Zee & Zoey’s Spay/Neuter Series – Making Sense of Cat Overpopulation When the Numbers Don’t Add Up
We live in a sound bite, technological world where Google and social media is our go-to resource for everything under the sun. We have a tendency to believe what we read or hear and the more outrageous the headline, tweet, or status update, the better. Perfect example – the headline that keeps re-circulating in mainstream media over and over – that cats are responsible for killing billions of birds a year. The problem? The facts are misconstrued and outdated, serving as a dangerous trend between theoretical probability and realistic reporting as to what cats actually are, or are not capable of doing. This continues to make it an uphill battle in our society to educate people about theory versus reality when it comes to the subjects of cat conception, cat overpopulation, and the effectiveness of spay/neuter.
Case in point – in math, one plus one equals two and the subject is closed for debate. When it comes to one fertile female cat who mates with one un-neutered male cat and they have kittens, however, the collective number of offspring they could be responsible for in a seven year time frame ranges anywhere from 5000 to 420,000 kittens. Quite a discrepancy to say the least. And while it might appear on the surface the more profound number of 420,000 kittens allows a better chance of bringing attention to a serious subject, I have to respectfully disagree.
Do a quick Google search asking the question, “How many kittens could a female cat have in her lifetime?” The number one site that pops up is wiki.anwers.com and it confirms the 420,000 figure. Why is this so bad? Number one – because people tend to trust what they read, and number two, because these kinds of erroneous numbers lead people to believe cat overpopulation is too overwhelming to control and that spay/neuter efforts don’t work.
It also inspires justification of tragic euthanizations, overstated reports on cats killing birds, stereotypes about cat-crazy ladies with homes overrun with cats, and general cat-hating mayhem. Public policy for reform and change cannot possibly occur in a national mainstream effort if we don’t arm ourselves with facts on the actual numbers of kittens that can realistically be born and proven solutions that whatever the numbers are, they can be managed and controlled through spay/neuter efforts.Think about it – 420,000 is the population of Long Beach, California. With one female cat being responsible for ultimately producing that many kittens, how many kittens could be produced by two female cats? Or three? It would almost seem as if we would be unable to walk outside, having to part a Red Sea of cats to pass. Many respectable people such as Christine Wilford, DVM, Christie Keith, journalist, and Peter Wolf, feral cat and TNR expert of Vox Felina agree with this assessment and cite a numbers study done by mathematicians at the University of Washington based on research by Dr. Michael Stoskopf, professor of aquatic and wildlife medicine at North Carolina State on feral cat colonies.
The conclusion – while theoretically a female cat can have over three litters a year, those are extreme and highly unlikely conditions. A cat’s heat cycle is based on climate and daylight hours, so more realistically would be a cat having one to two litters a year. Of those litters, especially for outdoor feral cats, only about 75% of the kittens live to reach reproductive age. It is now more widely accepted that an unspayed female cat could have between 98 – 200 kittens in her lifetime. When you factor in possible offspring from offspring during that 7 year time frame, the more realistic number would be a collective 5000. Still a high number, but nowhere near the 420,000 figure.
The 420,000 figure is an urban myth that began sometime around 2005 with the Humane Society of the United States. They have long since removed the number from their site and it remains a mystery how the staggering number originated to begin with, which is part of the overall dilemma we face as cat advocates – many of the facts that are available to us are spotty and generalized at best. For example, the ASPCA reports that there are upward of 70 million homeless cats in the United States and approximately 5 to 7 million cats and dogs enter shelters every year, with 70% of the cats euthanized because the number of these cats far exceeds the number of adopters.
But where are the figures year by year, state by state, county by county, and city by city? I have seen that 70 million figure for years. Wouldn’t it fluctuate from year to year? And why do they lump cats with dogs as one category of animals that enter shelters? How many are cats and how many are dogs? Because there is not a national central database with statistics for every shelter across the country as to how many cats are euthanized each year and how many actual cats live outdoors or how numbers on how populations are reduced through TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return), we cannot accurately access where our efforts need to be best concentrated.
We know that there are success stories where TNR works, such as the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, Spartanburg Animal Services of South Carolina, and Jacksonsville Florida Feral Freedom to name a few and we need to use these examples as a powerful tools that make headlines rather than the overly sensationalized stories about cat hoarders or well intended PSA’s on local channels that only a handful of people watch. Or worse yet, depressing commercials with sad music and pictures of cats in cages – these images do not inspire pet responsibly and they do not discuss how and why spay/neuter not only controls overpopulation, but that it makes for a happier and healthier pet.
The dots have to be connected for people to understand – by promoting spay/neuter, cats are healthier and better behaved. As a result of that, far less of them will be brought to shelters for undesirable traits such as aggressive fighting and urine spraying that spay/neuter corrects. Less of them will be dumped on the streets with the potential to mate and contribute to the population of outdoor cat colonies – and those cats that do live on the streets can be managed and controlled through TNR efforts. The message that adopting a cat into your family can improve the quality of a person’s life needs to be heard loud and clear. A cat can decrease our depression, stress and anxiety levels. They can also lower our blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke and they make loving and devoted companions.
Let’s face it, we need the message of responsible spay/neuter to go viral like Keyboard Cat. We need our school systems to teach the virtues of spay/neuter as part of the curriculum so that our youth grows up with the importance of the message. We need NBC Nightly News, 60 Minutes, Nightline, Ellen DeGeneres, The View, The Talk and more to devote significant air time to the fact that cat overpopulation can be reduced and managed if we commit ourselves as communities to the effort. And regardless of any of the numbers or statistics, in my opinion, every cat or kitten deserves a good home, and even one cat that has to suffer is one cat too many…
For further information on spay/neuter, cat overpopulation, and more cat facts, please reference these detailed articles: