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Why Do Adopters Return Cats to Shelters?

October 2023

Researchers often try to understand why cats are surrendered to shelters. This study looks at the factors that lead people to return cats after they’ve been adopted.


orange cat

The goal of many animal shelters is to find forever homes for their animals and to minimize the number of adoptable animals being euthanized. While it’s a victory when an animal is adopted, the story doesn’t always end there — unfortunately, companion animals are sometimes returned to the shelter.

The authors of this paper point out that being returned is likely stressful for cats. Similarly, research has found that people who return animals after adopting them from a shelter may experience mental and emotional stress. They also may be less likely to adopt again in the future. Many shelters have limited space, so when a cat is returned, it often means other cats have to be turned away.

In other words, understanding why cats are returned to shelters is important for many reasons. However, studies don’t always paint a complete picture of shelter cat returns. Some studies simplify the reasons why cats are brought back to a shelter, or they underestimate the number of returns as they only consider cases that occur within 30 days of adoption.

In this study, the authors tried to understand the reasons why people return cats to shelters. They focused on factors related to cats (e.g., behavioral problems) as well as guardian issues (e.g., housing issues, allergies) and the location of a cat before adoption (e.g., group housing, single cage setting, foster care). They also differentiated between cats returned in the short term (within 30 days) vs. the long term (after 30 days).

The data were collected between January 2014-December 2016 at a large shelter in the Northeastern United States. The authors looked at the outcomes of 2642 cats older than one year who entered the shelter for the first time and were adopted during the study period. In this sample, cats in foster care had the highest median age at adoption (5.01 years), followed by group housing (4.03 years), cages (3.10 years), and offsite housing (3.08 years).

Overall, 12% of the 2642 cats were returned within four years of their first adoption. Of those, around 91% were returned once, 7% were returned twice, and 2% were returned three times. Of those returned, 85% were eventually adopted again, while 12% were euthanized and 3% were transferred to another shelter or rescue. In terms of the timing of the return, about half of the cats were returned within 30 days. While the vast majority of returned cats were adopted again, cats returned within 30 days were significantly more likely to be readopted than those who were returned after 30 days.

The authors identified common reasons why cats were returned:

  • Behavioral issues (26%): Soiling issues, problems with biting, etc.
  • Personal reasons (14%): Issues in a guardian’s personal life, including death, pregnancy, no time, or a change in circumstances
  • Issues with another companion animal (10%)
  • Medical reasons (9%): Cat had a medical issue or needed medical treatment
  • Allergies (8%)
  • Cost (8%): Inability to care for a cat (excluding medical costs)
  • Housing (7%): Moving, getting evicted, or other housing issues
  • Stray (6.5%): Cats brought in as strays and later identified as a previously adopted cat
  • Other: Less common reasons included cats returned to be euthanized and cats identified as being “unwanted” without further explanation.

Age was another significant factor in the likelihood of being returned, as cats who were returned were marginally older than those who weren’t (3.42 years vs. 3.04 years). Also, cats with a bite history were more than 4x likely to be returned compared to cats without a bite history. Finally, a cat’s location prior to being adopted was a significant predictor of return rates, as cats adopted from group housing were most likely to be returned, followed by cats in single cages and cats in offsite locations. Cats in foster care had the lowest return rate.

The results of this study suggest that cats are returned for many different reasons that may differ depending on a cat’s age, location in the shelter, and other external circumstances. The authors also point out that short-term reasons for returning a cat seem to differ from long-term reasons — while people who return cats within 30 days seem to have issues with their cat adjusting to a new home setting, those who return cats beyond 30 days often experience a change in their personal or financial circumstances.

While it’s not always possible to predict when a cat will be returned, the authors suggest several ways that shelters can plan ahead. For example, it may be beneficial to offer programs that provide assistance with basic needs, such as food, affordable vet care, and behavioral training. Guardians who are temporarily unable to care for their cats because of homelessness, domestic violence, or a change in circumstances may benefit from temporary foster programs.

Finally, veterinarians and shelters can team up to counsel adopters on the costs of caring for cats, the importance of early bonding, and other important information that will prepare guardians for the reality of living with a cat for life.

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