Reducing euthanasia by reducing the number of owner-relinquished cats: An introduction to keeping cats in their homes

Fourteen years ago, I fell in love with a homeless cat. While I first decided I could not adopt him because my fifteen-year-old cat was by temperament, an “only” cat, I soon gave in and brought Bear Cat into our home. I knew it would be hard to integrate Bear into our family – I’d done days’ worth of research and thought I understood the reality of the situation - but I was not prepared for HOW hard it would be – and for how long.




As someone who touted the responsibility and commitment inherent in adopting a pet, I found myself and my two cats in an untenable situation when the two cats could not peacefully coexist. Every day was a fresh nightmare of clueless, enthusiastic, non-boundary respecting kitten and grouchy, “leave-me-alone” senior cat – and things were not getting better. I’d tried everything I could think of and hadn’t had a full night’s sleep for seven months. I struggled with the “right” thing to do for us humans, Bear, and Kitty (the fifteen-year-old cat). For the first (and hopefully last) time in my life, I was faced with the fact that perhaps this situation was not fixable and I would have to give up Bear Cat no matter how much I loved him. I can’t ignore Bear’s likely fate had I given him up (and this was constantly on my mind when I thought I might have to). For his entire life, he's been terrified of other people and cats – not especially conducive to being adopted from a shelter environment. I believe Bear was born feral – for some reason, our connection was different and he gave me a chance – tentatively at first – and then with more and more gusto. Given that Bear’s been described as acting feral around other cats and people – I imagine he wouldn’t have survived his shelter experience.

In the end, Kitty died (she was dealing with several health issues and almost 16!). But that seven months taught me that even the best laid and researched plans can go horribly awry – and anyone can find herself in a nightmare of a situation where the best option seems to be giving up one’s beloved cat. With Kitty’s death, keeping Bear was no longer a question. In the intervening fourteen years, he’s transformed and changed my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine when I found myself faced with perhaps having to give him up for everyone’s well-being. Had I thrown in the towel and given up Bear, I can’t even imagine how much I would’ve lost: my reason for getting up in the morning would never have existed, the unconditional and at times overwhelming love that Bear gave me would’ve vanished and I’d still be the broken and hopeless shell that I was on the day Bear Cat and I met. Because of how much it meant to me to be able to keep Bear, share a life with him and be forever changed by his presence in my life, I want to help others facing the impossible situation of whether to give up one’s cat to have the resources (these will be included in the second part of this two-part article) to keep their cats too.



Remember Me Thursday is today – the one day each year we dedicate to remembering the rescues – the pets in shelters across the country that will die before knowing the love of a forever home. The goals of Remember Me Thursday awareness in regard to cats is two-fold: Increasing adoptions from shelters and decreasing euthanasia. In the past, we’ve focused on increasing adoptions by celebrating rescue cats themselves: we’ve shared our faces of rescue, we’ve talked about the value of each cat’s life and let them speak for themselves and Ellie’s told her story about how she came to live with us. This year, instead of focusing on these wonderful rescue cats themselves, I want to address the other goal of Remember Me Thursday’s awareness: decreasing euthanasia. I want to address how we can prevent so many cats from ending up in shelters and on “death row” from space constraints in our shelters. Spaying and neutering our cats and those living in cat colonies to prevent unwanted litters and microchipping our cats just in case they become lost are two ways to prevent the overload of cats many shelters face. But according to Weiss, et al, at least one-third of cats entering shelters each year are being relinquished by their owners. How can we help these people who struggle like I did with an untenable situation where I faced the most impossible choice of all – to give up my cat? By addressing solutions to the most common reasons owners surrender their cats, I hope to help owners keep their cats and decrease the rescues waiting for forever homes in our shelters. Perhaps the most powerful way to remember our orphan pets are to prevent them from becoming orphans to begin with. 



