Community cats, the free roaming outdoor cats who populate nearly every community in the country, are well managed in the city of Austin thanks to a robust Trap-Neuter-Return program and dedicated feline caretakers who look after the cats and ensure they are vaccinated and sterilized.
But what happens when one of these free roaming felines becomes sick or injured? In previous years, and still in most places around the country, these cats would have automatically lost their lives when entering animal control. But as Austin’s save rate grows (97 percent for cats in January 2017!), we continue to push the boundaries of life-saving and believe every life matters.
Austin Pets Alive! accepts more than 3,000 animals per year from Austin Animal Center; often those animals needing the most intensive medical or behavioral help, and also runs a Barn Cat Program which rehomes unsocialized cats who cannot be returned to their original habitat as “working cats” at businesses, ranches, and stables.
But, sick or injured feral cats transferred from Austin Animal Center presented a new challenge. Our expertise in humanely sheltering and caring for feral cats, plus our experience treating the most serious medical issues in Austin’s shelter pets, led us down the path to create a program for possibly the most vulnerable shelter population there is: sick or injured feral cats. Not only do we mend illness or injury in these cats, but we know these cats had a home prior to coming to us, they have a caretaker who loves them, so we wanted to put them back in their rightful home after treatment and back with their familiar caretakers.
Modeled after wildlife rehabilitation where animals are handled minimally and returned to the field as soon as possible, Austin Pets Alive! takes care of these cats in isolated areas with specialized housing to reduce stress. Medical treatment options for cats who cannot be handled takes special consideration, too. For instance, we’ve done a lot of innovating to determine what medicines can be administered in the least invasive way, how to treat wounds or mend broken bones on a cat who is, essentially, a wild animal. Once treated, a volunteer team reaches out to the caregiver to discuss returning the cat to its outdoor home. The area is assessed for suitability, the caretaker is advised on ongoing care, and Austin Pets Alive! remains a lifelong resource and safety net for the cat.
Since the program began in January, six cats have graduated from the Feral Rehab, Recovery, and Release program and results have far exceeded expectations. Sasha Edwards, the program’s Lead Volunteer, was shocked by the community response when her first patient was due to be returned to his habitat. “I was skeptical that the cat might not be wanted back or the habitat would not be good enough. But the response from these caretakers was amazing. They are so grateful to have the cat back, they thank us and hug us and the cat is so happy to be back home. We release them from the carrier, the cat darts out, realizes he is home, and struts off – happy and healthy again. It’s such a good feeling to help these cats and help the people who love them.”