Fort Collins code outlaws outdoor cats, experts say at-large cats unsafe

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Cats wait for forever homes at Fort Collins Cat Rescue Bethany Baker, Fort Collins Coloradoan

Looking around neighborhoods in Fort Collins, you might notice some furry rule-breakers: outdoor cats. 

While outdoor cats seem like part of life for many, the city’s municipal code outlaws cats, along with all other pets, from roaming unrestrained.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that. While outdoor cats are illegal within city limits, the Larimer County code does allow for cats to roam freely.

“You have so many more people … so many more dangers animals can face in the actual city versus unincorporated Larimer County,” said Tylor Starr, spokesperson for the Larimer Humane Society.

Fort Collins’ municipal code requires cats, like dogs, to be under some kind of restraint while outside. That could be a leash, an enclosure or “catio” in a yard or porch, or cat fencing on the top of a fence to prevent a cat from jumping over it.

“Our culture has accepted cats living outdoors as a normal part of life, but we don’t accept that with dogs,” said Sarah Swanty, executive director of Fort Collins Cat Rescue. “It’s just another example of how dogs are valued more in our society than cats are, when really it’s not safe for either species to be outdoors, running at-large, unsupervised.”

At-large cats face significant dangers, like getting hit by cars, being poisoned, getting in fights with bigger animals or getting lost, Starr said, adding that outdoor cats are even known to have shorter lifespans. 

“People like the idea of their cats being able to experience the outside,” Starr said. “When it comes to cats being lost and the dangers that they face, it’s really in their best interest to stay inside as much as possible, or at least be restrained so that they don’t become lost or face any of those dangers.”

What happens when at-large cats are found

At-large cats in Fort Collins city limits are often called in and picked up by animal control, then brought to the Larimer Humane Society and placed on a stray hold for five days, Starr said.

Retrieving a lost pet from the humane society comes at a price, which is set by the city and county. Reclaiming a lost pet from the humane society will cost the owner $40 if the animal is wearing its licensing and rabies tag and $60 if not. There’s also a $15 per day boarding fee to cover the animal’s food and care. 

Cats roaming in unincorporated Larimer County won’t get picked up by animal control because it’s not against the law, Starr said, except when the cat is injured or sick. 

“When it comes to what the law says, you still want to have the well-being of the animal in mind,” Starr said.

Starr said reporting at-large cats to the humane society is the best way to make sure the cat is safely returned to its owner or finds a new home. The humane society’s resources, including its new facility and ability to track down who an animal is registered to, helps it find owners quickly. It also maintains a lost-and-found pets page on its website that is updated every 15 minutes. 

Fort Collins Cat Rescue’s Community Cat program is also in place to aid at-large cats no matter where they are, Swanty said. 

After receiving a report of a roaming cat, Fort Collins Cat Rescue employees will trap the cat and bring it back to their shelter for an evaluation. If the cat is feral and has someone caring for it in some way, it will be evaluated and returned to where it was picked up. If the cat is social or a kitten, it will be evaluated and placed into foster care to prepare it for adoption, Swanty said. 

The program brought in about 600 cats in the last year, Swanty said, and many came from rural areas. Rural areas also present dangers to cats, Swanty said. In rural areas, she sees at least two dead cats on the side of the road every month. 

But Swanty said people should do their due diligence to find the cat’s owner themselves before contacting a shelter or humane society. People can take cats to veterinary offices and have the animal scanned for a chip, post on neighborhood social media pages or even tape a note to the cat’s collar — if there’s no tag — asking for the cat’s owner to contact them to find out if the cat belongs to a neighbor or is a stray.

“It adds work to the shelter,” when strays are brought in, Swanty said.  “…”Part of being a good neighbor is not allowing your cats to run at large.”

What to do if you find a stray cat

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  • Try to capture the cat if you feel comfortable.
  • Try to track down the owner yourself: 
    • Take the cat to a veterinarian and have them scan for a chip.
    • Check neighborhood social media for lost pet posts.
    • Check the Larimer Humane Society website’s lost and found pet page: www.larimerhumane.org/lost-found-pets/
    • If the cat has a collar but no tags, tape a note with your contact information to the collar asking the owner to contact you — that way you can figure out if the cat has an owner.
  • If you’re in Fort Collins city limits, call Animal Protection and Control at 970-226-3647, extension 7, to have the cat picked up and brought to the humane society. 
  • If you’re in unincorporated Larimer County, Animal Protection and Control will not generally pick up stray cats. 
  • Keep an eye on at-large cats. If you see signs of illness or injury, notify Animal Protection and Control and they will attempt to assist the animal. 
  • Fort Collins Cat Rescue offers assistance to feral cats through their Community Cat program. To report a feral cat that could use assistance, call 970-233-5133 or fill out the form online at www.fccrsnc.org/Service_FeralCatServices.php

Source: Larimer Humane Society and Fort Collins Cat Rescue

Sady Swanson covers crime, courts, public safety and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support our work and local journalism with a digital subscription at Coloradoan.com/subscribe.

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