The scope of the problem: let’s do some quick math

According to the ASPCA, in the United States, roughly 3.2 million cats arrive in our animal shelters each year. With Weiss, et al’s, estimate that AT LEAST one-third of cats entering shelters each year are being relinquished by their owners (based on the ASPCA's numbers), that means more than one million cats (1,066,667) each year end up in shelters because their people don’t feel like they can keep them. Based on the data available from Shelter Animals Count, owner-relinquishments for participating shelters are roughly one-third of gross intakes - confirming Weiss et al's estimate. Furthermore, for those 3.2 million cats arriving at shelters each year, 860,000 cats in those same shelters are euthanized each year – mostly due to space concerns in our shelters. The rate of cats entering shelters to cats being euthanized is 3.72 to one. At one point, I believe the ratio was 2 to one – or more - though there’s quite a bit of evidence that the rate of euthanasia has decreased in shelters across the country (Why Euthanasia Rates at Animal Shelters Have Plummeted). Back to those 1,066,667 owner-relinquished cats ending up in US shelters each year: almost 300,000 of those once-beloved owner-relinquished cats EACH YEAR will die before leaving the shelter (using our calculation of the rate of cats entering shelters to cats being euthanized of 3.72 to one)

Additionally, with 1,066,667 owner-relinquished cats being added to our shelters each year, and 860,000 cats (less than 1,066,667) being euthanized, many because of space concerns in our shelters, if we could prevent the majority of owner surrenders each year, euthanization of cats in shelters due to space concerns could be all but be eliminated – even if we do nothing about unwanted litters and making sure our cats find their ways back to us when they get lost. Yes, by saving the space in our shelters that would be taken by owner-surrendered pets, we can prevent almost all of the other cats brought to shelters from being killed. Let me repeat that: By helping the majority of owners to keep their cats, who would otherwise surrender their cats each year, we can all but eliminate space-related euthanizations at shelters. Is that not what Remember Me Thursday is all about: each cat life having value and being deserving of a forever home and not death just because our shelters can’t handle the large numbers of cats brought to them each year? Like Bear would’ve been, so many cats surrendered at shelters are terrified of the new sights and smells – terrified of people and cats they don’t know. This adjustment period often means cats’ temperaments and adoption possibilities are misjudged by shelter staff. By eliminating euthanasia for space concerns, these cats will have the time to adjust to their surroundings and show their true selves – before being judged just on their initial fear and stand-offish-ness. In cases where cats might be less friendly than other cats by nature or due to experience, eliminating euthanasia for shelter cats also means cats are given the time and space to find their forever homes. Cats labeled by behavior as "approachable" or "interactive" stay in shelters for a much shorter time than those cats labeled by behavior as "unapproachable" (approachable cats' length of stay was roughly half that of unapproachable cats and interactive cats' length of stay was roughly one-third that of  "unapproachable" cats) (Brown, et al.).



In Weiss, et al’s study, re-homing is defined as giving one’s cat away to someone else with the intention of establishing a new home for that cat. Re-homing includes giving one’s cat(s) to: 1) a friend or family member, 2) a shelter, 3) a veterinarian, 4) a stranger or 5) no one – the cat is set free to make the cat’s own way outside. In Weiss, et al’s study, only the second option – giving one’s cat(s) to a shelter is defined as owner relinquishment or owner surrendering. To give you an idea of the extent of re-homing outside of the shelter environment, Weiss, et al. found roughly the same percentage of people re-homing cats to a friend, family member or stranger (39% with a 95% confidence interval between 29-50%) and people taking their cats to the shelter (40% with a 95% confidence interval between 33-47%). For those of you who haven’t studied statistics, you'll find the definition of a 95% confidence interval here: Statistics Dictionary: Confidence IntervalThe significant overlap of the two confidence intervals means it's likely that a similar number of cats are being privately rehomed to family, friends or strangers as being taken to the shelter (over one million cats each per year as we calculated above or TWO MILLION TOTAL). By helping people keep their cats and avoiding rehoming outside the shelter environment, the homes that would’ve taken privately rehomed cats can now adopt cats (roughly one million given the number of cats privately re-homed each year) from their local shelters. The benefit of helping people keep their cats is two-fold: a million more shelter adoptions (instead of acquiring cats through private rehoming, people will look to shelters for new additions to their families) AND all but eliminating cats killed for lack of space in shelters (one million cats WON'T be surrendered to shelters, so the 820,000 cats euthanized each year for space concerns won't be).

