Some of Philadelphia's 400,000 stray and feral cats in 2019

Philly’s sizable population of stray cats, estimated to be around 400,000 before the pandemic, appears to have stayed relatively stable over the past couple of years, despite a documented surge of cats landing at animal shelters nationwide.

That’s likely thanks to “a positive trend” of grassroots coordination, said Sarah Barnett, interim co-executive director of the Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia, which keeps track of the situation.

A network of animal welfare organizations have been helping pick up the slack since city funding for ACCT was slashed during COVID. Over the past couple of years, Barnet said, they’ve been onboarding their own crews to help trap, neuter, and re-release strays.

For example, the Cat Collaborative, a newer organization running its own trap-and-neuter operation, has provided services for “about 4,000” cats in its first year of operations.

“People are volunteering with them that maybe can’t volunteer a whole lot, but are helping a little bit here and there,” Barnett said. “Right now, shelters across the country are seeing an increase in intake of cats, and we really haven’t — knock on wood — seen that.”

Still, the overlapping effects of a veterinarian shortage, adoption slowdown, and climate change has ACCT preparing for an uptick in the number of felines on the street in 2023.

“All the trends in animal welfare have kind of gone out the window in 2022,” Barnett said. “I do think, with the warmer temperatures and the continued lack of access to spay and neuter resources, you’re going to be seeing more cats who need help.”

After sharp cuts during COVID, city documents show ACCT received $5.83 million of its $5.9 million budget request for FY23. But trap-neuter-release surgeries for strays are not included as a line item.

“Our priority has to really be fulfilling our contractual obligation for the City of Philadelphia, which does not include TNR,” Barnett told Billy Penn. “We provide them but they are pretty minimal, and are things that are funded by private donors.”

Shelters in Philly are overcrowded mostly due to a drop in dog adoptions, per Barnett. ACCT facilitates 20 to 30 cat adoptions a week but “a lot less dog adoptions,” she said, because “dogs are more of a commitment” to many.

Conversely, Barnett believes that “a lot of people are seeing cats as being more disposable.” She recounted how sometimes people see other cats roaming the streets as a sign that it’s safe to simply let theirs go — to be clear, it’s not.

The winter months are prime for trap-and-neuter services, as cats usually start having litters as temperatures rise in early spring. ACCT is already seeing signs that next year will be a big one.

“It used to be that you really could say, ‘All right, end of November, December, January, you’re not going to find kittens,’” Barnett explained. But this year, there’s a steady trickle of litters coming in.

She provided some action items for concerned cat lovers:

  • If you’re the type of person who likes to feed the neighborhood cat (or cats), consider contacting the ACCT shelter — where they can connect you to resources for the proper surgeries — or contact ACCT to make their whereabouts known.
  • If you’re considering relinquishing care of a pet cat, surrender them to a shelter instead of letting them roam free.
  • If interested, consider volunteering to be a “foster home,” a household ACCT can rely on to drop off a kitten or kittens overnight when space is lacking at local shelters, to feed and shelter them before taking them to other animal care facilities.

“I do think the trend that we will see in the coming months is that people will see more cats needing help,” Barnett said. “My hope is, also, there’ll be more people willing to help.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...