Cats that enter animal shelters in Atlantic, Cumberland or Ocean counties are likely facing death. That's not so, however, in Cape May County. Sixty-five percent of the 3,179 cats handled by Atlantic County's animal shelters were euthanized in 2012, according to the most recent numbers provided by the state Department of Health, which tracks the fate of impounded dogs and cats.

The percentages are similar in Cumberland and Ocean counties, and animal advocates want more involvement by all levels of government to increase spay and neuter rates.

"Atlantic County needs a low-cost/no-cost clinic," said Judy Cantin, of Cape-Atlantic C.A.T.S. (Citizens Altering the Strays) in Ocean City. The group rescues about 400 cats a year, mostly from Atlantic County, she said.

That approach seems to be working in Cape May County, where a combination of new shelter policies and targeted, affordable spay and neuter programs has brought the euthanasia rate down to less than 9 percent of 920 cats impounded in 2012, according to the state. As recently as 2009, Cape May County's cat euthanasia rate was about 14 percent. In 2005 it was almost 50 percent.

The Cumberland County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently won a $150,000, two-year grant from PetSmart Charities, which many hope will make a big difference in Vineland. The grant provides free spaying and neutering to the pet cat of any city resident. Stray and feral cats are not covered by the grant.

"They (PetSmart Charities) have chosen to target specific ZIP codes. They are looking for impact," said Bev Grecco, executive director of the Cumberland County SPCA, which runs the South Jersey Regional Animal Shelter in Vineland.

PetSmart Charities has funded shorter-duration spay/neuter programs for stray and feral cats in the past two years in other area towns, including Wildwood, Middle Township and Millville.

The problem of cat overpopulation has proved much more difficult to tackle than dog overpopulation, partly because of biology - they go into heat every three months, compared with twice a year for dogs - and partly to the fact that cats are much more likely to be left to roam outdoors by owners. Neglected or abandoned cats often form feral colonies.

That's why spaying and neutering stray cats has been so helpful in Cape May County.

"You have to give a lot of credit to municipalities, about half of which have spay and neuter programs for free-roaming cats," said Charlotte Anderson, a volunteer with The Animal Alliance of Cape May County, which runs a low-cost spay/neuter clinic on Thursdays in a building next to the Cape May County Animal Shelter, where it operates on 2,500 to 3,000 cats a year.

Cape May County shelters are all no-kill facilities, in which animals are euthanized only for serious health or temperament problems.

Instead of relying on euthanasia, such shelters have robust marketing and public relations programs to boost adoption, and there is heavy reliance on volunteers and foster care, said animal advocate and radio-television host Lorry Young, who does "Paws for Your Pet" on NBC40, a radio show of the same name from 2 to 3 p.m. Sundays on 1400 WOND, and pet tips on News Talk 770 WABC in New York.

Young is a fan of Nathan Winograd, founder of The No Kill Advocacy Center, who lays out 12 points for shelters to move to a no-kill model while saving money and creating community bonds.

Most cats that end up euthanized are adoptable animals, but there are just too many shelter cats, said Nancy Beall, president of the Atlantic County SPCA.

"There are so many cats, so damned many," said Beall, especially in feral colonies. "We don't have a population of feral dogs reproducing."

Euthanasia rates for dogs are less than half that of cats, state statistics show. Cats and dogs have a 63-day gestation period, and average litters of about four, she said. Fertile cats have at least twice as many litters as fertile dogs.

Cantin, who helps fund her nonprofit C.A.T.S. group with a volunteer-run Mew to You Thrift Shop on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City, said many people don't spay and neuter cats because of a lack of funds.

"They don't have the resources. I get calls every day from people needing help," Cantin said.

She said Cape May County is doing a much better job than Atlantic County in helping people pay for the operations.

"Many towns in Cape May County have funds they set aside, if people need help spaying," she said. "Atlantic County does not do that."

She said there are no free spay/neuter services available in Atlantic County, and while there are low-cost services, they are still too expensive for some people at $55 to $100.

Beall's Atlantic County SPCA has a spay/neuter mobile unit, which will travel to neighborhoods and do spay/neuter with vaccinations for $55 per animal, if enough people sign up for the day.

"All they have to do is contact us and we'll do a clinic," Beall said. She said a veterinarian, Lori Dugan, comes from Voorhees to do the clinics and can do more than 30 operations in a day.

Beall recently had two mobile-unit clinics at her home, and 29 animals had their operations done there, she said. She said she had offered to take the bus to the Atlantic County Animal Shelter in Pleasantville to do a low-cost clinic there, but the county had not taken her up on her offer.

The Atlantic County Animal Shelter has about 60 cats now up for adoption, said manager Kathy Kelsey.

She said the county was working out the logistics to hold a spay/neuter day with the SPCA and hoped to do so soon. The county is looking into starting its own low-cost spay/neuter clinic on-site in 2014, Kelsey said, but a final decision has not been made.

"We do partner with the community. There are a lot of resources available, like low-cost clinics at the Atlantic County Humane Society" in Atlantic City, she said. "We try to keep the cost to taxpayers to a minimum."

A big part of the problem is people who feed feral cats and allow them to breed.

"People think they are doing the right thing feeding a stray cat that comes to the house, without figuring out if it's spayed or neutered," said Bill Hollingsworth, executive director of the Ocean City Humane Society. "It's actually creating more of a problem for society and themselves."

The Ocean City Humane Society has picked up 40 stray cats so far this year, a number Hollingsworth finds alarming because it means people have abandoned them recently. He said most of the city's known feral colonies that the shelter wasn't able to trap were killed by Hurricane Sandy flooding last October.

"I'm amazed we picked up 40 animals in this year. They had to have been dumped after Hurricane Sandy," Hollingsworth said.

He said an additional 63 pet cats were surrendered to the shelter so far in 2013. About 80 of the 103 have found homes, with 23 still at the no-kill shelter, Hollingsworth said.

Many communities in Cape May County have successful trap, neuter and release programs. Called TNR, the programs trap feral colonies, spay and neuter them, and release them back into the community where volunteers feed them.

That keeps the colonies from reproducing, but only works where there is support from the host community.

The volunteer group Alley Cat Allies takes care of TNR colonies under the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, but the concept hasn't been used much elsewhere in Atlantic County, Cantin said. Instead, most strays that are picked up are euthanized.

"But killing them isn't solving the problem," she said.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219