One final note on the numbers, since I’m using Weiss, et al’s study as one of my primary sources for this article – I want to clear up what seems to be a mismatch of numbers. Using the combination of data from the ASPCA and Weiss, et al, we calculated 1,066,667 owner-relinquished cats ending up in US shelters each year. In Weiss, et al’s study, they quote the prevalence of re-homing at 6% over a five-year period – or 6.12 million households that have re-homed at least one pet in the past five years. That statistic would indicate that 1,224,044 HOUSEHOLDS PER YEAR re-homed at least one pet (6.12 million/5). Please keep in mind one statistic quotes the number of owner-relinquished cats ending up in shelters as a gross number – and the other number includes cats AND dogs – and reports how many HOUSEHOLDS are re-homing to all sources. Using households as the measure means that even if multiple pets were re-homed, at the same time or at different times in that five-year period, no matter the actual number of pets re-homed, it would only count as one household. So while 1,066,667 owner-relinquished individual cats end up in US shelters each year, 1,224,044 HOUSEHOLDS each year re-home at least one pet.



Why pets are re-homed

Now that we understand the numbers, let’s look at why cats are rehomed and what we can do to help minimize the cases where owners feel the need to re-home their cats. After quite a bit of research and trying to group a myriad of reasons for re-homing into larger, over-arching categories, I like how Weiss, et al, combined all chief reasons for re-homing into five different categories. The five categories containing all the principal reasons given for rehoming pets in Weiss, et al’s study, in decreasing order of prevalence for cats as determined in the study: 1) pet-associated issues, 2) family-associated issues, 3) housing-associated issues, 4) cost-associated issues and 5) other issues. Two earlier studies from New, et al. and Salman et al. agree with Weiss et al's findings that pet-related issues (pet-specific characteristics, pet-specific behavior and pet-specific health issues) represent the largest share of reasons given for surrendering one's cat to a shelter (they break down the reasons differently than Weiss, et al. - but one can easily add up the figures in the charts of these studies relative to cats, following Weiss, et al's classification system. New, et al. and Salman et al's findings are identical to Weiss, et al's in the order of issues leading to surrender - from highest to lowest: pet, family, housing, cost, etc). 



Because Weiss, et al's study looks at broader reasons for relinquishment and includes dogs in its overall conclusions (I used the data tables to only address cats where possible), I reviewed Patronek, et al's study on risk factors for cats to be surrendered at animal shelters. The study excludes feral cats and litters of kittens brought to the shelters as they both are not representative of the bond between cat and human - and aren't relevant to the reasons owner-relinquished cats are brought to shelters. Patronek, et al's study found the following risk factors for cats being surrendered to shelters by their owners: cats being sexually intact, owners allowing the cat outside, owners not being knowledgable about feline behavior, cats eliminating inappropriately at least weekly, inaccurate or incorrect owner expectations of the care cats require and owners' narrowly defined expectations about their cats' places in their households. Surprisingly, Patronek found that cats acquired with little planning were at DECREASED risk of being relinquished by their owners. 

I'd long assumed people carefully considering an adoption decision and not being swayed by cuteness in the moment would mean a decreased risk of later relinquishment. Anecdotally, impulse adoptions have a higher chance of being relinquished - theoretically because the adopter hasn't considered every eventuality. I looked to corroborate Patronek, et al's finding that minimally planned adoptions decrease the risk of a future relinquishment to shelters and only found literature from shelters and rescues: 1) encouraging potential adopters to carefully consider the decision to adopt and 2) stating that impulse adoptions were at increased risk of relinquishment - without any research to support that assumption. In the next part of this two-part post, we'll circle back on this to address what many of these shelters/rescues encourage potential adopters to consider before adopting - though there's some doubt given Patronek, et al's finding that careful consideration increases the risk of future relinquishment. Logically, impulse adoptions SHOULD result in more relinquishment. But given that I couldn't find evidence to corroborate Patronek, et, al's finding, I'm including the issues shelters and rescues advise adopters to consider - in the next part of this two-part post.

