The greatest change between the two years studied was a marked increase in the percentage of admissions in which the cat was rehomed, which almost doubled (34% to 74% of intake), and a subsequent reduction in percentage euthanized, from 58% to 15%, and as a consequence, an increase in live release percentages from 39% to 81%.
The number and percentage of admissions in which the cat was rehomed improved substantially for all age groups, and for kittens and cats from 4 weeks to 2 years of age, 91% were rehomed in 2016. The percentage rehomed in 2016 was lowest for cats 7 years of age and older (44%) and for young pre-weaned kittens less than four weeks (66%), although those percentages rehomed doubled from 2011 to 2016. Unweaned kittens less than 4 weeks of age or under 500gms body weight are challenging to manage in a shelter setting because of both their underdeveloped immune systems and the resources required to manage them, such as feeding every 2 to 4 h and manual stimulation of defecation and urination [51
]. However, kitten nurseries devoted to caring for these at risk kittens are achieving 87% of kittens surviving and being rehomed in USA [8
]. Between 2011 and 2016, RSPCA Queensland expanded their foster care system to manage most of these kittens, together with a small kitten nursery at the headquarters shelter. Appropriate age-specific kitten nursing protocols were implemented to increase survival probabilities of very young kittens.
Off-site adoptions and adoption events were major contributors to the increased rehoming percentage; these accounted for only 5% of rehomings in 2011, but 22% of rehomings in 2016. This was largely due to the expanded retail partnerships with Petbarn from one to 39 stores in 2016, accounting for an increase from 86 to 1503 adoptions. Another smaller contributor to the increased rehoming percentage in 2016 was two one-day adoption events that rehomed 387 cats; neither were held in 2011. In addition to the number of cats rehomed at the adoption events, the associated marketing likely increased awareness, which might have contributed to increased numbers of in-shelter adoptions. More than half the increase in adoptions occurred in-shelter and was facilitated by a greatly expanded advertising budget from $
0 in 2011 to $
40,000 in 2016. Innovative advertisements were associated with higher than normal adoptions. For example, the “Geek Chic” campaign was a digital campaign that aimed to target on-line gamers (people who spend time on the Internet playing games, usually in a virtual community). It generated 2367 ‘clicks’ on the RSPCA Queensland’s cat adoption web pages by both gamers (35%) and non-gamers and RSPCA page connection audiences who clicked on the page (65%) [52
]. The campaign cost $
3,567 and resulted in the adoption of 611 cats. Given that every extra week in shelter care is reported to cost approximately $
], reducing length of stay by 2 weeks would result in a saving of $
470,470 for 611 cats, so this campaign was extremely cost effective. Earlier adoption also results in better welfare for the cats; less time in shelter means less stress and less risk of contracting a contagious disease.
The number of cats fostered nearly doubled from 2747 in 2011 to 4732 cats in 2016, and in 2016, 78% of cats that were fostered were rehomed within 90 days. In 2011, if a cat failed the initial behavioral assessment by displaying avoidance and/or low social behaviors, it was often deemed inappropriate for rehoming, and so was euthanized. In contrast, in 2016, many more such cats were fostered and given the opportunity to develop or demonstrate social behaviors, and were subsequently rehomed [56
]. Fostering is a highly effective method for preparing cats for rehoming, and while in foster care, health problems can also be treated [17
]. Foster care can provide greater environmental enrichment, with consequent beneficial effects on social behavior and health [59
]. Utilization of temporary foster care markedly improved odds of live release for dogs, and resulted in a 70% reduction in the prevalence of major or minor health or behavior concerns compared to the prevalence in the same dogs before they were fostered [61
]. Foster care is particularly valuable for improving the outcomes of older cats, which typically have longer length of stay in shelters, and as in our study, have higher euthanasia rates [62
]. Foster carers, through their social networks, can also increase the number of potential adopters available. In both years of our study, about half of the cats fostered were placed in foster care by day 3 of admission to the shelter. RSPCA Queensland has been very successful in recruiting foster carers (usually volunteers), and resources directed at increasing foster care placement will subsequently further increase the number of cats rehomed. However, for cat fostering to be successful, foster carers require training and advice, resources to care for cats, and behavioral support, such as RSPCA Queensland’s foster family network [63
], which is an exemplar that could be adopted by other shelters and welfare groups. Although not classed as being in foster care, some timid cats and those not coping well within the shelter environment were brought into staff offices to provide a more home-like environment and greater human interaction.
There has been a continuing reduction in euthanasia across RSPCA shelters [3
], and this was reflected in significantly decreased numbers and percentages of cats euthanized from 7656 and 58% to 1826 and 15% from 2011 to 2016. In 2011, decisions to euthanize cats occurred sooner following admission (e.g., 84% of the 7656 admissions where the cat was euthanized occurred within 8 days of admission compared with 25 days for 84% of the 1826 admissions euthanized in 2016). Factors leading to the decision to euthanize included age, poor social behaviors, being classified as feral, medical reasons, and space limitations. The percentages of euthanasias for these reasons decreased from 2011 to 2016, with no cats euthanized for space limitations in 2016. The decrease in percentages and numbers euthanized was achieved by increasing capacity through an expanded foster network, by increasing distribution for rehoming through partnerships with pet shops, and by moving cats and kittens between shelters to sites of higher demand. For example, kittens continue to be born in the tropical part of the state in winter when none are being born in the southern areas and are moved south to satisfy continued demand.
