The unspoken reasons we need a cat neutering campaign pronto

November 21, 2018

I know what you must be thinking...Here we go again with the usual boring old neutering. Keep reading, this might get a bit different. You usually hear why neutering is good because it reduces the number of vulnerable stray cats and it's good for their health but we definitely have something new for you and the powers that be, if anyone cares to share this blog with the likes of Clint Camilleri, Chris Fearne, Konrad Mizzi and Jose’ Herrera, please do share with them. As my esteemed colleague Mark Thorogood at Gozo SPCA rightly points out cat lovers generally don't need convincing, but to those who have little interest in them, and also to those who control the country's finances need a little more incentive.

In my dreams the world is has unlimited funding for projects that benefit animals, in which saying "An extensive stray cat neutering campaign would reduce suffering for the cats" is enough to convince anyone to fund one. However, reality is a cold shower if you ever decide to take it on board, so by giving a more complete list of all the other ways society can also benefit makes it more likely funding will be given, and more extensive funding. Sorry if this is going to be so far removed from any animals welfare argument you've ever seen but the cold hard reality is that given the animal welfare argument failing to get us anywhere, this seems a little called for. In fact I hope any person who is not reading this from an animal welfare angle becomes infuriated at the reluctance of the government to implement an extensive cat neutering campaign.


Stray cats have by now pretty much populated every inhabited area and some uninhabited areas in Malta and Gozo. Not a single day goes by that the Animal Welfare Ambulance, animal charities, vet clinics aren't called to help in some way or another with a stray cat. I often wonder what this all adds up to over a year in terms of numbers and money spent. I don't think I want to take a stab at guessing because what I believe to be close to the sum may cause disbelief in most. Which gets me started on the list of reasons.



1) It makes financial sense - As expensive as a nationwide long-term sustained neutering campaign may sound, if that investment is spent wisely on on a well planned campaign aimed at success rather than publicity, then in 6 to 7 years time the expense will be far less, both in terms of the cost of the campaign but as well in terms of the cost of rescuing injured and sick strays cats and kittens. This simple maths; fewer stray cats = fewer cats needing ambulance = better management of resources = more time for officer sot check out animal cruelty reports and hopefully some prosecutions and convictions. The Maltese need to start analyzing more closely and questioning how tax money is squandered on things that have little or no long term benefit.


2) It would give tourists a far better impression of Malta - Most tourist don't mind a few stray cats here and there and actually most of them enjoy throwing some table scraps their way. However,tourists don't like to see stray cats everywhere especially when many of them are obviously ill. We know this because a) no one does and b) they call the MSPCA regularly to seek assistance with exactly that.



3) Stray cats are a conservation problem - Cats don't just hunt for fun, like some dogs. They evolved alongside humans while retaining their ability to hunt for sustenance, and current knowledge about cat behavior leads us to understand that cats will hunt even when fed just to keep their sanity. They are wired that way. A cat that does 30 hunting sequences a day is a happy cat. They will hunt anything, within eyesight or earshot, that moves or makes a sound.You know this to be true because they do it even at home chasing a laser or a flirt toy or your fingers and toes. Strays will chase every lizard/shrew/mouse/rabbit/skink/turtle hatchling they come across and you have to observe a cat catching a bird to just marvel at their hunting abilities. They don't care if it is a protected species. Now with stray dogs only being isolated to very few pockets where irresponsible owners decided to throw them out, cats have no competitor or predator to challenge and limit their survival, space, ability to reproduce and spread to new areas.



4) Stray cats are a potential public health hazard - Toxoplasmosis is an infection by a parasite called Toxoplama Gondii. Cats are an essential part of its life cycle. Infected cats shed eggs from Toxo for about three weeks after infection through their feces. The parasite aims to reach a prey host, such as mice, change their behaviour so that they are easier for another cat to catch and the cycle restarts. However humans can become infected by these eggs through contaminated food, soil and water if they are then ingested or come into contact with mucous membranes. If you just think how often stray cats and kittens, that are potentially shedding, find themselves in and about playgrounds, football pitches, recreational areas and beaches then you start seeing how this can be a problem. Most people infected with Toxo will not show any medical symptoms, but older people, children and pregnant women are at higher risk of complications. If the infection were to reach the ye it can cause blindness. Furthermore, studies on rodents and primares show some remarkable changes in behaviour. In primates Toxo causes an attraction to the smell of car urine, alterations in reward modulation, reduction in novelty seeking, and in females an increase in caring behavior. Some human studies suggest a link between latent Toxo infection and mental pathology. With cat hoarding becoming more widespead one has to wonder how much of it could be attributed to Toxo. There is no data on the subject at present but one could easily formulate a hypothesis. The question is why is the government doing nothing to reduce stray cat populations humanely? It seems to make perfect sense for the government to invest in such a project.