Besides saving cats from shelters - the issue of whether to re-home or not has an effect on the people making the choice to rehome or not. For family-associated issues like divorce or human health issues or housing issues such as elderly people who must give up their cats before entering a nursing home or assisted living facility, the company of a cat is especially important to those people. Stammbach, et al. found that cats may function as substitutes for humans in a person's social network - although cats provide a supplementary source of emotional support in the majority of cases.

Finding ways to help people keep their cats in these situations is invaluable - to cats and humans alike. Cats benefit our mental and physical health - to read more about those benefits: 

Speaking from personal experience, at the worst times of my life, whether due to severe abuse, a life-threatening eating disorder, debilitating PTSD, depression, anxiety, or divorce - my cats have made all the difference in my willingness to go on and fight. I shared the story of how Bear Cat saved my life in Imperfectly perfect ... together: The power of one cat's love. In summary:

Bear isn't just my soul-mate cat or my "heart" cat, he is my "choosing life" cat. I chose to live because I found one extraordinary cat who changed EVERYTHING for me - when no human in my life wanted or knew how to be there for me. He isn't just my emotional support cat (unofficially) helping me get through the day - he is THE REASON I got up every morning and why I did not give up even when I felt soul-shattering hopelessness. He did what he did without training, on pure instinct and without recognition or official designations: he just loved and valued me. With Bear in my life, I had something to live FOR - because he was by my side. I want to be clear: Bear didn't just SAVE my life - he COMPLETELY transformed my existence into life - he GAVE me life where there had been nothing. Because of Bear, where I experienced nothing but numbness in my past, I felt growth; where I felt nothing but pain in my past, I began to heal; where I felt nothing but emptiness in my past, I began to feel connectedness and purpose; where I felt nothing but irreparable brokenness, unbearable devastation and hopelessness in my past, I began to feel happiness and hope.





Keep in mind as you review the resources in our next post, the life-saving and life-transforming impact of sharing one's life with a cat - especially in one's darkest hours - whether by divorce, personal illness or disorienting change. Helping people keep their cats has meaning way beyond the cats saved: those cats can be the difference between life and death for their humans.

Now that we've established the benefits to people and their cats by keeping cats in their homes, our next post includes resources for the most common reasons cats are surrendered by their owners. We all can help to minimize the number of people who feel the need to surrender their cats - to shelters or elsewhere. Perhaps when someone mentions the possibility of giving up her cat, instead of judging that person, we should point her in the right direction for resources to help the situation. If the person isn't open to working on the issue or doesn't follow through, that's on her - but by instantly judging her, we give up the ability to have a conversation, listen to her concerns and share the numerous resources available out there to help people keep their cats.


Sources

Brown, W. P., & Stephan, V. L. (2020). The influence of degree of socialization and age on length of stay of shelter cats. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-8.

“Data Dashboards. Timeline.” Shelter Animals Count, www.shelteranimalscount.org/data-dashboards. Accessed 23 Sept. 2020.

Dinis, Filipa A. B. S. G., and Lima Fernandes Martins, Thais. (2016). Does Cat Attachment Have an Effect on Human Health? A Comparison between Owners and Volunteers. Pet Behaviour Science, 1, 1–12.

New Jr., J.C., Salman, M.D., King, M., Scarlett, J.M., Kass, P.H. and Hutchison, J.M. (2003). Characteristics of Shelter-Relinquished Animals and Their Owners Compared with Animals and Their Owners in U.S. Pet-Owning Households. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 3, 179-201.

Parlapiano, Alicia. "Why Euthanasia Rates at Animal Shelters Have Plummeted." nytimes.com, 4 Sept. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/09/03/upshot/why-euthanasia-rates-at-animal-shelters-have-plummeted.html. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Patronek, G.J., Glickman, L.T., Beck, A.M., McCabe, G.P. and Ecker, C. (1996). Risk Factors for Relinquishment of Cats to an Animal Shelter. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 209, 582-588.

“Pet Statistics.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics. Accessed 17 Sept. 2020.