One aspect of assessing a cat’s suitability for rehoming was based on the behavior the cat displayed, assessed first by the veterinarians at admission (e.g., ‘feral’) and later whilst in the shelter environment by the behavioral assessment team (e.g., ‘timid’). Differentiating between behaviors displayed by cats that are situation-based (e.g., induced by the shelter environment or due to an underlying medical condition such as hyperthyroidism) and those that are specific to the cat is a considerable challenge, and there is a great overlap between behavioral traits. The protocols for these assessments have evolved over time, such that in 2016 more time was provided for cats to exhibit social behaviors, and a greater number of poorly socialized cats were able to be moved to foster care for socialization. As a consequence, the number of cats euthanized for behavioral reasons decreased greatly. For example, cats euthanized for behavioral (non-feral) reasons decreased from 1593 to just 261 in 2016. The most discernible decrease occurred in the number of cats that were euthanized because they were classified as feral from 1178 cats in 2011 to 132 cats in 2016 (from 8.9% to 1.1% of admissions resolved by day 90). The decision to euthanize feral cats in 2011 usually occurred within 24 h of admission, but in 2016, up to 72 h was allocated for assessment. Timid and undersocialized cats were managed by the behavior team using behavioral modification protocols, and either placed in staff offices or, where appropriate, fostered to a home where the behavior modification could be continued. The criteria for deciding whether a cat is feral are complex and controversial [65
]. Over the study period, RSPCA Queensland based its decision on behavior over time and absence of identification. It is an important decision to make because under Queensland legislation, cats labelled as ‘feral’ are required to be humanely destroyed and cannot be rehomed or released (Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014
and previously the Queensland Land Protection (Pest and Stock Route Management) Act 2002
]. Pet cats may respond with more ‘feral’ behaviors than stray cats when stressed in a shelter environment, and a minimum of 3 days is recommended before suitability for adoption is assessed [67
]. However, although sufficient time must be allowed for appropriate assessment of feral status, it is extremely stressful for a truly feral cat to be kept confined in a shelter for any length of time. Strategies to reduce intake of strays will decrease numbers of feral and poorly socialized cats euthanized for behavior.
There was a marked decrease in the number of cats euthanized because they were too young. In 2011, 9.5% of the euthanized cats were kittens aged less than six weeks or under 500 g, and 5.1% were unweaned kittens. This improved greatly in 2016 to 0.4% (from 723 to 7) for kittens less than 6 weeks old or under 500g, and to 0.8% (from 393 to 15) for unweaned kittens. These decreases were the result of markedly increased availability of appropriate foster care for very young kittens, and enhanced community liaison that encouraged owners to delay surrendering kittens until they reached adoption age.
In 2016, most euthanasias were for medical reasons (68.5%), with euthanasia on humane grounds the most common reason within those (971 cats, 34.3%). The next most important medical reason for euthanasia in 2016 was because the cat had Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) (17.3% of euthanized cats, 316 cats), which was substantially higher than in 2011 (87 cats or 1.1% of euthanized cats). The seroprevalence of FIV is estimated in Australian cats between 6–15% in Perth, Western Australia [70
], 6.5% to 7.5% in Sydney, New South Wales [71
], and 3.6% in USA and Canada [72
]. Australian studies have shown that risk factors for FIV infection include age greater than three years, entire male cats, location (e.g., inner city area have a higher seroprevalence), and ‘sick’ cats [70
]. FIV prevalence is considered to be higher in Australia due to a larger population of cats with access outside the home [74
]. However, it is unlikely that the increase in percentage of euthanasia because the cat had FIV was due to an increase in the prevalence of FIV in admitted cats from 2011 to 2016. Instead, cats in 2011 were more likely to be euthanized for other reasons before they were tested for FIV. In RSPCA Queensland, the Witness FeLV/FIV test was used, which has a sensitivity of 100% and specificity of 98%, and can distinguish between infected, FIV-positive, and vaccinated cats [73
]. Postive tests were confirmed with polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and positive cats were usually euthanized. However, they were, in theory, available for rehoming to single cat homes with a commitment to provide specialized veterinary care when appropriate. The American Association of Feline Practitioners provides guidelines that suggest it is possible to rehome FIV-positive cats and minimize infection risk to naïve cats by implementing cat curfews and fenced outdoor shelters, keeping cats exclusively indoors, or even treating them with antiviral or immunomodulating drugs [74
]. Revised adoption strategies for FIV-infected shelter cats are required if overall euthanasia percentages in shelters are to further decrease.
In 2011, 412 cats were admitted with a euthanasia request, and by implementing diversion programs, this number nearly halved in 2016 to 226 cats, and of those, owners of 111 cats provided consent to rehome where appropriate and possible. All cats admitted with a euthanasia request in 2011 were euthanized, but in 2016, 67% of the euthanasia requests with consent to rehome were rehomed, indicating that the number of cats euthanized because of euthanasia requests can be significantly reduced through diversion programs, and by providing owners with an option to consent to rehome. The adoption rate for cats whose owners gave consent to rehome was very similar to the 71% of dogs that were adopted following discussion during intake with owners surrendering dogs for euthanasia [39
]. It was not determined whether owners were unaware of the options available to them, or if they misjudged the seriousness of any concerns.
In summary, the greatest future improvements in euthanasia are likely to come from decreasing intake through desexing programs, given the high proportion of intake that are strays. After implementation of a community cat desexing program in Albuquerque, USA, numbers euthanized decreased by 87% over four years, and similar improvements have been reported from other sites [42
]. Numbers of cats in categories representing more than 10% of euthanized cats, such as poorly socialized or feral, and FIV positive cats would be expected to decrease with these programs.