I Can’t Keep My Cats. Should I Release Them Into the Woods?


A reader recently submitted the following query:

Ten years ago my husband and I found two cats in a tire in the woods. We took them home and have had them ever since. Neither one uses a litter box.

Our house recently flooded and we are completely remodeling it. Since we will have all new carpets and floors, we do not want the cats to ruin them. We cannot keep them, and we don’t think anyone will want to adopt them since they aren’t house trained.

We have moved the cats into the backyard to prepare them to return to the outdoors. Our plan is to return them to the woods where we found them, since they already have some idea of how to survive there. We don’t see what other options we have. What do you think?

Name Withheld

Kansas City, KS

Let me first say that I admire your decision 10 years ago to rescue the cats. Now, with that out of the way, let me also say that I think releasing the cats into the woods is a very bad idea.

I concede that if you release the now-elderly cats into the wild one or both of them might survive, just like a person who jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge might survive (although according to this article, the survival rate of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers is about 2 percent, which is much better than the chances I’d give your cats in the woods). The most likely outcome is that they will die miserable deaths of starvation, exposure (hypothermia or hyperthermia combined with dehydration), parasitosis, or predation. In my opinion, releasing the cats into the woods is a very bad idea.

There are several better options. For instance, you mention that your cats don’t use a litter box. Does this mean that they are not house trainable, or does this mean that you’ve never tried? My website has an article dedicated to dealing with house-soiling adult cats, and I suggest you read it. Here is the gist: Confine each cat to a small area with a bed, food, and water bowls, and a litter box. The area should be small enough that the cat must choose between urinating and defecating in its food, in its bed, or in its litter box. In this scenario, most will choose the litter box. Give them some time to get into the habit, then gradually expand their available space. You also could consult with a trainer or a veterinary behaviorist for a more in-depth approach.

If the cats truly are not house trainable, you still have several options. Have you tried to find a new home for the cats? I concede that most people wouldn’t be interested in cats who don’t use the litter box (and I’ll confess that I’m among them). But that doesn’t mean it would be impossible. Get on Catster, Craigslist, or Petfinder. Be honest and provide full disclosure. You can’t know that they’re not adoptable until you try.

I’ll even help you: Perhaps one of the people planning to write a vitriolic comment on this post would like to step up and offer the cats a home.

Since you’re remodeling your home, another decent option would be to include a specific, easily cleanable room with linoleum or tile floors and washable fleece bedding. This would limit the damage the cats could cause, while still providing for their needs.

The options I have outlined above are the ones that I consider good. There are yet more options; these ones are not so good, and I don’t recommend them, but I consider them markedly superior to the one you have set forth.

It causes me visceral pain to suggest keeping cats outdoors. If the cats were made into permanent backyard cats, they would be at risk of the myriad woes that regularly befall outdoor cats such as being struck by cars, attacked by dogs or raccoons, and becoming lost. But at least they’d have a source of food, water, and shelter (if you built one for them), and they’d have someone looking out for them (sort of). It’s better than being dumped.

Finally — and again I’m not recommending this, but merely suggesting it as an option — you could put the cats to sleep. Alternatively, you could drop them off at a shelter, which will lead to the same result. At least with this option the cats will experience humane, rapid deaths rather than the protracted and miserable ones that are nearly certain in the forest.

But before you even consider the last two options, you should work on the first three. And, my offer to help stands: If any reader in the Kansas City area would like two non-house-trained cats, leave a note in the comments section and I’ll facilitate an introduction.

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