Cat overpopulation crisis takes community effort to resolve

Barbara Carwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. Photo courtesy Couvrette Photography/Ottawa

Barbara Carwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. Photo courtesy Couvrette Photography/Ottawa

By Sherry Warner

Each year the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) consults with its members on what issues should be focused on at a national level. “Cat welfare and cat overpopulation are of serious concern to member groups of the CFHS because basically they’re dealing with the after effects of overpopulation,” says Barbara Cartwright, CEO of CFHS.

“In 2011 the message was loud and clear that we needed to focus on cats and improving cat welfare, figuring out some solutions to the crisis that manifested in the shelter system,” she says.

So a task force of members from each province across the country was put together to address this issue. “The task force was very clear that first we needed the data. We needed to get an idea of the scope and scale of the problem that we were all facing as one large community,” says Barbara.

In 2012 the CFHS undertook a multi-stakeholder research initiative to address the negative consequences of cat overpopulation, which include homelessness, overburdened shelters and rescues and euthanasia. The result was a report — Cats in Canada: a comprehensive report on the cat overpopulation crisis — representing data and opinions from more than 478 stakeholders across Canada including shelters, municipalities, vets, rescue groups, trap/neuter/return groups and spay/neuter organizations.

Once the data was in place, CFHS worked with each province and the different stakeholders on the ground in order to identify some key national projects that CFHS could move forward with as well as issues that could be dealt with at a provincial and municipal level.

The report found that shelters and rescue organizations across the country are dangerously at or over capacity for the resources they have in order to address the cat overpopulation issue. “They are bursting at the seams and doing everything they can to provide space for all the unwanted, undesirable and abandoned cats,” says Barbara. “But every time a space becomes available it’s filled by another cat or a pregnant cat ready to give birth.”

Adoption is an important way to help reduce cat overpopulation but the report revealed that only 44 per cent of cats brought into shelters are adopted out. Unfortunately, Canadians are more likely to acquire a cat from a friend, relative, a giveaway, from their own pet’s offspring or take in a stray than they are to adopt from a shelter or rescue group.

“Of all the cats that come into a shelter, less than half will find their forever home. It’s so important for people to hear and understand what’s happening,” says Barbara. “Getting that message out to Canadians that as a community we need to do something about this, is important so that we reduce the burden on shelters.”

Accessible spay/neuter surgery was seen by 70 per cent of respondents as the most important solution to the cat overpopulation crisis. The report determined that there are about 10.1 million cats that have forever homes and when these guardians were asked whether or not their cats were spayed or neutered, 80 per cent said yes.

“This doesn’t necessarily correlate with the number of abandoned and unwanted cats and the fact that the number one way that Canadians are getting their cats are ‘free to a good home’ or litters from family,” says Barbara. “So if 80 per cent — which sounds great — are getting their cats spayed or neutered how do we still have all these extra cats?” Barbara explains that it could be a motherhood question — people answering the question the way they think they should be answering it.

Regardless, this still leaves two million cats unaltered and of course, two million cats breeding can still create a lot of cats. There are some barriers to spaying and neutering that have been identified including cost, which varies across the country; lack of access to high volume spay/neuter; and getting people on board with the importance of spaying and neutering their cat.

From the data collected in the report and input from stakeholders across the country, the CFHS came up with three areas to focus on at the national level. The first is to elevate the status of cats. “This came through loud and clear in the survey but also every single provincial meeting that we held,” says Barbara.

To do this, CFHS created the “Just For Cats” film festival using the reel of cat videos produced by the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for its annual Internet Cat Video Festival. “Just For Cats” was the perfect opportunity to celebrate cats and get the message out about what needs to be done to improve the welfare of cats.

“We wanted to find an event that was not just attracting cat people,” says Barbara. “Everybody loves cat videos so we felt this was the best way to reach a maximum amount of people.”

For the first year, the goal of the “Just For Cats” film festival was to help increase the value of cats across the country by having at least each province host a “Just For Cats” event. “The fundraising is important but it wasn’t our key mandate. Whatever fundraising was done stayed in the individual communities,” says Barbara.

By the end of October, CFHS will have held 18 “Just For Cats” events across the country. Depending on which province and which organization hosted the event, the festival ranged from a 70-minute screening of the cat video reel with messages before and after to a full day outdoor festival with vendors, microchipping clinics and celebrity cats.

“One of the highlights of the ‘Just For Cats’ film festival is we launched at the Toronto International Film Festival and the National Post did a whole week dedicated to cat welfare in its fashion section,” says Barbara. “It was amazing … they really elevated the status of cats.”

The second national initiative is to support spay/neuter — accessible spay neuter was the number one issue with survey participants. “More than 70 per cent said this was the issue we needed to focus on,” says Barbara.

“In response we launched a spay/neuter report that gives people the data they need in order to convince local council to provide low-cost spay/neuter.” The CFHS also launched a correlating tool kit for local communities in order to advocate for and get accessible spay/neuter in their community.

The third initiative is to help shelters restructure their environment is such a way so they have less cats at any given time but more cats moving through to an adoption outcome. Most cats come into shelters healthy, but, because of the stress they get ill and then face euthanasia. Finding a solution to overcrowding will reduce the number of cats that are euthanized every year.

Capacity for Care is a program developed at University of California, Davis that helps shelters restructure and CFHS is helping its members get access to this training and the money they need to reassess their shelters.

Guelph Humane Society and PEI Humane Society are two pilot sites and are about half way through the Capacity for Care process. The information from these two pilot sites will help other shelters with their own restructuring process.

From the report it’s clear that the cat overpopulation issue is a community issue and to solve it will take effort from all levels of government, shelters, rescue organizations and other non-profits, vets and individuals. “We can’t deal with the issue alone, everybody needs to be involved,” says Barbara.

For more information or to access the report visit http://cfhs.ca/athome/cat_overpopulation_crisis/

As an individual there are a number of things you can do to help reduce the cat population:

  • Make sure your cats are collared, microchipped and licensed (if that’s available in your city). This will help ensure that lost cats are reunited with their families and reduce the number in shelters.
  • Spay/neuter your cat as soon as possible so you don’t have an “oops” litter.
  • Help reduce the burden on shelters and rescue organizations by adopting your next cat.
  • Make a habit of promoting adoption.