The problem with cats

Outdoor feline populations are exploding across the country and cities are struggling to keep the cats—and cat lovers—at bay

Cats on a corrugated roof. (mer Fuat Eryener/EyeEm/Getty Images

Cats on a corrugated roof. (mer Fuat Eryener/EyeEm/Getty Images

“Most cats don’t want to be spotted, so it can be really difficult to count them,” observes Tyler Flockhart. “But there are exceptions.”

The exception this wintry afternoon in Guelph, Ont., is an inquisitive jet-black cat with just the slightest dab of white at the end of its tail. Wandering over from a nearby balcony, Blackie (or perhaps it’s Tip?) proceeds to rub itself against Flockhart’s leg. As he’s being greeted, Flockhart scribbles down the details of their encounter: time of day, colouring, health and location. Demeanour? Unconcerned. Another cat counted.

As with herding cats, tallying them with any sense of precision seems an entirely Sisyphean task. But Flockhart, who holds a post-doctoral position at the University of Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology, aims to bring some scientific rigour to the controversial topic of outdoor cats. His brief interaction with Blackie is part of a research agenda aimed at putting a reliable number on Guelph’s outdoor felines—a broad category that includes pet cats with outdoor privileges, lost or abandoned strays and entirely feral cats. By repeatedly walking pre-determined routes, recording every cat sighted and applying statistical methods typically used to count animals in less-developed surroundings, he hopes to produce a figure that’s more than just a wild guess. “If you want to understand or manage the cat population, you first need to know how many cats are out there, where they are and what determines their abundance,” he says.

Research to date suggests that for every cat Flockhart spots on Guelph’s streets, another 20 are hiding somewhere nearby. Roaming cats appear with greater frequency in lower-income residential neighbourhoods, suggesting a socio-economic aspect to the problem. And they are less common near major roads and woods, where cars and coyotes, respectively—two major threats to feline longevity—lurk. By Flockhart’s reckoning, Guelph, with a population of 120,000 humans, is home to between 8,000 and 10,000 cats at large. Is that a lot? It probably depends on what you think about cats. And lately, Canadian cities have been thinking a lot about cats.

Across Canada, municipalities both large and small are replacing their old animal control bylaws with “responsible pet ownership” rules. This move is intended to shift the obligations of pet behaviour away from animals to their owners. A common feature of the accelerating trend is a requirement that owners get a licence for their cats and ensure they don’t roam. (Exact rules vary from city to city.) Once considered so absurd it featured in a Monty Python skit, the cat licence is now becoming, like the task of picking up your dog’s poop, yet another prosaic obligation of modern pet ownership.

Over the past several months, Montreal, Peterborough, Ont., Sudbury, Ont., and Guelph have all mandated licences for resident cats. Winnipeg made the move a year ago, joining early adopters Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto.

Calgary is considered to be the pioneer of this movement, with a bylaw that took effect in 2007. “We are certainly seeing a trend toward a greater focus on cats,” says Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS), a group that lobbies for cat licensing. “We’ve had bylaws covering dogs for a very long time, but only in the past decade have we started to see similar concern for cats.”

In 2012, the CFHS estimated Canada’s owned cat population at 10.2 million—substantially outnumbering dogs as the country’s most popular pet. Yet numerical superiority doesn’t necessarily mean a better lifestyle. “We treat dogs differently than we do cats,” laments Cartwright. Perhaps because dogs tend to insert themselves deeply into the emotional life of their families, they benefit from more attention, such as vet care, as well as stricter official scrutiny. Cats play it cooler, and are more likely to walk on the wild side.

In her 2016 book The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker notes the peculiarity that the house cat, despite thousands of years of human domestication, is still nearly identical to its untamed relatives. While dogs have been bred into a dizzying array of shapes and sizes to satisfy the whims of their owners, “cats have changed so little physically during their time among people that even today experts often can’t tell house tabbies from wild cats,” writes Tucker.

This latent wildness likely explains the laissez-faire attitude of many cat owners; an estimated 40 per cent let their kitties roam outside to indulge in ancient hunting rituals. This aura of self-sufficiency is also the reason why a depressing number of cats are abandoned whenever they become inconvenient. “If you see a dog at large in your neighbourhood, chances are you’ll do something about it,” observes Cartwright. “But if you see a cat wandering around, you’ll probably think, ‘So what. It’s just a cat.’ ”

One way to confront this disparity is to make people pay for the privilege of owning one. “Licensing is a tool to change perceptions,” says Cartwright.

Prior to Calgary’s 2007 cat licensing bylaw, almost 40 per cent of stray cats trapped in the city were euthanized. Without a centralized ID system, it was difficult to match lost cats with their owners. Today, Tara Lowes, superintendent of shelter operations at the city’s Animal Services Centre, happily reports that more than half of all impounded cats are returned to their owners and just 10 per cent are put down out of necessity. “Now responsible owners can come in and pick up their pets. It’s made a big difference,” she says. But while cat licensing may move cats up the value chain and help reunite lost pets with their owners, the policy is incapable of resolving Canada’s other major cat issue: what to do about the vast clowder of unowned, outdoor cats.

The Humane Society’s 10.2 million figure refers only to owned pet cats. They’re waiting on Flockhart’s research to bring greater clarity to the issue of outdoor and feral cats. Regardless of exact numbers, however, many cities complain they’re overrun. “The reproductive cycle of an outdoor cat is completely unmanageable,” says Lubna Ekramoddoullah, a director of the Surrey Community Cat Coalition in B.C.; an unspayed cat can have a litter every two to three months. In 2014, her group estimated the unowned feral cat population in Surrey at a whopping 34,000. After consulting with Flockhart, she now considers that number to be unreliable, but stresses “the crisis is still ongoing.”

