Why are cats the most abandoned pets in Singapore? Lack of accountability and sterilisation, say welfare groups

The SPCA and other animal welfare groups shared how unregulated and irresponsible ownership, as well as sterilisation, have led to a cat abandonment 'epidemic'.

Abandoned and homeless cats (left) and kitten attempting to climb over fence (Photos: Getty Images)
Homeless cats (left) and kitten attempting to climb over fence (Photos: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — The most recent report from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), published on 30 January, shed light on an “alarming” trend in 2023 – a nearly threefold increase in pet abandonment cases in Singapore, compared to 2022.

Cats, comprising 45 per cent of these cases, bear the brunt of this surge. The SPCA, along with various animal welfare groups that Yahoo Southeast Asia spoke with, attributes this rise to factors like unregulated ownership, an overpopulation crisis due to limited sterilisation, and the widespread perception of cats as 'low maintenance' pets.

Unregulated ownership and overpopulation from lack of sterilisation

Unlike other pets, cats currently fall in a grey area without regulated ownership. At present, pet cats are not required to be licensed, unlike dogs, said SPCA's executive director, Aarthi Sankar.

"This lack of accountability makes it easier for owners to abandon their cats without facing consequences. Unless there is an actual witness to the act of abandonment, it is difficult to prosecute offenders," she added.

Quek Guan Ling, a volunteer coordinator at Causes for Animals, pointed out that the absence of licensing also makes it challenging to track pet cats, as they can easily blend in with community cats.

The lack of sterilisation, due to limited knowledge, unwillingness, and money, also factor in to the "population explosion", added Quek. According to CNA, Singapore's pet cat population was around 94,000 in 2023, up 10 per cent from 2019, while the country's stray cat population is currently estimated at between 50,000 to 60,000.

Unsterilised cats may birth unwanted kittens, which irresponsible cat owners may disown as the "easy way out", Quek said. A check by Yahoo found that sterilisations can cost at least $150 for males at a vet, with the costs for female cats even higher, sometimes upwards of $300.

As cats have a short 65-day gestation period, giving birth to four to six kittens per litter, they can reproduce rapidly, said president of the Cat Welfare Society (CWS), Thenuga Vijakumar. This can result in even more constrained resources as the feline population grows within a home.

To help with rising costs, the CWS started a pet cat sterilisation programme for financially disadvantaged families with subsidised rates two years ago. The subsidies would cover the costs of sterilisation and microchipping, and in some limited cases, even two-way transportation.

About 1,400 families had taken up the programme since the start of 2022, the CWS said.

Cats perceived low maintenance

Citing the SPCA's report, Joanne Cheong, a rehomer with Purely Meow Cat Adoptions, said cats are increasingly popular pets because they are perceived as "relatively low maintenance" pets.

"Cats are deceivingly easy to care for. People don't realise how easy it is for cats to reproduce. Many of these households cannot cope with the popular explosion, so they abandon their cats," she said.

Superficially, a cat owner just needs to ensure the feline has access to food and water, without need for regular walks or baths, making them ideal pets for the vast majority of Singaporeans.

They are also "relatively small and quiet animals" and usually do not caterwaul, or make shrilling or howling noises, once sterilised, said Cheong.

Another possible reason that cats are the most abandoned pets in Singapore? The rising number of "irresponsible owners" who think cats are "disposable", said CWS' Thenuga.

The CWS received multiple reports of a smaller number of cats being abandoned over the last two months, suggesting a growing number of irresponsible cat owners.

Animal welfare groups are still grappling with the ripples caused by increased pet ownership during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a rise in pet adoption as more people stayed home. This was followed by more pets being given up as people returned to the offices and inflation caused costs to rise.

"It could be that people adopted during COVID-19 without thinking whether doing so would fit into their lifestyle when things got back to normal," said Kerstin Schulze from Project LUNI, a non-profit foundation that rehomes and cares for street cats.

Henry, an abandoned cat rescued by Kerstin Schulze from Project Luni (Photos: Kerstin Schulze)
Henry, an abandoned cat rescued by Kerstin Schulze from Project Luni (Photos: Kerstin Schulze)

The difficulty with cat abandonment cases

Cheong also suggested that cat abandoners are increasingly getting bolder, as she feels they "know they can't get caught".

Despite more widespread knowledge about abandonment cases, finding an eye witness or gathering evidence through photos or video is not as straightforward, she said, and in some cases, the perpetrator cannot be identified.

The SPCA said that unless there was an actual witness to the act of abandonment, it is "difficult to prosecute offenders for the crime of abandonment under the Animals and Birds Act". Currently, individuals found guilty of pet abandonment face a maximum fine of $10,000, or a jail term of up to 12 months, or both.

While incidents like the woman who was caught on CCTV abandoning her cat in a cage outside the SPCA’s premises last January do provide clues in some instances, it is not always the case.

"Logically, how often does it happen that somebody happens to be there when the abandonment is taking place and actively videoing it?” said Cheong.

Larger access in the community and online

Darius Low, co-founder of Wildflower Studio, an art jamming cat cafe that works with cat rescuers to run a fostering programme, said the spike could be due to community cats being more accessible in comparison to other companion animals.

"It’s certainly easier to find a stray cat on the streets as compared to a stray dog, hamster or rabbit. Many community cats who are residing in zones with well-organised feeders will also be more willing to approach humans due to the positive associations they have learned from the regular feeding and care," he said.

The rise of illegal backyard breeders has also emerged as a significant contributor to the rising number of abandonment cases. These breeders sell exotic breeds of cats within $100 to $300 instead of the prices from more reputable breeders, which can be upwards of $1,000, fostering casual cat ownership, said Cheong.

A sweep on social media would allow one to easily chance upon multiple posts of cats being given away. As such, the impulse to bring a cat home without considering commitment is "very tempting", she added.

Animal welfare groups told Yahoo Southeast Asia that abandoned cats are usually found in residential areas such as HDB void decks, staircases, and carparks. In other cases, cats were abandoned at remote locations like farmlands.

The SPCA and CWS are currently working with authorities to develop and implement measures to create a licensing framework for cat owners. It is scheduled to be rolled out in the later part of 2024, and the animal welfare groups are hopeful it will help with the situation.

Besides legally allowing HDB homeowners to keep up to two cats, it would also require all owners to license their cats, similar to how dog ownership is currently regulated. All new licence applicants will also be required to complete a free online responsible pet ownership course.

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