CREST HAVEN – It's kitten season.

As a result, the spring and summer is the busiest time of the year for animal shelters like the ones serving municipalities throughout the county. 

When those cute little bundles of fluff and love are born under porches of homes closed for the winter, winterized boats or unused sheds, the Cape May County Animal Shelter and Humane Society of Ocean City officials both said their activity increases with calls about what to do with the stray felines.

"People will call us or their municipality's animal control officer and ask for help," said Judy Davies-Dunhour, manager at the county shelter facility, 110 Shelter Road, at the north end of Moore Road.

"We help them figure out the situation because we want the mother cat as well. They can get pregnant again within four months, and we want to get them fixed," she said.

"If the kittens are three or four weeks old and still nursing, we'll ask people if they can take the kittens home until they can get their shots at eight weeks and be put up for adoption," she continued. "Their reproductive cycle depends on light and this time of year is very busy because of the long days."

Responsible Pet Ownership

Spaying and neutering cats and dogs is one of the main activities at the county shelter. Low-cost Thursday clinics in May and June sponsored with the Animal Alliance of Cape May County saw 238 cats altered, according to Davies-Dunhour.

The shelter also promotes adoption of its animals. It services all municipalities within Cape May County except Ocean City, which has its own organization that spays, neuters and promotes adoption, provides animal control services for the city and provides post-adoption and veterinarian services on premises.

For both groups, cats make up the majority of animals for which they care. Cats mate typically in late January-February and deliver litters of three to five kittens about two months later, starting in the spring and peaking in late spring or early summer.

A cat can become pregnant at five months of age, and twice during a season.

Spaying and neutering a cat or dog is the "single most important thing a responsible pet owner can do," according to the county shelter manager, because it protects the animal against diseases and potential health problems, while controlling the animal population. 

At the county shelter there are about 104 kittens in foster care, and about 230 are housed at the shelter.

The shelter is housing about 40 dogs as well. Last year, over 1,000 cats and 304 dogs were taken in by the shelter, with nearly half in each instance through animal control officers from 15 of 16 county municipalities.

Animals Arrive Three Ways 

"We get our animals three basic ways," Davies-Dunhour explained. "Strays, a surrender case where the dog may have a history with children or strangers or other animals and the family can no longer care for the pet, or through our animal control officers. Each case is handled differently."

Because the municipalities are paying for the animal shelter and its service, Davies-Dunhour tracks where the animals come from; they are taken only from within the county.

Law requires the shelter to hold them for seven days in the event the owner reclaims the animal. After that, the animals are checked medically, tested and put up for adoption unless there is a problem.

"If the animal is sick and suffering within those seven days, then the vet checks it out and determines if we can help it," she noted. "With dogs, we like to observe how they react to other animals and to people. Being in the shelter and being captured can be stressful for the animals, so we give them a few days to settle in before we test them."

The goal is for the animals to be adopted by loving and responsible pet owners. In nearly 65 percent of the cases involving dogs, owners reclaim them when "lost." About 7 percent of cat owners will reclaim a "lost" feline.

Some Cases More Difficult

"Surrender" cases are more difficult because there is usually a history, such as biting children or adults, or reacting badly toward strangers or other animals, that will likely prevent it from being adopted in the future. 

Strays, as well, present a challenge because no history is available. In those instances, animal behaviorists will study the animals to determine their ability to mix with people and other animals.

"We have a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure the animal won't hurt the people or community," the county shelter manager said. "There's no time period to adopt an animal as we try not to euthanize any unless it is very sick or there’s an aggressive dog that hurt someone and whose temperament doesn't allow for it to be adopted."

Last year, only 2.9 percent of the animals were euthanized, according to the County Sherriff's Office 2017 report. That number was down 2.1 percent, making it the lowest number ever, despite a nearly seven percent increase of animals taken in by the shelter.

"We started the barn buddy program to help with cats who might not be adoptable," Davies-Dunhour said. Pit bulls and mixes also present a challenge for adoption.

"People react differently to cats and dogs," she admitted. "Usually people will like dogs or not, but may not have strong opinions either way. Cats, on the other hand, are a different animal. They invoke strong emotions in people; people either love them or they don't.

"Dogs and children should never be left unsupervised," she cautioned, "because you never know if the child provoked the dog or what happened if there is an incident. Once there is a bite history, there's not much we can do."

Started in a Garage

Ocean City, which had a facility since two teens started one in a garage in 1964, has space for 125 animals, mostly filled by cats. Between 150-200 adoptions occur yearly, according to Bill Hollingsworth, executive director.

The facility is located at 1 Shelter Road.

"Our scope is all strays in Ocean City," Hollingsworth said. "We'll take them from off the island if we have space, which means helping Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland counties, and even from far-away places like Georgia."

The shelter also provides animal control services for the city.

He noted that because the facility is a "no kill" - which means that they will not euthanize an animal unless it's too aggressive for adoption by people and the community or is sick and a veterinarian determines it is so ill it won't recover and have a good quality of life, it often gets called as a last ditch effort to save animals outside the city.

"We got a call from a shelter in Georgia that was overcrowded," Hollingsworth said, "and they had a 5-year-old German shepherd with heart worm they were going to euthanize. Because we have a vet center on premises, we took the dog on and are working with the vet to get it healthy. Once it is clear, we'll work on getting it adopted."

Volunteers Help with Everything

For both organizations, staff is supported by numerous volunteers who do everything from cleaning cages to walking and playing with the animals, to socializing them for adoption.

"The profile for my best dog walkers are retired women in their late 50s or early 60s," Davies-Dunhour said. "Size doesn't matter because we can teach you the skills you need."

On the other hand, there is no profile Davies-Dunhour prefers for a cat volunteer. "We've had some volunteers helping since 2006," she said. "Mom-daughter teams work well. Sometimes a person will just like being alone with a cat, which usually is fine by them as well."

In addition, Pet Smart, Rio Grande, is an adoption center for the county shelter. Volunteers provide the care for the animals housed there.

About 1,000 volunteers have been trained at the county shelter since 2006 when Davies-Dunhour was volunteer coordinator while working as a police officer in Stone Harbor.

She knows them all, and knows what they like to do as they supplement the seven full-time and eight part-time staff.

She also participates with alternate incarceration programs and community service efforts whereby hours are put in at the shelter to work off jail time or help with volunteer efforts.

Eighty-three active volunteers supplement Ocean City's staff of 21, with nine full-time employees and the rest part-time. Hollingsworth said they do everything from laundry to cat socialization to dog walking.

Post-Adoption Support

One of Ocean City's "unique" features is that it provides post-adoption support and a lifetime discount on veterinarian services, according to Hollingsworth. Behavioral trainers are available to help adoptions be successful.

"We want the best situation for the animals and those who adopt them," Hollingsworth said. They allow for a "trial" period when adopting a dog, and Hollingsworth said staff will follow up with the adopters to ensure a successful adoption.

"We have really good community support," Hollingsworth and Davies-Dunhour said. "We work with other community animal organizations to share knowledge and sometimes resources."

"Raising funds and raising awareness of what we do is always a challenge because there are so many organizations, but when we see an adoption be successful, there is no better achievement," added Hollingsworth. 

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.