Ekramoddoullah figures two-thirds of the cats living on Surrey’s streets are abandoned house cats, mostly from low-income neighbourhoods where owners are less likely to sterilize their pets. While Surrey doesn’t have a cat-licensing bylaw, this makes little difference: no one licenses unowned cats.

Efforts in Surrey to stem the feline tidal wave follow “trap, neuter and return,” or TNR, as practised in most Canadian cities by volunteer organizations, or with official oversight. Under TNR, outdoor cats are trapped whenever possible. Owned cats are returned to their homes if possible. Unowned cats with suitable temperaments are put up for adoption. The rest are spayed or neutered and returned to the alleys or backyards where they were found.

Volunteers often visit daily to provide food to these free-range cat colonies, but otherwise the off-grid cats are left alone to prowl the urban jungle. “Once they are fixed and have reliable food and shelter, most cats don’t wander too far,” says Debbie Nelson, a founder of Calgary’s MEOW Foundation, which has been practising TNR since before the city’s cat licensing bylaw. “Cats aren’t stupid. There are lots of kind souls out there to feed them, so they stick around.”

There is, however, considerable doubt about whether TNR can be considered a permanent solution to free-roaming cats. In theory, it should lead to a gradual diminution in colony size as the breeding pool shrinks. But real-world evidence is mixed. For TNR to be successful, up to 90 per cent of a colony’s cats must be fixed, and new cats somehow prevented from arriving. It’s a big ask. “No municipal-scale TNR program has been shown scientifically to reduce the number of free-roaming unowned cats in a jurisdiction,” says Travis Longcore, author of a lengthy review of TNR’s efficacy in the academic journal Conservation Biology. Rather than solving cat overpopulation, he sees it serving a different purpose. “The goal of TNR is to coddle people who have the hobby of feeding feral cats,” he snaps.

Nelson disagrees, pointing to a steady decrease in the number of TNR procedures her organization has performed over the years as evidence it can work. “I believe with continued effort we can reduce and eliminate the roaming cat population,” she says. “And even if the goal is just to reduce euthanasia, I think TNR is still worthy. Why would we want to kill any animal?”

If TNR is simply meant to spare the lives of outdoor cats—perhaps a reasonable objective given the role human inattention plays in their current proliferation—its continued application sets up an unusual dichotomy, given the current trend toward cat licensing and responsible pet ownership bylaws. Montreal’s new bylaw, for example, requires owned cats to wear a licence at all times, even if they never go outside. They are also forbidden from “wandering,” and it is illegal for anyone to feed a stray animal. Yet the city’s new pet ordinance explicitly exempts unowned TNR cats and their “guardians” from all such rules. For a movement that’s supposed to equalize the treatment of dogs and cats, it seems a striking disparity. Consider the civic mayhem that would ensue if a pack of feral dogs suddenly took up residence in a park and a group of volunteers dropped off a few raw steaks every night for their benefit. No one would tolerate such a situation. “There is a contradiction here,” admits Calgary’s Lowes about the differing ways in which owned and feral cats are treated under her city’s bylaw. “But to be honest, we don’t hear a lot about cat colonies from our citizens.”

Local cat coalitions and humane societies tend to dominate municipal discussions about outdoor cats, so advocacy for TNR and the need to avoid euthanasia generally take precedence over policy coherence. As a result, other issues get far less airing. Feral cats, for example, have been implicated in some worrisome public health issues, such as the recent outbreak of raccoon-borne rabies in southern Ontario. And they’re murder on birds. “The ongoing mortality of birds by domestic and feral cats in Canada is a disgrace and needs to be addressed urgently,” complains Alan Burger, an ornithologist at the University of Victoria and president of BC Nature. Neutered or not, outdoor cats remain skilled and prolific hunters—a federal government report estimated the annual toll of birds killed by cats at nearly 200 million, with the majority killed by ferals.

Burger’s group promotes province-wide cat licensing as a first step to keeping all cats locked up. And he considers TNR “a waste of time because you are putting a predator back out there to kill more birds. If you’ve captured a cat, it should be put down,” he says.

On the topic of outdoor cats, cat lovers and bird lovers tend to fight like, well, cats and dogs. “Quite often the conversation comes down to either killing cats or not killing cats. And that isn’t very productive,” says Flockhart.

Is there hope for middle ground? Some of Flockhart’s colleagues at the University of Guelph have tried to turn their city into a test case for cat-bird détente by focusing on mutual objectives and interests. The first lesson: don’t refer to the problem as “cat overpopulation”; that gets cat people worked up. Hence the Cat Population Taskforce. And while both sides tend to approve of cat licensing (for different reasons), there’s no agreement on how to control their unlicensed relatives.

Failing interspecies rapprochement, Flockhart puts his hope in better science. Knowing how many cats are actually wandering our streets, where they’re located and why, may eventually make it possible to come to some broader conclusions about what to do with them. He finds evidence that cats avoid woods where coyotes are known to prowl to be “very, very interesting.” This suggests birds find safety in the presence of coyotes, a predator that suffers from a reputation even worse than that of feral cats.

It also hints at an ecosystem with its own checks and balances operating outside the realm of human involvement. “The number of cats isn’t just a product of the number of people,” says Flockhart. “There is also a natural process at work here. And from an ecological perspective, mortality is a natural process.”

If humans can’t figure out how to solve their cat problem, maybe Mother Nature will have to get involved.

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