Counting Cats To Enhance Programs And Bridge Divides
Washington, DC is known for counting congressional majorities, Supreme Court votes, and budget dollars. But a new initiative brings the U.S. capital to the forefront of counting cats.
Why Count Cats?
The DC Cat Count’s purpose was to bring data to the often contentious debate about outdoor cat management. People advocating for companion animals may be at odds with others focused on wildlife conservation about appropriate policy and practices, but facts support shared knowledge that can lead to identifying win-win solutions.
The project’s objectives were to:
- Quantify populations of cats by: Whether they had guardians; Amount of time spent outdoors; Shelter animals
- Understand the “cat population network” by investigating how felines move among these segments
- Identify where and how interventions can best help cats and wildlife
- Define criteria to measure the effectiveness of these interventions
- Use the best scientific methods and document processes to assist other communities in implementing cat counts
How Did The Project Originate?
In 2017, DC sheltering organization Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) began a local cat counting project. The work focused on developing and field testing a process to count animals along key geographic routes in order to estimate the number of free-roaming cats. The intent was to refine an approach that animal welfare organizations could use to monitor the outcomes of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs.
At the same time Dr. Tyler Flockhart, a population biologist, and Dr. John Boone, a wildlife ecologist and conservsation biologist, met with PetSmart Charities, to discuss a total cat count project in Sarasota, Florida. The project would estimate all cats, not just free-roaming animals as in the DC project. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute along with other independent researchers helped design the Sarasota proposal, drawing on expertise in understanding and documenting wildlife populations.
PetSmart Charities wanted to support both ideas. Rather than pursue two separate initiatives, the DC Cat Count combined the projects. Using total cat count population estimates to validate the counting methodology could yield more useful results and tools to understand cat populations in urban areas.
Working in a single location would maximize efficiency and impact. DC offered several advantages for this first venture:
- The HSUS/HRA data collection was already underway.
- HRA had all shelter records for DC.
- HSUS, HRA, the Smithsonian and Dr. Flockhart were all based in or near the DC area.
The group came together because of a shared interest in creating scientifically valid methods for estimating and monitoring cat populations. Members wanted to establish a data-based common ground for constructive policy discussions.
Who Was Involved?
DC’s Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) is an animal protection leader created from mergers of Washington Humane Society, Washington Animal Rescue League and St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center (New Jersey). HRA teamed with the ASPCA, HSUS, PetSmart Charities and the Smithsonian. In addition to Drs. Flockhart and Boone, Ashley Gramza and Dr. Julia Kilgour participated as key independent researchers.
While coalitions among humane groups are not unusual, DC Cat Count brought together professionals from a wider sphere, with a range of viewpoints on outdoor cat policy and management. The project’s website notes:
Those involved in the development of the DC Cat Count deliberately engaged with a diverse range of individuals and organizations to form a coalition that collectively represented all major perspectives that characterize the outdoor cat and wildlife debate. The DC Cat Count project coalition was a culmination of several years of outreach, and many hours of meeting[s] and discussion were required to finalize project parameters and partner roles The coalition members who made up the DC Cat Count’s Governance Committee consisted of experts from both the animal welfare and wildlife ecology realms, in addition to representatives from funding agencies.
How Did They Do It?
Resident Survey. The project gathered 2,600 DC resident responses to an online questionnaire. The census-style survey asked how many cats the person fed at least once per week. These cats could have been community cats the respondent cared for or what we traditionally think of as “owned” cats. Both types of cats were defined as having guardians. The survey also asked about the cat’s outdoor access and acquisition source (shelter, stray, etc.).
The research captured attitudes in addition to population data. It explored how residents viewed different types of cats based on where the cats were located and their relationship with people. Respondents labeled cats in a series of photographs and indicated how they thought those cats should be managed.
Visual Counts. Perhaps the most novel aspect of the project was counting outdoor cats by applying techniques used to study wildlife populations, such as tigers. This work combined three methodologies:
- Camera survey. The Smithsonian brought unique expertise in the use of trail cameras (camera traps) to study domestic cats. The project team set up cameras at more than 1,500 sites across DC’s 68 square miles. Each motion-triggered camera operated for 15 days, and the effort produced nearly 6 million photos! Field technicians and volunteers reviewed and labeled every photo to identify which animals were present.
In addition to cats, species caught on camera included dogs, squirrels, rats, deer, foxes and even one bobcat, the first to be spotted in DC in recent memory. HRA has already worked with experts outside the coalition to analyze some of the wildlife data and compare it to the cat data. That analysis has created tools to help assess the risk to cats from rabies vector species and the risk from cats to potential native prey species. The data can also support better understanding of urban wildlife.
Publications and information about these results will be available broadly in the future. In addition, all of the underlying data will become public. Both the cat and wildlife data will provide support for myriad projects by nonprofits and independent researchers.
- Transect Counts. Transect counts involved live, in-person counting along significant paths, alleys, roads and other predetermined routes. DC Cat Count Field Technicians walked 88 unique routes, equaling more than 300 miles walked, while recording each cat they observed. They reported the cat’s location, coat color and age (kitten/adult/unknown) as well as whether the cat had an ear-tip indicating it had been altered.
The ASPCA and HSUS had used transect counts in the past, but combining them with the camera traps was new and offered an opportunity to refine both techniques. Dr. Flockhart, Dr. Boone and the Smithsonian brought new expertise to designing the process.
