Friday 22 April 2022

Cat overpopulation in the United States - a FULL discussion

This is a comprehensive discussion about cat overpopulation in the United States. Core information comes from The Welfare of Cats (ISBN 978-1-4020-6143-1). If on occasion I sound like someone who fervently believes that we can do better and that the current situation is untenable then it is true, I am. I think people have to become more passionate about this subject because we can't ignore it.

Cat overpopulation
A well-known picture signifying cat overpopulation! Image in the public domain.

I will minimise stating my opinion but will refer to the opinion and work of Americans in studies. I can't quote what they say because that would be a violation of their copyright. What I write will be a précis (a summary in my words). That way no one can criticise an outsider for commenting on something he knows nothing about. I actually know quite a lot about it through reading.

It is a grizzly subject but one that has been around so long and become so entrenched that is has been normalized. All the problems and issues about cat welfare in the USA pale into insignificance next to the welfare problems associated with cat overpopulation because it leads to their mass euthanasia.

Apparently, every minute of every day, four cats are killed at shelters in the USA (2012). Makes you think, doesn't it? Since first addressing this issue things have improved but there is a long way to go.

It is ironic that 90% of Americans think of their cat as a family member. A lot of former family members are being deliberately killed every day. It seems that cats are more disposable than dogs as there are some shelters where demand outstrips supply - something that is unheard of in the cat world.

Cat overpopulation is dictated by:
  1. Overbreeding
  2. Breakdown of human/cat relationship leading to relinquishment
  3. Failure to sterilise cats
  4. Requirement to increase adoptions from shelters.

America is divided into people who see the huge numbers of unwanted cats that are deliberately killed each year (euthanized) as a tragedy and those who act irresponsibly and who regard their cat as disposable. The latter group are indifferent to the mass slaughter and to the suffering that their actions cause the cat. Perhaps many are blind to it. They just don't think about it.

The attitude that cats are disposable is handed down from generation to generation. The cycle remains unbroken to this day. The origins of this mentality are unknown. I have made some tentative proposals (first and second). Comment: one comes to mind while writing this. 

If veterinarians set standards that undermine respect for the cat, it must be a contributing factor. It may be a major factor because what the vet does is a form of education and leadership to cat owners in the US. If vets treat cats as a commodity by which a profit can be earned it sends out the wrong message. Vets have an important role to play that goes well beyond treating cats with medical problems. Declawing cats is indicative of treating cats as commodities. 

Vets don't realise that when they declaw, they not only mutilate cats unnecessarily but they also teach cat owners that cats are customizable. And that is a bad lesson to learn. It means they can be discarded as and when necessary.

Cat Overpopulation Defined

Some people refer to a 'surplus of cats'. Others say that there is no cat overpopulation problem but an organisational problem of placing relinquished cats with homes that want a cat. Others just turn it around and say there are not enough homes. The fact is that if millions of cats are euthanised in America each year we have to conclude that there is a cat overpopulation problem and it is irrelevant how you interpret it. We have to work within the circumstances that we find ourselves.

P.H. Kass defines "cat overpopulation" as:

The existence of cats that are at risk of euthanasia because they are both unwanted and not owned.

As he says this includes the large number of cats at shelters.

Feral cat
Handsome feral cat. Image in public domain.

Vets Feral Cats and Numbers

Veterinarians in America are "frequently" presented with unwanted pets. They are sometimes asked to euthanise the companion animal. Some agree to do it and some don't (comment: I would have thought that killing a healthy cat - euthanasia is the wrong word - is a major breach of the veterinarian's oath and so I am shocked to hear that. It seems that the vet's oath has no meaning amongst a minority of vets or is it the majority as nearly all declaw cats in breach of the oath).

Many of the reasons for a breakdown in the human/cat relationship that can be overcome by cat owners working with veterinarians. This option is not taken up by the cat's owner and it seems that the vet does not always or even sometimes use his or her best efforts to sort things out.

Feral cats are a massive subject. Their beginnings are in abandoned domestic cats. They are ultimately part of the "disposable cat" mentality problem. The feral cat may have become part of the landscape and part of the US ecosystem. I don't know. They may serve a hidden purpose in keeping down rodents which is ironic as that is the original reason why the wild cat was first domesticated. Whatever we think, the feral cat also divides Americans. Some loathe them, others see vulnerable animals requiring help. The division in attitude is along the lines of disposability and respect for the cat mentioned above.

Comment: some kind people adopt colonies and feed, trap, neuter and return feral cats while others look on in disgust and want to criminalise this behavior and/or simply exterminate feral cats. There is a raging battle between bird conservationists and cats supporters. The feral cat and domestic cat are considered invasive species damaging native wildlife. They are in the internet news almost daily. Feral cat numbers are the single biggest news story regarding the cat after cat hoarding.

Whatever, they are part of the American cat overpopulation problem and millions join domestic cats to be killed at shelters. How many shelters are their? We don't know apparently. Some are privately owned making it difficult to work out total numbers. 

The Humane Society of the United States says that there are 1,800 while the American Humane Society says 3,000 to 5,000. Also records on numbers of cats at shelters are suspect even if it is obligatory to keep information (for local authority shelters) or it is not available to the public (for private shelters). Comment: I am told that shelters are reluctant to assist in providing information on any issue. I know this from personal experience in collecting data through this site about declawed cats at shelters. Personally, I am suspicious about shelters and the commercial aspect of shelters.

Are the figures from government shelters on "euthanasia" understated? They are certainly imprecise.

