Are cats labeled as feral by animal shelters being illegally killed?

Are feral cats being illegally killed at shelters
Feral cat I photographed at work. Photo by Elisa Black-Taylor
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

There is currently a lot of debate among animal activists about the rights of a shelter or Humane Society to kill feral cats. While searching for a holding period law for the state of Florida, I came across some information I’d like to share with the readers. Although written in Michigan, it may pertain to other states. This does not apply to cats listed as “owner surrender,” and the shelter or HS should ask whether the cats being turned in are personal pets or were trapped in their yard.

Each reader is encouraged to do their own investigation as to whether their animal care facility is breaking the law by killing cats labeled as feral. The information comes from here and reads.

F. Special situations in which a shelter does not have to hold the animal for a minimum number of days

“There are narrow exceptions in most state statutes that allow shelters to euthanize animals before the minimum holding period has expired. If an animal is extremely sick, believed to be experiencing extreme pain and suffering, or has a contagious disease, the shelter can kill the animal. Such determination of the animal’s condition needs to be made by a veterinarian or the shelter supervisor. If the shelter can determine who the owner of the animal is, it must make efforts to contact the owner by calling him before destroying the animal. Generally, in cases in which the owner is known, the shelter must wait twenty-four hours after obtaining possession of the animal before destroying it; during this time, the shelter must repeatedly call the owner. Such exceptions serve to protect both the specific animal and the animal population in general; allowing a contagious animal into a shelter would likely result in all of the animals becoming sick and therefore unadoptable.”

If I’m reading this correctly, there are only three exceptions to an animal care facility being able to kill a cat labeled as feral.

  1. If the animal is in extreme pain and suffering
  2. If the animal is extremely sick and suffering
  3. If the animal has a contagious disease

There are a few drawbacks, and shelters are usually able to get away with the killing by saying a cat is extremely sick. Should an upper respiratory infection (or canine infectious respiratory disease in dogs, called CIRDS) be a license to kill? They’re both infectious diseases, but if your pet came down with an easily treatable illness such as these at home, you would get them treatment. Killing wouldn’t even cross your mind.

Next there’s the issue on what determines a feral cat. Is it behavior displayed by a cat out of fear after being caged, put into a building with barking dogs, then manhandled to get a health evaluation? It would be interesting to learn how many cats are killed with the “feral” label who are in reality someone’s lost pet. I know the local high-kill shelter in South Carolina encourages people with lost cats to do a walk-through of the feral rooms-just in case. Many, many times cat owners have found their cats in this area.

Every state has a time period in which an animal must be held. Usually it ranges between three and five days. This means a cat labeled as feral, who isn’t critically ill, has to be allowed the full time period in which someone can come and claim the cat. During this time the facility is supposed to make every effort to find the owner, which usually means a photograph on a social media website.

I’ve sat in the waiting area of the Greenville shelter and watched older men come in with a cage full of cats, grinning ear to ear like a possum, and bragging about their catch of the day. I wonder how many of these cats are strays, but are labeled feral? To give credit, many shelters do have a farm barn program, where they offer spayed/neutered cats to farms in the area, with the suggestion the cat be contained for a few weeks to get used to new surroundings.

These “stray catchers” are as big a problem as any adding to the cat population, because many times they’re catching the neighbors cat.

Now back to the feral topic and the problem with shelters killing these cats. Many cats are being killed, often within 24 hours after arrival. All it takes is a hiss from the cage or an angry swipe of the paw to have a death sentence pronounced. I don’t know how to stop this, other than to make the public aware it IS happening. The shelters need to know they’re possibly breaking the law in their state, and are subject to a lawsuit if it can be proved a beloved cat was labeled in error and killed before the holding period had been met. If the cat isn’t sick or injured, it can’t legally be killed.

Please, if your cat goes missing, visit your shelter personally and ask for a walk through of all the rooms, including the sick room and feral room. Your comments on this topic are welcome.

Please search using the search box at the top of the site. You are bound to find what you are looking for.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

64 thoughts on “Are cats labeled as feral by animal shelters being illegally killed?”

  1. Why put a label on them. Maybe they are frightened. I had a “feral” eight and a half month old kitten. Who turned out to be a love bug with me. Whoever rescues them they can be trained to be loving kitties.

  2. I wonder whether shelters deliberately label scared and nervous cats “feral” as an excuse to euthanise them. It certainly saves them from having to invest any time or resources in those animals 🙁

    From comments I’ve read on other forums it seems that many U.S. cat owners are under some kind of misconception that stray or feral cats are somehow less worthy than the ones they keep as pets. I’m shocked at the number of indoor-only cat owners who seem to think that any cat seen outside is fair game to be shot or abused. Some of these people keep show cats and their snobbery about “no breed” cats is very blatant. Even more worrying is that one of them also brags about having been a long-term volunteer at a local shelter. It’s them I envisage when I think of shelter workers ticking the “destined for death” box on the intake forms without even giving the cat a second glance.