The CALLISTO Project



5) More potential hazard in the future - Recent studies by Dogs Trust show the illegal puppy smuggling trade to me thriving. Breeders stand to make €126,000 from smuggling puppies. The study also found evidence of falsified rabies vaccination with some unscrupulous vets being in on the trade, especially from Eastern Europe where Rabies is common. There is no reason to believe that Malta is immune to such illegal importation as there is little EU legislation to control this trade and not enough will to change that. The CDC reports that while dogs have historically been associated with spreading rabies to people, more cats than dogs are reported rabid in the U.S. each year. Why would Malta be any different? If, God forbid, Rabies had to hitch a ride to Malta on a smuggled puppy and somehow find its way to the stray cat population it could be a public health disaster of monumental proportions, not to mention reeking havoc in the little fauna we have left and a horrible end for many cats.



6) Last but not least, the usual; it's better for the cats - At present there are a few organisations that try their best to provide responsible feeders with free or assisted cat neutering. While this is a noble and recognizable effort, they are constantly fighting obstacles they shouldn't have to fight. Some traps get destroyed by selfish people who think cats shouldn't be neutered. When they don't destroy traps they will release the captured cat or discourage it from entering the trap. If that weren't enough to hinder operations, funds are a huge problem and volunteers are ever dwindling. More often than not these noble cat neutering efforts just cannot neuter enough cats fast enough to effectively control the stray cat population. Here's why. Though cats reproduction used to be known as a seasonal thing but that was back when cats needed to hunt to eat. Now they are fed all year round, so they mate all year round. To make matters worse, the abundance of food means that the few queens that don't get spayed in time produce a surplus of kittens to replace the loss from other neutered queens, so they will have larger litters and more often than normal. I challenge any reader to find one month in the whole year when no kittens are rescued and/or offered for adoption. This is a considerable welfare problem for those few queens that don't get spayed because it undermines their health to mate and whelp so many litters with so many kittens every year. Not to mention how this is facilitating the spread of ringworm because of higher stress levels in the cat population and having to live much closer to other cats than nature intended.




7) Fewer cats vulnerable to abuse - Nothing I've said above is new. In fact some of the above points are the exact same reasons suspected to be the motive behind cats being poisoned and killed. It's the small scale version of culling that we know to be 100% to be wrong because it is inhumane but also because it does not work. What happens when you cull one cat or a colony of cats? Another cat or another colony moves in to the same place because the niche is once again available, and shamefully they will probably meet the same end. This doesn't have to continue. We have thousands of people working to reduce the suffering and yet thousands more cats continue suffering abuse because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, when they could have never been born at all if all stray cats were neutered.


If you are interested in reading more on the subject of stray cat reproduction, health hazards and population management as well as many interesting facts about domestic cat biology and behavior, we suggest this book to expand your knowledge:


What do you mean no more cats? Let me assure the ones who are worried that a neutering campaign will exterminate all cats and leave us with nowhere to get our pets from. In all the worldwide history of cat neutering campaigns carried out to control the stray population that has never happened. There will always be breeders and there will always be intact cat pets that breed either intentionally or accidentally. Ultimately, our dog neutering campaign has not had that result either but it effectively reduced the number of dogs found on the street and virtually eliminated the number of dogs that are born as strays, yet all the shelters are full and dog breeding remains unabated. Remember that two intact cats and their offspring can become 2 million in a matter of years. Cat extinction is just not going to happen while humans are around to feed them or their prey with garbage. But we can aim for there to be fewer of them so they can have a better life.

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