Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cats and dogs

Virtually every week our branch gets requests for help with dogs or puppies who've been recently purchased and now have some kind of problem. Sometimes this is clearly the fault of the original seller; sometimes simply that the buyer had no idea how expensive vet treatment can be. It is really fantastically aggravating when we're asked to spend charity money treating a puppy we know would have cost quite a lot to buy.

It is extremely rare for us to get similar requests for help with cats or kittens, but we get lots of requests for help finding homes for unexpected/unwanted litters of kittens or for help catching and taming kittens which have been born to unowned mothers in people's gardens. Conversely, it's unusual for us to be asked to help with unwanted puppies, but we get a lot of requests for help with mother dogs who need expensive veterinary help giving birth and we sometimes have to take in litters of puppies who appear to have been dumped because they are ill (and therefore valueless).

There's a "pet population" problem for dogs and cats (and rabbits, ferrets, you name it), but the biology that underpins the problem isn't identical. To solve a problem you first need to understand it.

The non-pedigree cat population of mainland Britain is reproducing at a rate that makes it not only self-sustaining but over-producing. If no cats were ever imported and all pedigree breeding stopped, there would still be a "cat crisis" every summer, because most cats breed in spite of human activity, not because of it. We need to increase the percentage of pet owners who spay their female cats (currently around 80%; around 90% is needed to bring births and deaths in balance), and increase effort to trap and spay free-living cats who don't have owners.
(Bradshaw, J. W., Horsfield, G., Allen, J., & Robinson, I. (1999). Feral cats: their role in the population dynamics of Felis catus. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65(3), 273–283. doi:10.1016/S0168-1591(99)00086-6)

There is very little incentive for anyone to breed cats to make money because kittens are available from rescue centres at no more than the cost of neutering and vaccinating them.

The dog population is quite different; almost all breeding is the result of human selection and a very high proportion is aimed at making money. The "high-end" serious breeders, who care about their dogs, have to charge a lot because their costs will be high if they're doing expensive health checks on the parent dogs before deciding on a mating. Unfortunately this opens a marketing opportunity for breeders and traffickers who can produce a "product" (a living creature!) at lower cost, either by keeping their breeding bitches in dreadful "battery" conditions or by importing pups from countries where there is still over-production of unwanted litters (presumably because of lower rates of spaying and/or because it is more acceptable for dogs to be allowed to roam freely).

In these respects the "dog problem" is more similar to the "rabbit problem" than the "cat problem" because the driver producing more animals than can easily be rehomed is primarily commercial breeding and importing, not accidental litters. We could probably achieve 100% spay/neuter of the UK pet dog population and still have a problem of over-production of dogs because we have no way to "turn off the tap" in Ireland, Bulgaria or Romania.

A hundred years or so ago unwanted litters of pups were the major source of Britain's unwanted dogs. Affordable spay/neuter and a reduction in numbers of dogs allowed to roam unsupervised solved this, but made large-scale breeding for profit possible. As we approach the level of cat spay/neuter that should reduce cat breeding to replacement levels we need to learn from the earlier experience with dogs and avoid anything that might make commercial exploitation appear attractive. Cats and dogs are primarily companion animals and it's absolutely critical that they should be reared as far as possible in a domestic environment where they will have extensive social contact with people and other animals to avoid behaviour issues that will increase the risk of them becoming unwanted adults.

Useful links
BVA/AWF/RSPCA Puppy Contract
Advice about stray cats

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