    I’m not saying that the UK is perfect, we have our fair share of animal abusers and haters, but I do worry about the attitude in general towards cats in the U.S. If it’s considered okay to declaw “beloved” pets, then I’m not surprised some idiots care even less about homeless cats.

  3. I recently saw a kitten listed on the Philly Urgents page. They list cats and dogs that don’t have much time left. This kitten would have been killed that night after closing if someone didn’t take her. Since I work with ferals, I went to get her, aiming to socialize and find her a home. She had a big sign across her cage that said, “Barn Cat Only.” I asked the shelter staff if she came in with a litter, worried that any other would be killed. She did come in with 2…one was already gone. When I met the other and saw how friendly she was, I knew they had made a mistake with the other.

    I brought them both home. It didn’t take long to realize that the feral cat was just a shy little girl, but one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever had the pleasure of handling! She just needed her sister to help her relax, because she was sick and has vision trouble in one eye. How sad that she was going to be killed.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I really enjoyed your comment. In fact I am going to turn it into a short article because I think it highlights a lot that is arguably wrong with the attitude of animal shelter management with respect to euthanasia of cats in their care.

      1. Both girls are kittens about 6 months old. I’m not sure what they meant by, “The other one is already gone.” They could have meant already adopted, or already killed. In this case, it might have been a blessing in disguise for this little girl. They told me that if she was adoptable, they would have removed her eye. My vet said her eye is fine, though damaged. She has an ulcer…which might actually clear up eventually. She got to keep her eye because she was feral and not worth treating.

  4. I would never take a feral cat to the Humane Society or any shelter unless it is a no-kill shelter. At least on the street they have a better chance of living one more day. I’ve posted a picture of my beautiful feral cat that I brought indoors 14 years ago when she was about 8 months old. She is still feral.

    1. Connie thanks for trying to upload your photo which I’d love to see. Unfortunately, it is too large a file. Below the comment box is link to how to reduce image file size online. It is simply. Once you have done it please upload the picture. Thanks.

  5. I am one who feeds the feral cats in my yard. They are not totally approachable, because they were born wild and have never felt human touch. They are skittish of certain noises, but I try to reassure them that they are safe from harm in the yard anyway. These are all God’s creatures, what gives any shelter the right to kill cats indiscriminately. My animals are well fed and watered. They stay outside by choice (besides not being allowed pets, that’s the only way around that). My husband and I love their antics when they get playful and they give us great joy. Mine are usually waiting for me, when I get up in the a.m. One meows to let me know she’s hungry. She’s the only vocal one out of all. We don’t touch because we don’t want to see them chased out of the yard permanently by the older cats….

  6. Here are 3 “ferals” that were killed recently at Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control who by the way claims to have a TNR program.

  7. Palm Beach County Florida is notorious for labeling cats as feral and/or behavior including domestic cats and 4-5 week old kittens.

  8. We should be collecting information on where the cats were found as a matter of course. If the cats are deemed feral, they should be spayed/neutered and given a rabies shot if they’re healthy, and returned to the location. Period. Let people bring ’em in to be killed…and turn it around to have an army of helpers for TNR.

    I just adopted a cat deemed feral by the local kill shelter. She’s not feral…not one little bit. As soon as she’s over her cold, she can be placed for adoption. Too many cats fall through the cracks with the feral excuse…so change things. These shelters are funded by US. It is up to us to make a change.

  9. Karen Lussier Tarr

    i have a “feral Colony” that is part of the TNR program. Citizens for Animal Protection came to my house to help me trap, spay/neuter, vaccinate and return to my care within 48 hours. I have sent the descriptions and copy of their papers to the city. So we are legal, have explained to my neighbors that I care for these cats.

    Two have been hit, I think by cars, and my neighbors have come to tell me so we can have the cat cremated. I’ve had the colony for four years and others have joined with their children.

    I trap them and do the routine and they come home! I have made friends with some of them and they do not run far, maybe a foot or two.

    Spending more time with the cats since they tend to stay close to my house. I feel like I have saved their lives by not bringing them to a shelter.

    Makes me happy to see them so comfortable in our yard. Cry everyday for those that do not get this chance! We provide straw and plastic boxes for protection from the rain and cold, which we do not have much here.

    The cats are so used to us when they want more food at different times of the day or night, they come to our bedroom door with their paws on the class and tap with their paws, so sweet!

    I’m proud to be able to do this for these innocent beings that are soooo misunderstood !! So unfair to the felines!! Wish I could do more!! I am retired so I am here everyday to enjoy the cats!! Or should I say the cats are here everyday to take care of me?!

