Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 February, 2009, 12:00am

This week: stray cats

A few days ago I received a call for help from one of my sister's friends. It appears this friend has become a cat lady. This isn't a derogatory term; it's just a way to describe a person, in this case a woman, who feeds and cares for stray cats. It takes dedication to stand out in the rain and cold, after a hard day at work, to feed stray animals. From the perspective of the carer, it is, understandably, intensely satisfying to gain the trust of stray cats, enough to eventually touch them.

This positive feedback, though intermittent, is enough to get many people hooked on a life-long crusade to help stray cats. These carers come from all walks of life, and can be old or young, male or female, though there is a little bias towards women, probably because of their motherly instincts.

My sister's friend's problem is typical. She lives in Discovery Bay and started out helping an older cat lady feed the local strays. It started with donations of resources, in this case food, and progressed to volunteering her time.

Within a couple of seasons she had developed into a full-blown cat lady, with a daily routine. During that time she gained the trust of a small group of strays. The animals had grown used to her and regularly stopped by for the food she offered. Eventually they even allowed her to touch and pat them. She gave them names and would call them to her.

She took some pride in her success, as few people are able to develop such a strong bond with strays. The cats even eat out of her hand, which is rare. Strays generally only approach food that has been left for them after the feeder has stepped away.

After a while the cat lady realised that 'her' cats were no longer starving. They had more energy for breeding, especially with spring on the way.

I'm not sure whether she understood the link between feeding stray cats and the consequent increase in their fertility and fecundity. I explained to her that because she was feeding the cats enough to keep them satisfied, the food they no longer needed to catch or find in the wild was available to feed the other strays in the area, which in turn were also becoming more fertile and capable of producing up to twice as many kittens as when they were struggling to find enough food to survive.

In turn, the strays' offspring would have higher survival rates because of the mothers' increased access to nutritious food.

The sad part is that even with an improved survival rate, the total number of kittens dying from starvation and disease is likely to increase because more kittens will be born. If you'd seen as many totally emaciated kittens dying from cat flu as I have, you'd want to do something to prevent such torture from continuing.

Not all of the animals the cat lady tends to are feral. Many are abandoned pets whose collars have been removed and are surprisingly tame. New owners can often be found for them, but there is only so much a single person can do, and my sister's friend has found it very difficult to find people to help her. Most of the charitable organisations are already overloaded with strays and, because they have limited resources, have to lay down strict guidelines as to which animals they will accept.

So my friend is at a total loss as to what to do. The cats in the area have been breeding. Their number has grown from 20 or so strays six months ago to 60. This is why she called me. She realised that she would have to have the cats neutered or the problem would explode.

The strays posed a logistical problem because they were so far away from the usual sources of charitable help. Apparently existing programmes to catch, neuter and release strays require bookings, and it is logistically difficult, if not impossible, to catch a stray according to a schedule.

What I suggested was a spay and neuter day, where she would arrange for a large group of animals to be de-sexed in order to lower the cost. This could be done through charitable organisations, but also through private clinics. I offered to help and am waiting for her reply.

As a last piece of advice, I stressed to her that she needed to look after herself and her family first and foremost. I have heard too many sad stories of broken homes and lost fortunes because of a family member's obsession with stray cats. The problem always starts innocuously, but it can insidiously consume a person's life.

I have a strong belief as a veterinarian: my clients are just as important as my patients, and, in the course of treating an animal's ailments, I am always assessing the effect of the situation on the client to ascertain the best course of action for both.