- Citizen Science. The team conducted outreach to engage DC residents in the process. Outreach included social media, community meetings and volunteer groups. As a result, many members of the public contributed to the success of the project. Examples included:
- Enhancing the research by sharing sightings of outdoor cats through the iNaturalist application
- Identifying camera trap hosts willing to have a camera placed on their property
- Becoming and/or recruiting volunteers to help with transect counts and photo processing
Shelter Data Analysis. The project team reviewed data for nearly 15,000 cats that entered the Humane Rescue Alliance from 2016 and 2020. They mapped intakes and adoptions across DC to see how cats flow through the community, so they can target community programs where they are most needed. New Geographic Information Service (GIS) technology provided deeper insights than what was available in the past from simpler mapping software. The researchers were able to take four years of data and create models to identify regions where cats were consistently coming from (intake) in DC as well as where they were going (adoptions).
The team also developed a predictive model to see how intake factors such as date and location along with cat characteristics such as age, color, and condition affected adoption. The purpose was to create a general framework for future investigation, not prescribe how other shelters do/should operate.
What Did They Learn?
The study produced many important and exciting insights.
The feline population of DC is estimated to be 200,000 animals.
- Just over half live indoors full time.
- More than a third live outdoors some of the time, but not all the time.
- Slightly more than one in 10 live exclusively outdoors.
- Preliminary estimates suggest that only 1.5% of all cats, about 3,000 individuals, are truly feral or stray. However, distinguishing these cats from those who have guardians feeding them is a challenging task that the team continues to refine.
- Cat guardianship was highest for residents in their 40s.
- The number of cats per household was higher in areas with less dense housing and higher median incomes.
- Outdoor cats were more common in densely populated sections, rather than in more open spaces, such as DC’s Rock Creek Park (a national park). If cats are more concentrated away from wild areas, it’s possible that the impact of cats on wildlife is more nuanced than some people think.
The results of the internal data analysis were as complex as sheltering itself. There are many interconnected factors that determine whether a cat will be adopted in Washington, DC, including characteristics outside of the shelter. No single dimension such as length of stay is enough to understand the dynamics of saving lives.
How Will The Project Results Help Cats & Birds?
The data will enable HRA to make better decisions on how to allocate resources. For example, the detailed information on where cats are located enables more effective targeting of investments and programs to different parts of DC.
The information on how residents view cats based on their location and interaction with people will enable HRA to achieve greater public engagement and support when implementing strategies and programs to help cats. For example, in neighborhoods where people are unsure of who should be caring for an outdoor cat, HRA could target a messaging campaign to raise awareness of the organization’s community cat and field services.
The statistics also provide a baseline to measure improvement over time. Examples could include TNR programs and campaigns to persuade people to keep their cats indoors.
Additional findings will be forthcoming, initially through publication in scientific journals. Articles are listed and will be updated here.
The initiative not only produced valuable data but also built new relationships. A 2018 article by DC’s public radio station discussed how the collaboration broke down traditional walls. “Bill McShea, with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute — one of the lead researchers working on the cat count — says working together on the project is helping [people on] both sides [of the outdoor cat issue] actually trust each other: It’s like a lot of things on the internet. You’re arguing back and forth with people you don’t know. In this case we’ve met, we’ve worked toward this thing slowly, and we all trust each other.’”
Participants look forward to replicating these successes elsewhere. Both ASPCA and HSUS intend to apply the Cat Counting Toolkit in locations around the United States. Additionally, the DC Cat Count team has already collaborated with multiple implementation partners around the country to begin applying this work.
What Did It Take?
The initiative launched in 2018 and took three years. The investment was $1.5 million. In addition to HRA, the ASPCA, HSUS and PetSmart Charities, funders included Maddie’s Fund, Cat Depot, EveryCat Health Foundation and Beatrice Von Gontard.
The good news is that your community doesn’t need to undertake such an extensive effort to get important results. A big part of the project was developing, testing and refining tools that are now available to you in the Cat Counting Toolkit. You can get the benefits of data-driven decision-making at much lower cost and with much less additional workload.
Cat counting can support many, probably most projects, at a relatively low level of intensity and effort, especially compared to DC Cat Count. Of course, greater intensity can (within limits) lead to more insights, but it’s incorrect to assume that cat counting needs to be a particularly large undertaking to generate useful and actionable data. — John Boone
How Can You Conduct A Cat Count In Your Area?
Is a cat count right for your community? Find out more about what’s involved by reviewing the extensive toolkit. Topics include setting goals, building coalitions, conducting research and analysis, considering impacts on animals and people and more. If you prefer a higher-level overview, you can view the project’s initial results presentation here or watch a one-hour discussion here.
If after reviewing the toolkit you have additional questions on how to get started, please contact [email protected]
Data Saves Lives
In the last two decades, better data has saved millions of companion animals. Maddie’s Fund brought rigorous measurement to shelter management, working with numerous communities to improve live outcomes. The ASPCA also partnered with local shelter and rescue groups to implement better data tracking and data-based decision-making. Its research showing that guardians were attached to their adopted shelter animals even when there was no adoption fee paved the way for fee-waived adoptions that have emptied shelters on event days and increased the live release rate overall. HSUS conducted extensive research to understand drivers for spay/neuter in Louisiana and Mississippi, then worked with national and local groups to increase clinic capacity and public outreach. PetSmart Charities supports the integration of national datasets and novel research to help identify trends and highlight major gaps in accessible veterinary care and diversity and equity in animal welfare.
The DC Cat Count project is an exciting addition to these efforts. The new data will enable better resource allocation and enhance program effectiveness. Better relationships between companion animal and wildlife advocates can lead to new ideas to help cats and birds. As more communities implement their own counts by using the toolkit and adapting their approaches, results will multiply.
By providing organizations with the tools they need to count cats, we can help them realize the potential of data to maximize their lifesaving results, increase their efficiency, measure their progress and understand the cat populations they seek to manage — Lisa LaFontaine, President and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance.
Thanks to Sam Decker, Project Manager, Cat Count, Humane Rescue Alliance for extensive contributions to this article.