In Utah, animal shelters increased from a 67% no-kill rate to a 77% no-kill rate from 2021 to 2022, according to an annual report released by Best Friends Animal Society. 

But the report also shows the number of cats and dogs killed in shelters nearly doubled from 2021. 

Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer at Best Friends Animal Society, said the overpopulation of cats is a reason why some shelters struggle to be no-kill. 

“Shelters really struggle because they get an influx of kittens during the summer months that it’s hard for them to have the capacity to handle them,” she said. 

According to the report from Best Friends, only 13 shelters in Utah have yet to reach no-kill status.

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In 2022, several Utah shelters gained no-kill status including Animal Care of Davis County, Uintah Animal Control and Shelter Special Service District, Riverton City Animal Control and Blanding City Animal Control.

Sizemore said there are a few solutions to help alleviate some of the responsibility shelters have when it comes to cats. Community cat programs and “trap-neuter-return” policies are alternatives to euthanasia practices. 

Community cats are stray, free-roaming cats that a neighborhood takes care of. The cat isn’t owned by anyone but people provide food and water to the community cat.

Salt Lake County Animal Services Special Programs Manager Jami Johanson plays with a dog awaiting adoption in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Best Friends Animal Society reports that Utah has 13 kill shelters. Salt Lake County Animal Services is not a kill shelter. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“The community can do so much in terms of — of course adopting cats and kittens — but also fostering cats and kittens during the summer months,” Sizemore said.

Cats are dying in shelters because some have not adopted community cat programs or TNR practices, according to Sizemore. 

Natalie Orr, a board member at Celestial Zoo Pet Rescue, said TNR is the process of sterilizing feral or stray cats and releasing them back to their colonies and caretakers, while effectively reducing the outdoor feline population. 

“The vast majority of (cats that adoption centers get) are feral. And then those rescues and shelters are doing sterilization and getting those kittens adopted,” Orr said. “So by cutting off the supply, by getting these animals fixed, we are helping to reduce the number of cats that are just coming in.” 

Orr said TNR services are a game changer for communities.

“Individuals and people in the community can work with their local municipal shelters, or animal services to participate and say, ‘Well, I have five feral cats on my property. If you’ll help me get them spayed, neutered, I’ll continue to feed and care for them,’ rather than trapping them, taking them to the shelter and now it’s the shelter’s problem to solve,” she said. 

Jami Johanson, with Salt Lake County Animal Services, said TNR is one reason they’re able to be a no-kill shelter. 

“We’re spaying and neutering and then putting them back out into the community. If not, then they were just getting euthanized before, so TNR in my opinion, is a huge reason that we are a no-kill animal shelter and that we’re able to maintain that,” she said. 

Adoption rates decreased in 2022, which was another reason for the increase in pet deaths, according to Sizemore. 

Savannah Wells and Lexie Sides play with their dog at Salt Lake County Animal Services in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Best Friends Animal Society reports that Utah has 13 kill shelters. Salt Lake County Animal Services is not a kill shelter. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“The thing that created the biggest challenge in Utah was that dog adoptions slowed,” she said. “So the intake went up a little bit, but people just weren’t adopting from their local shelter and there were so many great dogs.”

Sizemore said breeders and puppy mills are good at using confusing language to make it seem like an adoption, when in reality, it’s a transaction.

“I think in Utah, sadly, we do have data that shows clearly that more people are acquiring dogs from breeders and from online puppy mills, and we need people to get back to supporting their local shelter and they have just as wonderful pets, just as wonderful dogs for adoption,” she said.

Shelters like Salt Lake County’s offer services and events to encourage adoptions. They have a free adoption promotion lasting through July 1.

“It’s important because we have so many great dogs and cats here that are looking for homes — that just need a second chance — and it saves a life. Adopting saves a life,” Johanson said. 

Salt Lake County Animal Services Special Programs Manager Jami Johanson pets a dog awaiting adoption in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 8, 2023. Best Friends Animal Society reports that Utah has 13 kill shelters. Salt Lake County Animal Services is not a kill shelter. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Jami Johanson’s name as Jami Johansson.