Tuesday, May 12, 2009
by Sarah Casey Newman
April showers do more than bring May flowers. They start the flow of cats and kittens into our nation’s animal shelters. Soon the flow will become a flood. And thousands of innocent lives will be lost.
Lately the floodwaters have been rising higher, as more and more cats have been turning up on shelter doorsteps. Some shelters have reported increases of more than 30 percent since 2005, according to Pet Shelters Across America, the nation’s largest association of animal sheltering and adoption agencies.
At the Animal Humane Society, Cindy Johnson, Director of Customer Services, reports that numbers have risen by roughly a thousand cats a year for the past seven years. “In 2006 we took in over 21,000 cats,” she said. “That’s 60 percent of all our animals.”
At the shelters of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cats represent nearly 74 percent of the pet population. Felines in Florida have become so plentiful that they make up 93 percent of the shelter residents in Tampa.
Of all the factors influencing this rising river of felines, global warming has received the most press of late. The evidence is strictly anecdotal, said Frank Hamilton, co-founder of the Animal Coalition of Tampa and a member of the science board of Alley Cat Allies. But if an extended breeding season is an indication of global warming, the theory seems to make sense.
Cats are warm-weather breeders. “If it’s warmer longer, cats will breed more,” Hamilton said. “I’ve had several people from around the country tell me that with the onset of warmer winters and earlier springs, they’re seeing more kittens, more often.”
Cindy Johnson has made the connection. “In Minnesota, it used to be that you could have 15 inches of snow and below zero temperatures from October to April. But the weather pattern has changed over the past six or seven years.” Spring arrives earlier, fall lasts longer, winter is warmer—and “kitten season,” which used to peak in June and July, now lasts into October, she said.
Only a few years ago, finding kittens to adopt at Christmas, let alone Valentine’s Day, was practically impossible (not such a bad thing, considering that giving pets as gifts tends to be a terrible idea). Now, shelters from Fresno to Cleveland have kittens available year-round.
And, adult cats are always available. But with more kittens popping up more often, older cats are having more difficulty finding homes. Even people looking for adult cats find themselves wooed away by the wiles of an impossibly cute, couldn’t-resist-it kitten.
The surge in kittens often brings an increase in diseases that can spread to other cats. Overcrowding can add to the stress, not only on te cats but also on the shelter workers, who have to cope with conditions that are hair-raising enough under normal circumstances.
It’s not just the baby boom that causes concerns, said Kathie Johnson, Director of Animal Services at the Animal Humane Society. “We take in more adult cats annually than we do kittens. … When kitten season starts, cat surrenders also go through the roof.”
She can only guess at the reasons behind the surrenders: People are moving. They’re headed home from college, and their parents will kill them if they show up with a cat. Their kitten grew up so they’re turning it in—and getting another free kitten from that little girl and her mother with a fur-filled box in front of Wal-Mart.
What Kathie Johnson knows with certainty is the No.1 reason kittens are surrendered to the shelter: “Unwanted litter.”
The words are like a dirge, sung daily during kitten season at shelters from Maine to New Mexico.
Those who turn those unwanted litters over to shelters have to believe that the kittens will be adopted. They’re so soft and cuddly, so pick-me-up-and-play-with-me cute. Who could resist such adorable purr-fection?
The odds sure seem to be in their favor. America is a nation of cat lovers, after all. Felines are our favorite animal companions. We claim 75 million of them as pets, compared to only 61.5 million dogs.
Yet sadly, 71 percent of all cats that enter American shelters each year are euthanized, according to reports from more than 1,000 animal agencies in a recent Shelter Statistics Survey from the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP). That’s all cats – kittens included.
The increase in cats at shelters has coincided with a decline in dogs, and many shelters such as the Animal Humane Society no longer have to euthanize dogs except for serious medical or aggression problems. According to Cindy Johnson, the numbers of incoming dogs have decreased to the point that AHS is able to take in the overflow from other shelters around the state.
Increased regulations governing dog ownership, from leash laws to differential licensing have helped control free-roaming canines, and the unwanted litters produced by them.
The laws that helped control dog populations have never been tried with felines. “It would be difficult to have the same leash laws for cats,” Cindy Johnson said. “Many cities still require no licensing for cats. And even if you had some kind of ordinance banning free-roaming cats, most cities would be challenged to enforce it.”
