Stray and feral cats and the volunteer groups that try to help them are in the eye of a perfect storm, caught in the vortex of too few veterinarians and too little staff, COVID challenges and changes in the ways public shelters operate.
“This day has been coming for a while,” said Dr. Kate Hurley, program director at UC Davis’ Koret Shelter Medicine Program, during a Zoom conference with Contra Costa County Animal Services and groups that perform cat rescues. “The pandemic has brought it to a head.”
At the crux of the storm is a lack of veterinarians and trained staff to perform necessary spay/neuter surgeries on so-called community cats. Groups that once offered free or low-cost operations closed their doors during the pandemic or drastically cut back on the number of procedures they can safely perform.
This isn’t just a localized problem, either, although each area has its unique challenges. Every rescue group in the Bay Area that does TNR — trap, neuter, return — is having problems finding appointments to have the cats neutered.
Contra Costa Animal Services, for example, performs free spay-neuter for stray cats, is struggling to keep up with demand. And animal rescue groups, which trap scores of cats weekly, are angry that they are repeatedly turned away.
Beth Ward, Contra Costa Animal Services director, said although it might not seem like it to some trappers, the county has done more surgeries in 2021 than it did in pre-pandemic times. In 2018, it performed 400 TNR surgeries; this year, they’ve done 1,080.
The problem, she says, is that there is a “spay-neuter desert” right now. Private rescue groups that operate clinics should be stepping up to help more, but they face the same veterinary staffing challenges.
“We want to partner with your organizations,” Ward told TNR groups during the Zoom call. “We’re challenged with our resources.”
Lisa Kirk, who has done TNR for decades for Sacramento and Contra Costa County rescue groups, is frustrated to the point of giving up. She believes public shelters that limit the number of spay and neuter surgeries they perform for rescue groups are placing an undue burden on the nonprofits, forcing them to seek and pay for surgeries elsewhere.
“I am no longer trapping because I have no vet services, so the population (of feral cats) out there is just expanding,” Kirk says.
“We’ve tried to prioritize TNR,” says Dr. Katy Mills, the Contra Costa shelter vet, “but it’s difficult to predict what will be coming into the shelter.”
The staffing problem is widespread. Some 87 percent of U.S. shelters are understaffed, according to an August survey by the Best Friends Animal Society. The shelter’s medical staff is down 40 percent from its approved staffing level, Mills says, and their obligation is to the pets already in the shelter, who must be spayed and neutered before they can be adopted out, according to California law.
Public shelters aren’t the only ones grappling with staffing issues. Community Concern 4 Cats, one of Contra Costa’s more established rescues that has its own spay-neuter program, fell behind during the pandemic when it lost one of its vets and had to stop offering services to other groups.
“We did lose a vet,” organization leader Gemma Osendorf says, “but we have recovered. We’re piecemealing it right now, but … hopefully we’ll be able to feel solid again. We persevere.”
Palo Alto Humane Society runs its own spay/neuter support program for qualifying low-income pet owners, and feral cats and the pets it takes in for adoption.
“We have been facing the same issue of reduced access to low-cost spay/neuter services and clinics,” PAHS executive director Carole Hyde says. “COVID exacerbated a larger situation with a shortage of personnel in the veterinary service field. It’s a real crisis.”
Ruby Waderich, who heads the all-volunteer Solano County Friends of Animals, says the Napa County clinic that handles the rescue’s spay-neuter surgeries is booked so far in advance — three to four months — volunteers have been driving cats to Sacramento County when they can find openings. The delays are overwhelming the organization’s foster families, who take in the cats until they can be adopted.
Meanwhile, Contra Costa Animal Services has adopted a new policy that mirrors what shelters are doing across the country: taking in only sick, injured or at-risk cats. There’s no need to bring in community cats that are doing well on their own, UC Davis’ Hurley says. The cats typically are not adoptable and end up being euthanized. Some actually might be someone’s pet that was allowed to wander. And there is evidence, Hurley says, that feral cats actually breed more when their colonies are culled.
But TNR groups worry that without adequate neutering efforts, the feral cat population, estimated at 70 million across the U.S., will continue to grow.
Catherine Burnham, who has done foster care for Community Concern 4 Cats for about 10 years and does TNR trapping, says she’s never seen it this bad before. “Kitten season” has become a year-round phenomenon.
When COVID hit, the county shelter began limiting spay-neuter services for TNR groups, taking eight cats a day, capped at two per trapper. As staffing problems rose, some surgeries were limited or cancelled.
“For four days in a row,” Burnham says, “I stood in line starting at 5:30 a.m., and I got turned away every time. We have to work with the county — we have no other options — but it’s gotten ridiculous.”
The overarching problem remains, but at least one thing has improved: Contra Costa County just announced it is moving away from its first come, first served policy and returning to appointments — four a day, Tuesday through Friday — and has established a task force to work on problems together.