Kitten season. It sounds so adorable, like the title of the next blockbuster kid’s movie. Who doesn’t love the idea of a room full of kittens? Unfortunately, for animal shelters, humane societies, and other animal welfare groups, kitten season can be more like a horror show. The annual tiny fluffy hordes can easily overwhelm shelters whose resources are already limited, which could lead to negative consequences like inadequate care, spreading illness, or even death. Let’s break down how this happens and what we can do about it.
An unspayed female cat, also called a queen, can have her first litter before she turns a year old (sometimes as early as four months). Each pregnancy lasts about two months and results in an average of three to five kittens. In the Northern hemisphere, cats tend to breed between March and September, when days are long and warm. A queen can have two litters a year for most of her life, resulting in dozens of kittens, and none of her female offspring are spayed, each of them could have dozens more, and on and on.
If the kittens end up in shelters, they require round-the-clock care for weeks on end. This puts a huge strain on shelters with limited space, resources, and volunteers. Just as human crowding leads to diseases spreading, putting that many cats in one place can lead to epidemics of infectious disease. Very young kittens are fragile creatures and get sick easily; an upper respiratory infection or gastrointestinal upset could kill them. Each kitten needs to be cared for, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered before it can be adopted, all of which costs the shelters money and takes away resources from older cats. During kitten season, adult and senior cats are much harder to adopt out, even though they are probably better fits for most families than kittens.
And that’s assuming the kittens make it to a shelter. Many kittens either never get brought in or are turned away for lack of space. When cats live outside, they are almost guaranteed a short and difficult life, subject to getting run over by cars, eaten by other animals, or attacked by humans. Most kittens will not make it longer than a couple of years, and if they lose their mothers too young, they will die much, much sooner.
Kitten season is on its way. It will be the busiest time of year for Henrico Humane Society and other humane groups. But it doesn’t have to be. You can help reduce the burden that this time of year places on cat care groups. Here’s how:
- Spay or neuter your cats. Do so as early as your vet will allow, sometimes as soon as 8 or 12 weeks old.
- Don’t let your cats go outside, and don’t let strays into your house.
- If you see stray or feral cats in your neighborhood, look into trap-neuter-release programs. This is a humane way to handle feral cat colonies, allowing them to live their lives without increasing their numbers. (Caring for ferals is not legal everywhere, so check with your city or county first.)
- Adopt from your local humane society instead of a breeder.
- Consider an adult cat instead of a kitten, especially in the spring and summer months.
- Donate cash or goods to humane groups. Check with the groups to see what their specific needs are, but it’s a good bet that during kitten season, shelters need kitten food, blankets, towels, sterile gloves, syringes, and wee kitty clothes (preemie sock + ear holes = kitten hat!).
- Volunteer. Spend time at the shelter, organize a donation drive through school or work, get your church involved, or do a project with your kids’ scout troop. Or, if you can, foster a kitten or a litter. Any time a kitten can be out of the shelter is more time and space another cat can have.
Kittens are wonderful. No one disputes that. But the simple fact is, about 70% of cats who go into a shelter this year will never leave it, and most of those will die not because they are sick but because there is no room for them. What a tragedy. I’d rather have a happy ending, wouldn’t you?