves in a certain way is enough to make the animal more acceptable in the eyes of the owner.” Therefore, offering pre-adoption counselling at all times may benefit shelters, cats and adopters in a number of ways. Firstly, new and experienced adopters will benefit equally from being matched with the best possible cat candidate for adoption, which should translate into faster acclimation to new homes, less stress for owners and fewer returned animals. Secondly, whether or not an adoption fee is paid, pre-adoption counselling for both new and experienced adopters will provide shelter staff with opportunity to assess the expectations of people adopting cats.
4.5. Limitations of the Study
This paper reports a single case study, which may not be representative of other shelters in other jurisdictions. However, it has value in adding data to an important question where there are few other studies, which also share the limitation of being geographically restricted [21
]. Furthermore, this study adds the unique element of assessing legislative compliance to complement existing work on attachment levels and caring practices of owners [21
], or outcomes for adopted cats [22
]. While sample sizes for cats adopted were modest in our study (151), this is also true of existing studies (173 cats in [21
], and up to 248 adult cats in [22
]. The value comes from multiple studies contributing to different aspects of the outcomes of free adoptions, which all reach a similar conclusion that there were no serious negative outcomes for cats or participating shelters.