March 1, 2022

Audience: Executive Leadership, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Organization: Humane Rescue Alliance
Investigator(s): Lauren Lipsey
Grant Amount: $150,000.00
Project Type: Basic Research
Project Status: Research Complete

Project Summary

This Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) project assembled a diverse array of organizations, experts, and funders to identify scientific tools and approaches to quantify animal population size to characterize cat populations and to estimate how cats move among indoor, outdoor and shelter populations. Because there have not been accurate estimates of cat population sizes nor widely accepted criteria to evaluate management effectiveness and outcomes, HRA set out to create a common basis in data-gathering methodologies within Washington, D.C., which included camera trapping, transect surveys, household surveys and shelter data. The cameras captured 33,134 cat detections from across the city. Transect surveys reported 815 cat sightings. From 2,600 household survey responses, cat ownership was best explained by education level, age and household income. The study analyzed 14,449 cat intake and outcome records from HRA's dataset of multiple shelters to determine what characteristics of cats, their location of origin, their type of intake, or other factors influence their outcome.


The objectives of the project were to:

  1. Rigorously quantify all cat population segments (indoor, outdoor, shelter) within Washington DC using the best scientific methods;
  2. Estimate the rates at which cats move among these population segments (via adoption, abandonment, relinquishment, etc.) to define a cat population network;
  3. Determine the points within this network where management interventions might most effectively and efficiently achieve common goals; and
  4. Evaluate the utility of simpler and broadly-feasible methods, such as transect counts, for tracking outdoor cat populations and assessing management impacts


HRA focused on collecting rigorous, representative data to characterize and quantify all segments of the cat population, whether roaming, owned or shelter cats, of Washington D.C. Data-gathering methodologies included camera trapping, walking transects (cat observations are counted along a predetermined route), household surveys and shelter data within an integrated sampling framework, along with state-of-the-art analytical approaches. This research effort has been translated into a toolkit to support humane cat management programs, including survey protocols, monitoring design guidelines, data-recording technology, data management functions, data-sharing capabilities, facilitated mapping and analysis and impact assessment.


  • Over the three field seasons from 2018-2020, the field team completed 1,530 camera deployments across 55 survey blocks, capturing 5,373,009 images, which contained 33,134 cat detections from across the city
  • From July 2 - November 17, 2020, 49 transect surveys were conducted on 27 unique routes, which resulted in 302 distinct cat sighting records
  • Combined with data from transect surveys conducted in Washington, D.C. between 2017 and 2019, the whole project dataset contains 815 cat sightings obtained on 88 different survey routes
  • In a household survey conducted with 2,600 responses, the total number of owned cats (defined as fed at least once per week by a person) was estimated to be 197,062
  • The probability of owning a cat increased with education level, age and household income, with highest probability in residents in their 40's but lowest in people in their 80's. Higher probabilities were found in both higher and lower income-levels, and lowest in middle-income residents.
  • Many survey respondents believe that outdoor cats should be taken care of, but respondents do not think that these cats should be their responsibility
  • Detection of cat images and cat sightings tended to be less in areas of combined mixed and medium income than in areas characterized by lower income


The DC Cat Count Governance Committee has been focused on completing the project's capstone product: The Cat Counting Toolkit. The toolkit draws from the expertise of DC Cat Count partners and researchers to include recommendations on developing and administering collaborative projects, using data to inform organizational goals, and the best methods for studying cat populations in any community. It is intended for a wide range of potential adopters, including animal welfare organizations, municipalities or community coalitions that seek to better understand their cat populations and evaluate population management programs. All aspects of the toolkit are publicly available through the project's new website: This website serves as the home for the Cat Counting Toolkit and the project's research outcomes, such as scientific publications, story maps, and news media. Through this website, organizations have access to all the tools needed to develop a successful cat counting project in their community.

Promoting the wider use of practical, standardized, cat-specific, and scientifically-sound methods to characterize cat populations, understand important transitions such as abandonment, and determine management impacts, particularly those associated with fertility control programs, provide stakeholder groups with a common basis for the identification of shared goals and collaborative planning. Ultimately, these efforts should result in improved management protocols for cats and positive outcomes for cats. Besides further analysis of cat photos and survey responses, the next phase of the study entails shelter cats, which often serve as critical transition points from outdoor communities to owners, or as temporary locations for spay/neuter of free-roaming cats. This includes investigation of four factors as potential predictors of cat adoption and how they might influence each other: temporal aspects of intake and outcome, geographic distribution of intake and outcome locations, a cat's physical characteristics and the reason a cat entered the shelter.