Salman, M.D., New Jr., J.C., Scarlett, J.M., Kass, P.H., Ruch-Gallie, R. and Hetts, S. (1998). Human and Animal Factors Related to the Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats in 12 Selected Animal Shelters in the United States. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1, 207-226.

Stammbach, Karin B. and Turner, Dennis C. (1999). Understanding the Human—Cat Relationship: Human Social Support or Attachment. Anthrozoƶs, 12, 162-168.

Weiss, E., Gramann, S., Spain, C.V. and Slater, M. (2015). Goodbye to a Good Friend: An Exploration of the Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S. Open Journal of Animal Sciences, 5, 435-456.



© 2020 Momma Kat and Her Bear Cat - Published by K. Kern. 
All text, pictures, images, and other content are original and copyright by Momma Kat and Her Bear Cat [K. Kern], 2015-2020. No content on Momma Kat and Her Bear Cat may be used without the owner's [K. Kern] written permission. If you see this post posted on a site that isn't Momma Kat and Her Bear Cat, please contact cats@mommakatandherbearcat.com. 

53 comments

  1. A very touching story, and I've lived it too.
    As when we adopted Da Boyz, Angel wouldn't have a thing to do with them, so we gave her an apartment to herself. Now, that apartment is used by Sweetie. We are very fortunate to have this type of house.
    Adopt, don't shop...rescued is our favorite breed.

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  2. Although things are better than years ago, we still have a long way to go as a nation. Hopefully it will continue to change. Lexy and I didn't get along at all when I first came to live here, and Mommy thought I would have to go and live with her boyfriend. But we all persevered and here we are!

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    1. Smellie and I get along now ... for the most part. Sometimes I have to be mean to her just so she remembers who's in charge! ~Bear Cat

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  3. Oh my goodness what a beautiful love story. Your writing is inspirational
    Of course kitties inspire the best in us right?
    Hugs Cecilia

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    1. This is true. Bear's always pushed me out of my comfort zone - sometimes for me to deserve him - and sometimes because he's as stubborn as I am!

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  4. Bear was meant to be with you, no doubt about it. Adoptions are just the best and here's to many, many more...and then some!

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  5. What a beautiful story, we thank you for your useful information and for all you do for homeless cats.

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  6. A very moving story, Katherine. And I think it's an excellent idea to focus on any and all possible ways to help to keep cats in their homes.

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  7. I do wish more senior facilities, would find a way to allow those entering, to bring their pets; some do, far more don't and it's heartbreaking all around ♥♥

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    1. I know this on a personal level. My Mom was in the memory care unit for two years - and they had a resident cat. That cat was the reason my Mom got up in the morning - and Kahlua slept with her most nights. It was so hard to relate to my Mom with her failing memory and speech - but Kahlua just seemed to know how. I'm so incredibly grateful she had that opportunity!

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  8. What a beautiful and moving story. Bear and you were right for each other. Purrs

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  9. This is a difficult thing to discuss. I'm glad you're doing this.

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  10. Bear found the purrfect home...for him and for you.

    The Florida Furkids

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  11. Wonderful and informative post!

    So glad you and Bear found each other. It was meant to be.

    Purrs xx
    Athena and Marie

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  12. This is going to be such an important series that will make a difference in so many lives. Bear was meant to be with you, no doubt.

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    1. Yes, he was. He might not always like me very much ... but he sure loves me to no end! I just want people to realize that there ARE resources out there to help one keep her cat.

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  13. We’re glad you took a chance and brought Bear into your home. Things are getting better with adoptions from shelter and rescues, but so much more needs to be done. And sadly, from what I have seen as a volunteer with a shelter, some animals should be relinquished. Some people should never be pet owners.

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    1. True. I tried NOT to be judgmental in this post. And I'm well aware that many of these "reasons" are more excuses than actual problems - in these cases, the cats are better off with a chance in another forever home. That is, if they aren't put to sleep in the shelter first - that's the worst part of this.

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  14. What you are writing about is so important and I can’t wait to read your next post on dissecting and delving into why people relinquish their pets. It’s true that we gravitate towards a knee-jerk reaction when someone mentions rehoming their pets. Education is key and pointing them to helpful resources should be emphasized. I am just so glad that Bear is still with you by your side. xx

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    1. Me too! He's everything to me and I can't imagine my life without him!

