This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 edition of our Paw Prints Newsletter

When animal shelters try to improve their live release rates, finding homes for cats is often the biggest problem they face. In recent years, more and more shelters have been turning to a program called “Return to Field” (RTF) to get cats out of shelters alive.

RTF is sometimes confused with trap-neuter-return (TNR) but it is a very different concept. TNR is for feral cats, and typically involves feral cat caregivers catching cats, having them sterilized, and returning them to their colonies. RTF, by contrast, is a program aimed at cats picked up by animal control as strays or brought to the county shelter by individuals. RTF can apply to any cat, feral or tame. It is an evolving concept and is not implemented in exactly the same way by every shelter, but the basic idea is to give the cat a healthy check and vaccinations and then sterilize it. If it is healthy and appears to be doing well, it is returned to where it was found.

Return to Field

RTF was developed to help cats get back home from the shelter, whether their home is a colony or a neighborhood or a specific house. It recognizes the fact that “home ” for a cat can be a very different thing than a home for a dog. Many owned cats spend part of their time outdoors and tend to roam. They may even have multiple houses that they visit. They may disappear for days at a time. They have people who love them and take care of them, but it is a more casual arrangement than a home for a dog.

If such a cat is picked up by animal control or by a neighbor and taken to the shelter, the owner may not think to look for the cat for several days, until after the hold period has expired. Studies have shown that such cats are far more likely to get back home if they are left where they are than if they are taken to the shelter. The number of cats reclaimed by their owners from shelters is tiny – typically in single digits. Even a shelter that does its best to return cats to owners may have a success rate of only one cat out of fifty.

One option for cats would be for animal control to never pick up a healthy cat. The problem with this approach is that it allows unsterilized cats who are roaming to continue to breed. RTF provides the best of both worlds. It gives cats their best chance to return to their homes, and it also makes sure that the cats are healthy, have their vaccinations, and will not be producing kittens.

Return to Field

What about cats who are truly lost from their homes and cannot find their way back? Or who are injured or sick? Cats who come to the shelter in poor condition are not candidates for RTF, but RTF can still benefit them indirectly. With healthy cats being returned to their home territories, the shelter will have more time and resources to devote to rehabilitating cats who need the help. Those cats can be adopted out to new homes when they are healthy.

Programs like this are just two of the many ways animal shelters are working to reduce euthanasia rates, but this type of program takes a lot of patience – and acceptance on the part of the public.

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