Reprinted with permission from Deborah Barnes, Zee & Zoey’s Cat Chronicles. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced. Copyright February 25, 2013.
Admit it–the headline got your attention. We live in a sound bite world and the more outrageous the headline, the better. Who needs confirmed facts if a story sells better without them? And hey, a cat CAN improve a person’s well-being. It has been proven that people who have cats in their lives can have lower stress, depression, and anxiety levels – all factors that can cause wrinkles, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that a cat who is happy and healthy from the benefits of spay/neuter would make a person more youthful just by being around them? But a dangerous trend between theoretical probability and realistic reporting as to what cats actually are, or are not capable of doing, continues in our society making it an uphill battle to educate people about theory versus reality when it comes to the subjects of cat conception, cat overpopulation, and the effectiveness of spay/neuter.
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 that cat overpopulation is too overwhelming to control and that spay/neuter efforts don’t work, it 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, that 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 anumbers 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 Brian Williams, 60 Minutes, Nightline, Ellen DeGeneres, The View, and The Talk 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. If we need to tell the world that they will have less wrinkles to make that happen, then by all means, please feel free to borrow my headline. 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…
Deborah Barnes resides in the tropical paradise of South Florida with her fiancé and feline family of seven. She is the author of the 5-star rated books, The Chronicles of Zee & Zoey – A Journey of the Extraordinarily Ordinary and Purr Prints of the Heart – A Cat’s Tale of Life, Death, and Beyond, as well as the award winning blog, Zee & Zoey’s Cat Chronicles that continues to cover the everyday journey she shares with her cats along with topics from the humorous behaviors of cats to very serious subjects on pet responsibility. Deborah was awarded 2013 “Writer of the Year” by Friskies Purina on behalf of the Cat Writers’ Association and she is also the Secretary of the nonprofit, Pawsitively Humane, Inc. of Miami, Florida, whose mission is to create public awareness and reduce the numbers of animals on the streets and in shelters through an extensive educational campaign.