What is the “cat crisis”?

In May I started volunteering at an animal rehoming centre. Over the few weeks I’ve been there an extreme cuteness explosion has occurred. With a sudden increase from a couple of momma cats with kittens to literally tens of baby cats, what the staff call “kitten season” is definitely underway.

Whilst kittens are cute (“socialising kittens” cannot possibly count as work, but it does) this is actually a symptom of a serious national problem. The UK has become overpopulated with cats and as a result, charities like the RSPCA describe themselves as “full to capacity” with felines in need of new homes. Although stray and feral cats can pose a variety of problems a key concern here is their welfare. Numbers of cats entering RSPCA shelters rose 8% over the period of 2010 to 2012 whilst the number of new owners taking home rescue cats fell by 10%. As a result, the rescue system is struggling to ensure good welfare for the multitude of UK strays, homeless and abandoned cats.

In the RPSCA report “Tacking the cat crisis” the main cause of the cat population growth is identified as unneutered female cats. Taking a broader ecological approach, it’s also worth pointing out that cats are a non-native species in the UK with few or no predators; species fitting this profile often experience population booms in their new habitat, escaping competition and over-exploiting prey which is not adapted to avoiding their predation. With species that don’t hold a special place in our hearts as pets culling is often the chosen population control, for example the hunting of red deer in the Scottish Highlands. In some places this has even been used for cats. In Australia, felines have a detrimental effect on native species and a large-scale cull is planned to remove 2 million cats by 2020. This has sparked petitions and controversy about which animals it’s acceptable to cull versus which we choose to focus on in terms of welfare. The two are not always as far apart as might be thought, with population control sometimes delivering benefits for remaining wild populations, but whether this culling is appropriate is always an emotive issue.

To return to cats in their British context as beloved pets, the focus is on animal welfare and the RSPCA believe that the best chance of improving cat welfare a the population level is to increase neutering rates. Research has identified that to stabilise the cat population 92% of female cats must be neutered. You could go even further and say that to reduce the population, making cats less easy to come by and possibly more “valuable” to their owners, neutering rates must be raised even higher. Unfortunately, in 2012 only 86% of owned cats were thought the be neutered, an insufficient amount to halt rising cat numbers let alone reduce them. Interestingly only female cat neuter rates effect population control; although castrating tom cats has many health and pet-ownership benefits, it doesn’t tackle the population problem.

Having seen cats come in to the shelter and prospective adopters enquire about them, I’ve learned that many people don’t want to “jump through hoops” to take home a shelter cat. Rehoming charities have to ensure that their charges are going to suitable and responsible owners with the right facilities and must also charge an adoption fee to cover the cost of vaccinations, neutering and care which the cat will have needed. Many people see this as very reasonable and a responsible thing to do. But others know that cats and kittens can be acquired elsewhere very cheaply or for free. Compared to this acquisition cost, neutering looks expensive (especially if the owners also have misconceptions about how much it costs). I wonder if this could lead to a vicious cycle, where cats are cheap to acquire, so neutering is seen as an unnecessary expense or even luxury, leading to yet more litters of kittens which makes them even easier to get hold of cheaply. It’s here that educating every potential cat owner about the benefits of neutering becomes important.

For many years neutering campaigns have focussed on the overpopulation issues and the idea that not having your cat spayed or castrated is irresponsible. But the RSPCA’s investigation suggested that these tactics are ineffective. Failure to neuter is commonly caused by a mistaken belief that having a litter of kittens is good for a cat or misconceptions around cost. Another key factor is that cats have been neutered at 6 months old for as long as most people remember but many mature at 4 months, meaning they may breed even if their owner intended to avoid it. Confusion over neutering age or accidental delay confounds the problem.

Whilst the historic campaigns relied on neutering vouchers, the RSPCA now believe this to be less useful than methods such as rehoming shelters adopting a blanket “neuter before rehoming” policy, re-education of the public with the message that neutering is a more loving act than allowing a cat to breed (especially the misconception that cats should be allowed to have a single litter) and delivers other health and behavioural benefits, encouraging vets to move to pre-pubertal neutering, engaging with the veterinary profession to incentivise low-cost neutering and cross-agency working such as building limits on numbers of cats into housing association agreements.

Every spring the issue of the cat crisis unfailingly raises its head. The local and national press write stories about homeless cats and the charities push their education message. It’s clearly a difficult one to hammer home and there will always be challenges such as people who resist education or are hard to reach, perhaps because they have never registered with a vet and got their cat from a private owner’s accidental litter not a rescue or professional breeder. The RSPCA’s work on cat owners’ underlying motivations for not neutering and the predictors of which owners will neuter versus which require targeted outreach brings a fresh approach to the table and it will be interesting to see the impact on cat populations and welfare over the coming years.


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