Hundreds of cats owe their lives to dogs in Salt Lake County, where an innovative adoption program is giving those furballs a better chance than ever at finding homes.
The county saved the lives of an unprecedented 1,600 cats last year, more than double the nearly 800 that typically avoid euthanasia. And those rescues couldn't have been done without a little help from the county's canines.
By putting a higher price tag on some dogs, the county's shelter has done away with its $65 adoption fee for adult cats and now offers those felines for free. Kittens still cost, but cats six months and older get a free ride to a new home.
Dogs, on the other hand, are sold on a sliding scale from no cost to $295. While the shelter used to sell those pets for a flat $95 fee, it now is using the extra money to subsidize its cat program.
"The dogs are literally saving the cats' lives," shelter manager April Harris says.
As for the dogs? Adoptions dipped in 2009. But it wasn't because of the cat program, Harris insists. It was because the shelter received fewer dogs than usual. Euthanizations dropped below 1,000 during the same period.
The cat program, started last June, has been so successful that Harris hopes to turn Salt Lake County Animal Services into a no-kill shelter within three years.
The numbers are headed in the right direction. But they also reflect the daunting task that lies ahead in controlling a cat population so large that only 35 percent of felines statewide ever leave a shelter alive.
Salt Lake County euthanized 2,433 cats last year. That's a considerable improvement from the past 10 years, when the shelter put to sleep an average of 3,268 cats a year. Harris hopes that trend continues.
"Euthanasia is not the answer," she says. "It's not even a good solution. It is a Band-Aid."
Now, as Harris walks through her shelter's adoption room, she finds her selection of adoptable cats refreshingly sparse. Only half the 75 cages are occupied. While some of those vacancies are linked to the time of year -- cats don't reproduce as quickly in the cold -- most of the cages are feline-free because of adoptions.
Harris already has counted almost 200 adoptions this year. She's aiming for 2,000.
While the goal is laudable, the Humane Society of Utah says it hasn't followed suit for financial and philosophical reasons.
Executive Director Gene Baierschmidt says his nonprofit cannot make free cat adoptions pencil out budget-wise. Even if it could, Baierschmidt says, he would be reluctant to give away pets for free.
"We want to save animals' lives, but we want to make sure there is some value placed on the animal," he says. "People may value the animal more if they pay a nominal fee."
With a free adoption, he said, "you can't even say they are a dime a dozen."
Instead, the Humane Society offers big discounts on its older felines. The cost of two grown cats that have been spayed/neutered and vaccinated is just $15. The price is so low that it doesn't cover the organization's cost, Baierschmidt says, but high enough that it instills some value in the pet.
Unfortunately, the nonprofit adopted out about 400 fewer cats in 2009 than it did during the previous year -- a slump that may be linked partly to Salt Lake County Animal Services beginning its free-cat program.
Such programs are spreading across the country. Although Salt Lake County instituted the first in Utah, similar initiatives have cropped up in places such as Milwaukee, Wis., Wichita, Kan., and Charleston, S.C.
"We can't say they are in all 50 states," says Emily Weiss, senior director of shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "but there is a trend toward these promotions."
While Weiss understands the Humane Society's reticence toward handing out cats without cost, she says her research has found nothing to indicate that free Fluffies are treated any differently than felines that come with a fee.
Weiss recently published a survey of 183 pet owners in Maine (88 who paid for their pets and 95 who didn't) that found both groups equally attached to their pets. In fact, the group that picked up their pets for free was more likely to say that the shelter valued the cats.
Weiss believes the program not only will lead to fewer euthanizations, but also encourage more prospective pet owners to get their cats spayed and neutered from a shelter instead of from the person next door.
The real impact of the program is found in the county shelter, where a silver tabby named Alma and a white-pawed tabby named Simpkin have been awaiting a home since November.
In a cat playroom across from her office, Harris strokes Simpkin, who had been left in the shelter's drop box more than three months ago. He wouldn't have lasted a month in the shelter's once-crowded cat room under the old policy.
"Now, because so many cats move, we can keep cats like Simpkin until they get adopted," she says. "He's not in any danger."
Dogs vs. cats » Dogs stand a better chance than cats of adoption in Utah. About 78 percent of dogs came out of shelters alive last year, compared with 35 percent of cats.
Euthanasia » is being used less frequently today than a decade ago. Shelters were euthanizing about 22 cats and dogs for every 1,000 Utahns in 1999. That number has dropped to 13 per 1,000 people.
Source: No More Homeless Pets in Utah