What are the figures at 2007? They vary widely. Comment: indicative of a lack of real concern by the authorities?
  • 5.7 - 9.5 million cats euthanised at animal shelters in 1990 (source: Kahler 1996)
  • 5 - 7 million cats (American Humane Association 1993)
  • 4 million (American Humane Association as referred to by Patronek 1996)
  • 3.18 million
  • 3.62 million (Rowan 1992)
Sometimes someone wants real, hard figures! California gathered some hard data in 1992 from government shelters:
  • 81% of the almost half a million cats at shelters were euthanised in 1992 (391,435/484,173 x 100).
  • 73,935 were adopted or claimed by their owners.
  • 4% of cats were unaccounted for.
  • 12% of the American population of cats are in California. Extrapolating these figures to nationwide figures results in 3.6 million cats euthanised yearly.
Note: as some cats at shelters would have been euthanised for genuine reasons the numbers killed at shelters does not necessarily = the number of adoptable cats. Some were not adoptable for health and/or behavioral problems (comment: the assessment of behavioral problems is problematic to say the least. Cats at shelters are often stressed. How do you assess adoptability accurately under these conditions?). Anyway, what are the numbers in this respect?

The estimate is that 17% of cats euthanised at shelters are for genuine reasons and therefore this percentage should be deducted from the total figures above (source: Kass 2001). Apparently, people come into shelters to have their cat euthanised rather than go to the vet as it is cheaper (free in fact) and more convenient. The average age of these cats is ten.

Comment: Ten years of age is not old, although technically a cat is in old age at ten, so I am surprised at that figure. How do we know how many of these cats have terminal health problems that require euthanasia? How are they assessed? By shelter staff and the owner? I can see a lot of subjectivity taking place under these conditions. What I mean is the shelter staff will be happy to please the cat's owner and also be used to euthanising cats by the tens of thousands. Don't people become inured to death under those conditions? Personally, Kass's figure of 17% should be substantially reduced in my opinion. Also, it seems a little uncaring to me to walk into a shelter to have your cat euthanised.

There is a need for far better record keeping at shelters which should be made public. The records should accurately compile data on input/output, numbers euthanised, reasons for euthanasia, numbers of cats euthanised on request of owner etc. This would allow the effectiveness of local programs to reduce cat overpopulation to be assessed properly. Comment: Shelters are a vital source of information on cat populations and cat ownership trends.

Uncontrolled Cat Breeding

Some cats are not spayed or neutered. These cats breed sometimes. That is a major factor in the cat overpopulation problem.

But for the fact that more than 80% of domestic cats in the United States are sterilised the cat overpopulation problem would be a lot worse, obviously. The problem is that it is only about 80% of the cat population and not 100% because it is the remainder of cats who are not fixed that are sometimes allowed to breed. Although cat haters like to exaggerate the breeding rate of cats, both feral and domestic, they are good survivors and therefore good breeders.

One important issue is the age at which a kitten or cat is sterilised. Some cat caretakers believe that a female cat should "experience parturition" (give birth) before being sterilised. Some people believe it is good for the cat's health. Some vets say a cat is potentially healthier after the operation. Or the cat has a right to reproduce. A study revealed that about 20% of cats give birth to an average of 2.43 litters of an average of 4.3 cats before being spayed.

Comment: and as for male cats there is a discussion as to whether early neutering (before sexual maturity) affects the development of the male cat's characteristics making him more feminine in appearance.  In fact, some people equate declawing with neutering and spaying. If the former is bad so is the latter. Looking at the situation totally logically it is sad that we have to sterilise all the cats.

Another reason for not sterilising a cat is financial. However, many places offer discounts on the operation. Perhaps there is a need to extend discounted spay and neuter operations across the nation. There is an argument that says it should be obligatory.

Why People Relinquish Their Cats to Shelters

Why are cats given up to shelters? I don't think the scientific community can provide a complete answer to the question.

However there have been several studies. In one 50% of the owners who relinquished did not have plans to adopt a cat. Comment: most cats are given up when they are young indicating a lack of preparation, knowledge and proper expectations. The figures in this study (Miller and other in 1996) and others are as follows:

Without wishing to generalise and over simplify, the studies indicate that cat relinquishment is in part or substantially due to:
  • inexperience
  • ignorance
  • incorrect expectations (my comment)
  • poor education
  • low income
  • lack of role models on cat caretaking
  • lack of access to veterinary care
An added complexity is the diversity of cultures of the American people (heterogeneity). People should seek help. Here are some resources:
Factors Affecting Adoptions

More work needs to be done in this area. One study (Lepper and others in 2002) indicated the following: Kittens under one year of age were:
  • 4x more likely to be adopted than cats aged 1-2 years
  • 5x more likely to be adopted than cats 3-5 years old
  • 19x more likely to be adopted than cats over 5 years of age.
  • Sterilised cats are preferred over unsterilised cats
  • Spayed females are 4x more likely to be adopted than intact females
  • Neutered males are 6x more likely to be adopted than intact males
  • Neutered males are preferred over spayed females by a factor of 1.56x
  • White cats are the favourite colour
  • Next favorite was pointed and then grey cats
  • Least favorite were black and brown cats (half as likely as tabby cats)
  • Purebred cats were favored over random bred cats
  • Cats described as being geriatric, ill and having behavioral problems reduced adoption success.
  • Men who adopt are more likely to give up their cat than women within 6 months of adoption.
  • More first time adopters gave up their cat subsequently than people who had previously cared for a cat.
  • People rejecting their adopted cat were on average younger than people who retained their cat.
Ways to improve retention rates of adopted cats are:
  • Provide information about cat care and training
  • Ensuring person has correct expectations
  • Ensuring better understanding of cat caretaking
  • Ensure person is committed.

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