Another problem with regulating cats is the “whole different mindset” that people have. “They just accept that cats should be allowed outside to roam. Our spay/neuter messages don’t seem to hit home with cat owners like they do with dog owners,” she said.
Where the cat comes from can have something to do with it. Was it plucked as a kitten from a shopping cart in a super-store parking lot? Picked up as stray in a back yard or alley? Handed over by a friend, whose friends had a cat that surprised them with kittens?
About 65 percent of pet owners get their pets for free or next-to-nothing, according to the NCPPSP. Where cats are concerned, at least 20 percent of pet felines start out as strays.
The problem with these pets is that they’re not really free. All require money for food, shelter, shots, whatever. People who have difficulty paying $130 at the Animal Humane Society for a kitten that has been spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and given a clean bill of health (a deal if ever there was one) may not be likely to take their freebee kitty to a vet for the same services, especially to have it altered. For some, it’s easier just to go to the shelter with the unwanted litters that come along later.
Frank Hamilton cited a recent pet food industry survey that found that 82 percent of households with cats have sterilized at least one of their felines – “but many didn’t do it until after that first ‘oops!’ litter,” he said.
That’s why early-age spay/neuter has become such a key preventative.
Cats can reproduce at 6 months of age. But they can be safely spayed or neutered – with the full endorsement of the American Veterinary Medical Association, by the way -- at 2 months or 2 pounds. Neglect to perform this simple procedure and, theoretically, here’s what can happen, courtesy of Spay USA:
Over the course of a nine-year breeding span, one unspayed female,
her mate and all their offspring, producing two litters a year with 2.8 kittens surviving in each litter, will produce a total of 11,606,077 cats.
Voucher programs that place the burden of spaying and neutering on adopters generally prove problematic for shelters to enforce resulting in compliance rates well below the 100% goal. Consequently, more organizations, like Animal Humane Society have implemented policies that require animals to be sterilized before they leave the shelter.
When it comes to legislation effecting pet populations, Becky Robinson, founder of Alley Cat Allies stresses that punitive laws don’t work. Incentives—such as subsidized spay/neuter services—do. San Francisco was so serious about bringing down its feral cat populations, it paid people $5 to bring in cats to be sterilized.
At least 23 states have special license plates that raise money for subsidized spay/neuter programs. Others use pet licensing fees. In 1993, New Hampshire created a special fund to subsidize low-cost spay/neuters by private veterinarians by offering a check-off box on state income tax forms; euthanasia rates have since dropped 75 percent.
The Animal Humane Society used to have the Prevent a Litter (PAL) program, which offered low-cost spay/neuters to the pets of people who surrendered puppies or kittens to the shelters. That was before AHS learned about the Veterinary Practice Act, which prevents facilities not owned by vets from practicing veterinary medicine on privately owned animals. Consequently, the program “went on hold” early last year according to AHS CEO/President Janelle Dixon.
Since then, AHS has since been in talks with the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) and the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine. “Unfortunately MVMA does not want to make any changes to the current law,” Janelle said.
So the Animal Humane Society is looking for other ways to offer low-cost spay/neuter services to low-income pet owners—beyond what it already provides through its two mobile clinics which travel out of state and to Minnesota’s American Indian reservations, where the regulations don’t apply. The newest project is a task force that AHS has formed with Animal Allies Humane Society of Duluth. The group is looking into how to initiate public funding for a cooperative venture with the veterinary community.
“It is our desire to work together on pet overpopulation,” Janelle said. “And we want to create a cooperative atmosphere between the veterinary and animal-sheltering communities.”
If they succeed, she said, everyone wins. Vets. Shelters. The entire community. And the animals. Especially the animals.
What you can do to help
Individuals can help solve the cat overpopulation problem in all sorts of ways. Specifically, we can, and should:
Sarah Casey Newman is a writer and former pet columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She lives in St. Louis with her two Greyhounds, Sam and Dharma; a Pug/Brussels Griffon mix, named Chewy; a Shih-Tzu named Bandit and four cats: B'mer, Noah, Maggie and Smudge. All are rescue animals.