    1. Hi Karen. All cat and animal lovers would be proud of you too for the great work you do. You’re doing the decent thing unlike a lot of other people. I hope there is a gradual awaking in the USA to the fact that we need to treat strays and ferals humanely and decently. We owe it to them as we are ultimately responsible for their existence.

    2. I too have a feral colony. I have been taking care of the cats in my neighborhood for fourteen years. At the present time I have five adult cats and one four month old kitten. When I first started feeding the cats there were five abandoned kittens, when one of the females became pregnant when she was approximately eight months old I tricked her into my house. Two weeks later she had her kittens and while she was in labor she allowed me to touch her for the first time. I found wonderful homes for her four kittens, had her spayed and she is still with me. But I’ve had to take pictures of her because no one has ever seen her. If someone comes to the house she hides until they leave, once their gone she spends her time in my lap and sleeps on my bed at night. I try my best to domesticate the ferals that I feed so that I can find homes for them but it is very hard. Eventually they have all let me handle them but it takes a long time to get them to trust me. If you are interested in no kill shelters please go to Facebook and look up “Coalition for No Kill Shelters”, they are doing a wonderful job of getting people concerned in demanding no kill in their towns.

  10. I strongly suspect Cats are mislabeled constantly in kill shelters. The person marking the little checkbox is in many ways responsible for the outcome. Depending on that person’s attitude toward Felines the Cat may be mistakenly or intentionally labeled to allow rapid kill.

    The single biggest problem is the attitude at the very top of the “shelter” system that these Cats are not worth saving. And until that attitude changes, wonderful innocent helpless Cats will continue to be Murdered across the country…

  11. Renny is feral. I was wandering around the cat rooms and fell in love and we had to get permission from shelter director because he’d escaped for 2 days and also bitten a few people. He hid inside the first 2 months. We’d see him slink along the walls to go eat or potty. He’s still wild if he thinks you want to do something like a flea treatment. But he’s my bed buddy. I got a $6 comforter at Goodwill today and he’s quite happy here on it.

    1. He really is so handsome.
      And, he got a present. Yeah! His very own (maybe) comforter.
      Goodwill is fabulous for caretakers. I find so many treasures there. All of my cat linens, towels, comforters, even toys come from there.

  12. What’s bad is can’t prove much of this. I’ve heard of feral kittens being left in a cage over the weekend and kill on Monday mornings at a shelter in my area. The shelters are getting away with too much people don’t know about. Shelter will say URI but with Palm Beach saying behavorial issues they’re setting themselves up for a lawsuit if a rich lawyers cat is killed.

  13. Thank you Elisa, I agreed with you with every senseful sentences you have written and I see how much effort you do for these cats. My facebook is the prove for your hard work in front of me and my broken heart. Thank you so much <3

  14. I’ve written so much these past years about kill shelters and, especially, their treatment of ferals that there’s nothing else to say.
    There are no good kill shelters.
    They are disgusting, devious, and deadly.

  15. The Harnett County (NC) shelter has killed over 700 cats since the first of 2014. None of these cats had been offered for adoption so the assumption is that they were ill, injured … or feral. “Feral” as noted above frequently is fear. The shelter office staff (not the ACOs) try to work with the cats to determine if they actually are feral but they don’t have the time to work with them all. The shelter is so small that animals that cannot be offered for adoption cannot be held for more than a couple of days.

  16. great way to raise $$. people just like to kill, doesnt seem to matter what reason. they will kill first and make up the reason later

  17. Thanks for this Elisa. The problem is that the whole process including the rules is grey and rather vague and also open to abuse.

    You can’t differentiate between semi-feral and stray cats for instance and stray cats are very similar to cats let outdoors a lot or time-share cats.

    Then the law is easy to abuse. It is very hard to decide if a cat is in pain. If you want to decide it you can and put the cat down. QED.

    Many “pets” are killed this way I am certain.

    As for these “cat catchers”. I don’t like them. How common are they?

    1. Look at the photo I used. She doesn’t look feral but if not for a zoom lens I wouldn’t have gotten that shot. I can usually feed the cats without them running more than a few feet. She looks more like a stray but she belongs to no one.

        1. They’re fed 2 cups of food every 2 hours for 12 hours. Plus if we have any left over steamed veggies I take them in. The cats love asparagus. I bought an off brand that was too tough to chew and the cats fought over it.

  18. I could not agree more Elisa we just had two cats they labeled FERAL at Cabarrus Shelter. They were owner surrenders with babies that were very frightened and defensive of their babies. They were going to euthanize them with the feral today but the Black and white mom got pulled yesterday we got a picture of sleeping on the foster moms sofa she said she is a sweetheart! The other dilute torti they pulled her away from her babies and put her in a cage with feral cats the day she got there. I guess she was swatting everyone even the babies. Her babies went to rescue they are sweet as can be. Well mom is letting them pet her today too! These poor cats are taken from their homes stuck in a metal cage where it is dark most the time and they hear dogs barking well of coarse they are stressed and defensive!

