A life in fear, is not a life worth living

Posted on 07/03/2017

Following significant social media comment and criticism on SPCA Otago’s management practises for stray cats, the Society wishes to clarify several matters that have arisen.

Managing cats in an urban and semi-urban environment presents significant challenges, particularly in light of “ownership” issues with stray cats, new health and safety legislation, sustainability of our practises (financially and emotionally) and ensuring that all animals in our care, are managed inside the law.

Firstly, let us be very clear about categories of cats with which we come in contact. Definitions are extracted from the COMPANION CATS, Animal Welfare (Companion Cats), Code of Welfare 2007, a code of welfare issued under the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

Cat Terminology

Colony

A group of stray (social and/or unsocial) cats living together.

Companion

Common domestic cat (including a kitten unless otherwise stated) that lives with humans as a companion and is dependent on humans for its welfare. For the purposes of this document, will be referred to as “cat.”

Feral                      

For the purposes of this document, “feral” means a cat which is not a stray cat and which has none of its needs provided by humans. Feral cats generally do not live around centres of human habitation. Feral cat population size fluctuates largely independently of humans, is self-sustaining and is not dependent on input from the companion cat population.

Stray

 

For the purposes of this document, means a companion cat which is lost or abandoned and which is living as an individual or in a group (colony). Stray cats have many of their needs indirectly supplied by humans, and live around centres of human habitation. Stray cats are likely to interbreed with the unneutered companion cat population. They can be social or unsocial.

 From this information, we can ascertain that it is stray cats (social and unsocial) that are the subject of most interest.

Legal Requirements

All animals in a person’s ownership (or a person in charge (PIC) of that animal), can expect to have their physical health and behavioural needs met by that person/PIC – this is a legal requirement.

All treatment of any animal as defined in the AWA 1999 must be humane and not negatively affect their welfare.

No person, other than the owner, or an inspector or constable with appropriate powers under the AWA 1999, (or a veterinarian, in specific circumstances), may give authority to provide treatment (including euthanasia) for another person’s cat. Therefore, before any action is taken regarding any cat, ownership, perception of ownership (or PIC status), must be confirmed.

Managing Cats in the urban environment

Companion cats

These cats are owned, live closely with humans, who generally meet most of their needs. They are usually sociable and able to be handled if caught. The majority are de-sexed, and many have also been vaccinated, and are having their physical health and behavioural needs attended to. Occasionally, companion cats caught in traps, may present with very wild, and unsociable behaviour due to the stress being trapped and contained.

There are a number of owned cats also, that are not so well cared for, that are not de-sexed, and as such present a population control issue. These cats breed freely with other domestic cats, and the stray population.

Stray Cats

1)         Sociable (stray but friendly)

Many sociable, stray cats have a relationship with one or more carers, who consider themselves to have some form of “ownership” or “guardianship” of the cat. There may be several people who feel they have this relationship with the cat. Health care costs are not normally accounted for and usually no attention is given to the on-going health needs of the cat – i.e. they are often not de-sexed, nor are they vaccinated, nor do they regularly have their health checked by a veterinarian. Usually, these cats are only presented for veterinary attention, once health is seen to be grossly failing (i.e. cat bite abscesses, wounds, fractures). These animals often then are trapped and delivered to SPCA Otago, as meeting the on-going health care costs is something with which only a few stray cat carers wish to engage.  When trapped and stressed, these cats may also appear to be unsociable cats with wild-type behaviour.

Given all the above, trapping of a sociable (i.e. can be handled and petted), but stray cat presents difficulties with regard to how that cat can be managed. Ownership or being the PIC, is not absolutely defined, but there is potentially enough of a cat-human relationship to suggest that the cat must be held for 7 days, in order for there to be an option that the owner or PIC can make an ownership claim.

If presented to SPCA Otago, these cats are health checked, vaccinated, and held in quarantine for 7 days, to allow for reclamation. If not claimed, and they are healthy, they are de-sexed, microchipped and re-homed.

2)         Unsociable (stray with wild behaviour/stray-wild)

Stray cats that are not able to be handled, due to wild behaviour, make up a proportion of the stray cats in the urban environment. People in the community may however, still consider that they have a relationship with these cats. SPCA Otago has no legal mandate requiring us to manage healthy, stray, but unsocial animals. If trapped, these cats display very wild, fearful, and aggressive behaviour, and are a danger to all people attempting to handle them.

Consideration must be given to all the above, and the following, when choosing which cats enter SPCA Otago’s facility:

1. WELFARE:

This is a two-fold consideration:

    1. Incoming welfare status

I.e. is the animal sick, injured or acutely abandoned.

 2. Welfare at Centre

Given their wild behaviour, containing these cats in a cage, is considered to be a significant psychological welfare issue, and as an organisation involved in compliance of the Animal Welfare Act 1999, this would be difficult to negotiate.

2. HEALTH & SAFETY:

Stray-wild cats also present a significant health and safety risk to all personnel that deal with them. Given that SPCA Otago is an employer, as opposed to a volunteer network (though we do have many fabulous volunteers), the Society must ensure, as per Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 that risks at work are identified, minimised, isolated and/or removed. This includes risks such as cat bites, and scratches that are a reality in dealing with these stray-wild cats, and potentially serious complications from these injuries such as cellulitis, septicaemia, and cat scratch fever.

3. SPACE/RESOURCE CONSTRAINTS

SPCA Otago does not have the space to tame each and every stray-wild cat that the public presents. Each space occupied by a stray-wild cat (which requires weeks to months of taming), means that one friendly, immediately re-homeable cat misses out.

This can be achieved, and the Society wishes to acknowledge the work other agencies are doing with stray-wild cats, in taming and re-homing them.

As an employer, volunteers’ homes become work places, and as such are also subject to H&S scrutiny, also making this option difficult for the Society to traverse legally.

4. HEALTH RISKS FOR CATS

There are significant risks to having too many cats in a small space – this causes stress, which causes cats to shed virus and precipitates disease. Presence of clinical disease is a balance of the cat’s immune competency (vaccinated/not vaccinated, natural immunity), the load of disease in the environment (e.g. more cats = more stress shedding = more risk of disease) and the stressors placed on the cats (i.e. most significantly, overcrowding stress, being trapped, changing environment).

Cats are solitary animals by nature, and research indicates that even a well-managed, multi-cat household, presents an increase in stress levels to the cats living there, thus an increased risk of disease.

As such, SPCA Otago is not in the habit of accepting stray-wild cats into its care. These are not animals that are able to safely re-homed, having them limits the Society’s ability to give a friendly cat a home. There are also legitimate concerns for the psychological welfare issues that result from caging cats with wild behaviour.

Into the future

The above information sets out the arena in which SPCA Otago must operate, including some of the constraints placed on the Society by current legislation (e.g. Animal Welfare Act 1999 (AWA 1999), and the H&S at Work Act 2015). As an approved organisation under the AWA 1999, SPCA Otago management practises must withstand scrutiny regarding welfare for all the animals in its care. Many factors contribute to decision making around entry of cats to the Centre, as detailed above.

Many organisations have a common goal of enhancing welfare and preventing suffering for animals within Dunedin and New Zealand. SPCA Otago believes that working together is the most useful and efficient way to bring that goal fruition. The Society is required to operate under a different structure, with legislative requirements than other volunteer organisations, which places constraints on how it must operate. This should not detract from the vast amount of work that the Society does in the animal welfare arena, and the support the Society has offered to other agencies. 

References:

1. COMPANION CATS

Animal Welfare (Companion Cats)
Code of Welfare 2007

Final New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy Background Document
18th September 2016