How one organization keeps kittens out of shelters

Kitten in fleeceAround three years ago, Operation Catnip director Audrey Garrison looked around and realized everyone was drowning in kittens.

“We were working with a lot of caregivers who brought in female cats to get spayed,” she said. “And they’d say to us, ‘I’ve got five of her kittens at home, and I’ll find homes for them.’ But when we asked if they were planning on getting the kittens spayed or neutered before they went to their new homes, they had no real plan to do that.”

Garrison had seen way too many kittens end up not being spayed until after they had a litter, or who got thrown out of the house when they started spraying. “All the shelters were filled to the gunwales with kittens,” she said. “We had to do something different.”

The Operation Catnip team went on the hunt for grant money to create a program to spay and neuter all these kittens before they went to their new homes. Located in Gainesville, Florida, the organization already had established relationships with the UF College of Veterinary Medicine as well as the Humane Society of North Central Florida. They found a local funder interested in the issue, and launched a small, initial program utilizing space at the humane society.

“The grant was for $5,000, which would spay or neuter 100 kittens at $50 a kitten,” Garrison said. “Within six weeks or so we used up that grant, but it was at the end of kitten season and we were pretty happy. There were a hundred kittens who didn’t add to the population later, didn’t become part of the problem, and didn’t end up in a shelter.”

Operation Catnip expanded its search for grant dollars to regional and national organizations, including receiving an Innovation Grant from Maddie’s Fund. They sterilized hundreds of kittens as they experimented with different models for the program, finally settling on the system that’s working for them today.

Boy with kitten

“If people come to the Humane Society or Animal Services with a mama cat and kittens, they tell them about this program and those kittens don’t get relinquished. They’ll give them cat food, and litter boxes, and cat litter, and crates, and carriers, and all those things that people then don’t need to get themselves. There are also a lot of people who come to us to get the mama cat spayed, and say, ‘I was going to just give her kittens to the Humane Society.’ We explain to them that they’re full and it’s hard to care for kittens in an animal shelter.”

Once people understand the problem and realize the Kitten Diversion Program offers resources that will help them, they’re usually on board and decide to care for the kittens until they’re old enough to be spayed or neutered, and then find them homes themselves.

Garrison said there are requirements for participting in the program. When someone brings in a mama cat to be spayed, they have to agree:

  • Not to give the kittens away until they’re spayed or neutered
  • To work hard to find homes for the kittens
  • Not to turn the kittens over to a rescue or shelter
  • To bring the mama in to get spayed and ear-tipped
  • To help catch the other cats in their neighborhood

The program wasn’t without its obstacles, especially as it grew beyond the first tier of dedicated caregivers. Some participants were failing with the program because the kittens would get sick before they could be spayed or neutered. So Garrison went to the Humane Society. “We told them we’d provide vaccines and de-wormer if our kittens could get preventive care at their wellness clinic,” she said. “This helps the shelter, too, because they aren’t getting sick kittens surrendered to them.”

With the expansion of the program came an increased need for a medical director. Operation Catnip brought Dr. Patricia Dingman on board. “The Kitten Shelter Diversion Program allows us to better serve cats who should not be entering shelters,” she said. “Kittens are getting the best chance to survive. Underage kittens are staying healthy and being sterilized. And the shelters are benefiting from not being overrun by kittens, which gives the shelter staff an opportunity to focus on providing care to the other animals.”

Dr. Dingman completed the Maddie’s Professional Shelter Medicine certificate at UF and volunteered for Operation Catnip as a student. “By participating in these programs, I gained proficiency in high quality, high volume pediatric surgery,” she said. “As a vet student, I performed more than 500 spays and neuters before graduating. Currently, I have wonderful UF vet students volunteer on their weekends to help treat and perform spay/neuter on these Kitten Shelter Diversion Program kittens through our weekly clinics.”


She continued, “It’s been amazing mentoring UF vet students with their first pediatric spay or neuter. Operation Catnip’s dedication to the Kitten Shelter Diversion Program gives UF vet students amazing service opportunities and the ability to provide life-saving medical care to cats in our community.”

Melissa Jenkins serves as the program’s operations coordinator, and she said the resources offered by the program go beyond the medical. “The biggest bump we’ve hit this season is that a lot of people don’t think they can find homes for the kittens. And I understand that feeling. I personally flood my Facebook every day with animals who need homes, I don’t get a lot of hits on that stuff, so why would they do better than that?”

Jenkins worked with the Humane Society to get a list of websites like Nextdoor, a local Facebook group, and other resources proven to be effective in finding homes for pets. “The shelter does a great job of investigating these sites before recommending them, and people are being more successful at finding them homes. They also vet them for having a positive culture, because as you know, the Internet can be a difficult environment. These groupos get responses that lead to successful re-homing of the kittens..That’s been a big puzzle piece that we’ve been working on, and this has made a huge difference.”

The process is streamlined, Jenkins said. “The shelter hands them the pamphlet with their re-homing resources. We get them spayed/neutered and vaccinated. You have to make it cleear and easy for the public, so that even the ones that aren’t really intrinsically motivated are going to do it, because you make it so easy.”

Dr. Dingman has advice for other organizations that want to start a similar program. “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” she said. “Communication is key, especially if you are collaborating with other partners. Kitten season can come in strong and fast, so try to be organized and ready before it hits (like a hurricane).”

Additional Resources

Operation Catnip Kitten Shelter Diversion Program Brochure

Operation Catnip Kitten Care Guide

Kitten Diversion Program Overview