In the United States, cats seem to be a popular choice for pet owners — according to the American Pet Products Association, Americans own 86.4 million cats, as opposed to 78 million dogs.

However, this doesn't necessarily hold true for Kansas, where more people say they own dogs than cats (U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook). Will Tate, fundraising/marketing coordinator with Caring Hands Humane Society in Newton, said cats are sometimes looked at as "second-class animals," and this is an attitude Caring Hands is hoping to change. He believes altering this perception is especially important due to the overpopulation of free-roaming cats in the area.

"We need to change it," he said. "We're at a critical situation here in Harvey County."

Tate said dogs tend to be more popular in rural and agriculturally based areas, while cats are more popular in urban areas, for which they are perhaps better suited. Dogs may be seen as a useful part of a farm, such as running off coyotes, though cats can be used for rodent control.

"I think you find nationally rural communities are more apt to value dogs than cats," Tate said.

Many shelters across the country are overrun with cats, including Caring Hands. In August, Caring Hands received 203 cats — a 14-year record. The average number per month at this time of year is 100. By contrast, the shelter receives about 70 dogs per month.

The shelter's executive director, Kevin Stubbs, has a theory about why free-roaming cats are a bigger issue than free-roaming dogs. He said about a century ago, wild dogs ran in packs through the streets and were seen as dangerous due to the potential spread of rabies and the threat of attacks. People made an effort to control the wild dog population to eliminate this threat, but the public didn't perceive the same danger from the cat population.

If people see a dog running down the street, they are more apt to stop and help it, while if they see a cat running down the street, they assume the cat can care for itself.

Tate and Stubbs said free-roaming cats are not usually spayed or neutered and do not receive veterinary care, causing them to be less healthy. Since they haven't been vaccinated, they can spread diseases when they are brought into a shelter.

"The animals themselves aren't living the best life they can," Tate said.

The city of Newton has one animal control officer, and the number of free-roaming cats is too much for one person to take care of, Tate said.

Stubbs recommends Harvey County communities consider a "managed colony approach," where the free-roaming cats are caught, spayed or neutered, and then released to be monitored by a designated caregiver in a neighborhood. He believes this could ultimately be a better method of controlling the population.

For now, he and Tate encourage cat owners to spay or neuter their pet. Even if your cat is an indoor pet only, there is a chance the animal could still escape. Spayed and neutered cats also are healthier and have better temperaments.

The humane society has $65 vouchers for both cats and dogs for a spay/neuter procedure at a local vet's office. The vouchers result in about a 50 percent savings on the service. Caring Hands has handed out about 7,000 of these vouchers over the past nine years — a $500,000 equivalent.

Stubbs also said if you see a lone cat wandering through the neighborhood, bring it into Caring Hands right away — don't wait until the cat has a litter of kittens, increasing the cat population even more.

Caring Hands strives to be a no-kill shelter, but they will need the help of city governments, volunteers and donors to reach this goal, Tate said.

"There's no solution to this problem that is quick, because we have such a large population of cats," he said. "... It's a community effort."

For more information about how you can help, contact Caring Hands at 283-0839.