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Owning cats in HDB flats: Support and concern among animal welfare groups, cat lovers on proposed framework

Move to end Singapore's ban on cat ownership in public flats welcomed, but groups are worried about misinformation, irresponsible owners

Animal welfare groups and cat owners on government proposal to lift cat ownership ban in HDB flats (Photos: Getty Images)
Animal welfare groups and cat owners on government proposal to lift cat ownership ban in HDB flats (Photos: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — A proposed cat management framework was announced by the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) on Saturday (2 December), in the first steps to lift a 34-year ban on cat ownership in public flats in Singapore. Starting in the later part of next year, two cats may be allowed for each HDB flat, and three cats for a private residence.

As reported by The Straits Times, pet cats will need to be microchipped and licensed to improve their welfare and traceability.

To encourage cat owners to meet licensing conditions, they can get the licences for free within a transitional period of two years. From next year, AVS will be providing free sterilisation and microchipping for pet cats belonging to low-income households, such as those living in public rental housing. All new licence applicants will also be required to complete a free online responsible pet ownership course.

Once the framework is in effect, it will be illegal not to license pet cats. Cat owners will be subjected to penalties similar to dog owners under regulations.

HDB residents have not been allowed to own pet cats since 1989, and offenders may be fined up to $4,000. However, actions are typically taken against them only if there are complaints of their cats causing a nuisance.

The Cat Welfare Society (CWS) has formally entrenched its Pet Cat Sterilisation Programme in November 2020, where free sterilisation and microchipping of pets cats is available for financially distressed households. As of date, over 200 pet cats are sterilised per month on average.

What legal cat ownership in HDBs could do for cats and society

Animal welfare groups which Yahoo Southeast Asia spoke to welcomed the proposed framework. Aarthi Sankar, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said that the microchipping and licensing requirement is "an important step" that could help deter cat abandonment cases and increase owner accountability.

She added that the SPCA welcomes the proposal, since it has long advocated for cat ownership in HDB flats, and for more formal regulations.

"Successful implementation of the proposal hinges on neighbourliness and community effort. When cat owners respect the guidelines and their neighbours, this will positively impact their cats’ well-being and community harmony," she said.

CWS' president Thenuga Vijakumar also believes that the legalisation of cat ownership will have an "overall positive impact" on cat welfare, which will translate to reduced stress on public officers and the authorities in the next three to five years.

Meanwhile, Christine Bernadette, co-founder of animal welfare group Causes for Animals, said the proposed change is "definitely a step in the right direction", allowing more opportunities for cats in need to find a home.

On the other hand, Kerstin Schulze from cat welfare non-profit foundation Project LUNI said that with the new framework comes new responsibility, as well as regulations that need to be enforced. "This could be the real challenge," she said.

The new framework also proposed an extension of the AVS-funded Trap-Neuter-Rehome/Release-Manage (TNRM) programme, a programme that is currently available only for free-roaming dogs, to community cats. Schulze sees this proposed move "making the biggest difference" in helping to control the stray cat population, something done mainly by animal welfare groups thus far.

While two years is a "relatively long transition time", Schulze hopes it does not lead to more cats accidentally multiplying in homes.

Cat owners' surprise and concerns

Cat owners also welcomed the move, with some feeling that the framework should have been in place a long time ago.

Marcus Leong, 26, a cat owner who lives in a flat, believes that the move could encourage more cat adoptions. "I was quite surprised that we haven't already legalised it, especially since we allow dogs in HDB flats. This is something that I have always felt very perplexed by, because cats are much smaller and easier to manage than dogs," he said.

He nonetheless cautions on the potential of more abuse cases, since community cats can be brought home with no way of monitoring what their owners do behind closed doors.

"As a pet owner, I would definitely encourage pet owners to train their pets properly so that they don't bother others - especially in the wee hours," Leong said.

Another HDB cat owner, Lea France, was also "pleasantly surprised" by the news. The 27-year-old believes the move would make tracking lost and abandoned cats much easier, and hopes the compulsory microchipping and licensing will mean fewer "impulse pet buyers". She also hopes the proposed law can bring about new changes such as more cat facilities or cat-specific groomers.

Potential misinterpretation of proposed number of cats

According to data from surveys by CWS in the past two years, most cat owners have between one to three cats. As such, it is "unclear" over the basis for limiting cat ownership to two in HDB flats, with Vijakumar saying, "The more logical starting point would have been three cats."

CWS is also concerned that there could be potential misunderstanding over the proposed threshold, of which irresponsible cat owners may abandon or recklessly give their cats away.

"That is entirely the opposite effect of what this lifting is supposed to achieve. There must be clear, consistent and direct communication to cat owners to explain the two-year transition period, and assistance provided to them on how to become responsible cat owners," Vijakumar said.

"We believe that clear regulations, backed with penalties for non-compliance, will drive and increase the welfare of our Singapore cats."

CWS' concern was also echoed by the SPCA, which said that owners who exceed the cat limit may be unaware they are covered by a clause, which allows them to keep and license all their existing cats within the grace period. This will be subjected to AVS approval.

Call for mandated sterilisation and other conditions

SPCA and CWS also urged the authorities to consider mandating sterilisation for all pet cats to prevent accidental breeding.

To ensure responsible cat ownership in HDB flats, the SPCA believes it is essential to move towards mandating:

  • Meshing of windows and gates to prevent cats from falling victim to High Rise Syndrome (injurious or fatal falls from height),

  • Cats be kept strictly indoors and not be allowed to free-roam outdoors, where they could get into accidents or cause inconveniences to the community,

  • Sterilisation to prevent unwanted litters and reduce caterwauling.

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