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  15. I am sorry you lost Kitty, but I am glad you didn't get rid of Bear before she passed. When I take a cat in, it is forever no matter what. This is why we have zones to keep together those that get along and apart those that don't. Even if it is inconvenient for us, we make it work. Great post. XO

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    1. I don't think you've ever talked about zones on the blog! I agree - adopting is a responsibility and a commitment. I'm not sure I would've had the nerve to actually take Bear to a shelter - I'm guessing probably not.

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  16. Pawsome post! Glad you didn't give up Bear or he'd never have met Smellie or The Boy.

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    1. Hahaha. To be honest, without Bear, I wouldn't have met Smellie, The Boy or any of our blogging friends! I'd be dead or still caught in the web of anorexia.

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  17. Bear's story is fabulous! And his and your journey has always amazed us. The dynamics with bringing a new cat into the hope is difficult as is monitoring and and playing peacemaker when you know these small animals are still close to being wild animals. Thanks for sharing him with us (and now Smellie and |The Boy). Life is good!
    Purrs
    Marv, Jo Jo, Kozmo, Cinnamon and Angel Nellie

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    1. Yes, life is good. Thank you. I'm thankful Bear and Ellie eventually found their groove. I was so worried about ending up with a Bear/Kitty situation again - but Ellie's foster mom was sure Ellie would hold her own - and she has!

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  18. Things are definitely moving in the right direction with regard to adoptions, but we still have a long way to go. Thank you, Kat, for writing so eloquently and explaining what's up. We're so glad you and Bear found each other. Some things are just meant to be!

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    1. Yes, they are. I still can't make sense of how wonderful things turned out - but I'm glad I didn't give up on Bear or myself.

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  19. Superb post, thank you for sharing we love Bear's story <3 <3 We know what it's like integrating a new memfur into The B Team over the years and it hasn't always been easy, but with time and a lot of purrseverance we've always made it work. Happy Friday XOX

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    1. We love following your cats and seeing how they negotiate new introductions!

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  20. Great info here! Our county-run shelter here partners with a nonprofit (that is located at the shelter) that counsels pet parents on how to keep their pet before they surrender them to the shelter. I posted about them in my early blogging days. They refer to themselves as a shelter intervention team. I wish something like this was required at all shelters!

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    1. I understand more and more shelters are developing something like this - being the numbers person I am, I wonder how much of a difference they make!

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  21. What good fortune for both you and Bear. šŸ˜»

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  22. Brilliant post! You and Bear were destined for each other.

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  23. Love hearing Bear's story! Such a powerful post! I brought Amarula all the way back from Africa to Canada with me- best decision ever! Rescues are the best

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    1. Hello, Toffee here! My old man and old woman inherited me. I lived with the old man's mother and I - and they, of course - were heartbroken when she died. All she worried about in her final days was what would become of me and the old man told her not to worry, I could go and live with him and the old woman. They kept me indoors for two weeks but as soon as they opened the door I ran away. The two houses were not far apart and every day I would run back to my old house and every day, the old man would pick me up and take me back to his house. This went on for a couple of weeks until eventually I felt at home and decided to stay. It was the best decision I ever made. I'm glad Bear found a purrfect furever home too. xxx

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    2. HA! I knew Amarula wasn't from Canadia originally! She IS being held there against her will! Don't worry, Amarula! I will rescue you! ~Bear Cat

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    3. We didn't know that about you, Toffee! We're glad you decided to stay and that you've told your story!

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  24. Hey, we wanted to try again. We're so glad you and Bear found each other. And we're so glad to be your furiends. Big hugs

    Luv ya'

    Dezi and Raena

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  25. To keep Esmay and her kittens out of the shelter at springtime, Mom and Dad cared for them until they could find) homes for them all (once the kittens were old enough). The one home they found for Esmay and one of her female kittens, actually returned Esmay a month later 'cause they said she kept spraying all over their house. But it's 'cause they failed to get her spayed and gave up on her. That's when Mom and Dad made the decision to make her a part of our family and she's happy now.

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