      1. leanne (kays hill)

        a few years ago we were asked to take in a large number of cats and kittens that had been merely ‘used’ for breeding purposes and never handled until the kittens were passed on to be sold. the adults, male and female, were completely wild, although kept inside. they were ‘housebound ferals’ if you like. we collected 21 3wk old kittens along with their 4 mothers, we never did figure out which kittens belonged to which mother! also 4 approx. 6mth old kittens, 2 of which were heavily pregnant and 2 entire males. all these cats, even those tiny kittens, fought like tigers in the beginning. eventually, every one of them calmed down and became lovely, friendly cats. it took time and patience, and yes, we were scratched and bitten along the way but that comes hand in hand with the job. you cant possibly decide in a short space of time that a cat is too ‘savage’ to be handled. after all our group had been through they had every right to let us know they were frightened and unhappy. I wish people would just take more time and give these poor animals a chance. I know not every cat will become friendly, we have one here, georgie, who is the grumpiest cat in the world, but we wouldn’t dream of killing her for her grumpiness. we just warn people to leave her alone. she comes to us when she wants to. I cant imagine how a person could become so hardened that an animals life is cut short so easily, just because its temperament dosnt fit in with someones idea of perfection.

      2. Sealy was feral. He just had so much brain damage he cowered instead of fought. It’s a miracle the Greenville shelter didn’t kill him. And I spoke up for him on a Monday and told the shelter I’d get him on Friday. Greenville was good at holding cats. The biggest danger was them getting sick. Sealy’s never had a URI. Just his stomaitis gives him diarrhea at times and he has pills he has to take if it gets bad. They make him high because he’ll meow at us for hours like he has a lot to say. Normally he’s very quiet.

          1. I NEVER foresaw Sealy being a lap cat. Now he comes running as soon as I come home in the mornings I work. I think we have him a bit spoiled.

    1. Christina Anderson

      Any of us subjected to this kind of treatment would be highly stressed too. People need to learn to put themselves in the animal’s place. Unfortunately, most people have no clue as to how to relate to poor scared, threatened animals.

      1. Especial at some of the shelters that have no windows in the cats rooms, the lights are shut off in the cat rooms most the time. It is pitch dark for many hours at Cabarrus, the staff leaves at about 5pm and do not come back to 9am that is a long time to be in the dark. They can smell new cats and hear dogs barking but can’t see this is very stressful environment for cats especially moms with babies and cats that were surrendered from single kitty households!

        1. Christina Anderson

          How very sad. Makes me appreciate the shelter where I volunteer even more. Our cats all have windows, or access to outside light, or lights are left on and a radio is playing softly to keep them company. They are entirely away from the dogs, and even though they can hear them barking they seldom see them. I spend three hours every Thursday afternoon just visiting with cats. I don’t walk dogs, because more volunteers work with dogs than cats. I love all animals but the cat is my totem animal.


  20. Christina Anderson

    As a member of a local organization that manages see colonies of feral and abandoned cats, I know that many so-called “shelters” kill animals they may wrongly be designating as feral. BUT, killing of cats just because they are feral is wrong. They should be spayed, neutered and put into a “barn cat” program. Some cats are so terrified in the shelter that they might be considered feral. What is the big hurry to kill cats with these shelters?

    1. Is it about attitude? An attitude desensitised by killing and devaluing cats. I don’t know. It is easy to get into a culture of killing cats rather than saving and rehoming cats. After all killing them is much easier and it does get rid of the burden of homing them.

      1. Christina Anderson

        Ours is a “throw away” culture, unfortunately. Parents throw away their kids and animals are thrown away, either out onto the streets, or into dumpsters, or into shelters, with no thought of what their fate will be. Lazy, uncaring people are the type who don’t want the bit of extra work it takes to trap, neuter, spay, and release and then provide food and some kind of shelter to cats who have, through no fault of their own, become feral. I feed at three managed colonies of feral and abandoned cats. We have had no kittens at all in the past year and we have been able to socialize a number of these cats and they have been adopted. We also work with out local Humane Society to place unsocialized cats in their barn cat program. Only lazy, uncaring people resort to killing as a solution. Sounds like Hitler’s solution to me.

          1. It takes the public and media attention Michael. Communities and their “POWERS” do not like being under public scrutiny of watch dog groups! More people need to get involved as well foster, volunteer, donate in anyway you can!

  21. Also “behavorial” killing may be against the law if carried out before the time limit is up. These may be someone’s lost scared baby!

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