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Too many cats? Not any more, as SPCA sees success with neutering, adoptions

An Amherst mother thought she was out of options when she called the SPCA to surrender the two cats she and her 9-year-old daughter loved.

The calico cat they had rescued brought a bad case of fleas into the house, which infested their Maine Coon cat and resisted all the methods she used against the insects.

“It was a year of battling the fleas and crying and wasting money,” said Cynthia, who asked that the family’s last name not be used due to the sensitivity of the situation.

“They need medicine that I can’t afford to give them anymore,” she finally told her daughter.

When Cynthia called the SPCA Serving Erie County, Deanna Furry, who handles the cat admissions waiting list, asked why the family had to surrender their pets. After hearing Cynthia’s story, she had an idea.

“What if we can give you some help?” Furry asked, to Cynthia’s surprise.

Such phone counseling and assistance with medical, behavioral, financial and housing problems are among the steps the Erie County SPCA has taken to dramatically cut the annual flood of cats that just a few years ago contributed to a community-wide cat crisis.

Thanks to the organization’s spay-neuter policies and low-cost surgeries offered by Operation PETS and other groups, fewer litters of unwanted kittens are being born. And changes at the SPCA help the cats and kittens that are surrendered stay happy and healthy, so they can be adopted more quickly.

“It’s not rocket science, but you attack it from all angles,” said Gary Willoughby, who took over from Barbara Carr as executive director of the SPCA in March. “The public is doing a better job; the rescue groups are doing spay-neuter. It’s a team effort, and we’re just a cog in the wheel.”

The strides taken to address cat overpopulation are similar to those made in the past several decades with dogs, which, in earlier generations, ran free and produced unwanted litters. Licensing, leash laws, better enforcement of animal control laws and growing emphasis on spaying and neutering reduced the number of unwanted dogs in the Northeast. For at least 20 years, the SPCA and other rescue organizations have accepted and offered for adoption thousands of dogs and puppies from other areas.

For many reasons, including a lack of laws and the impossibility of confining outdoor cats to their owners’ property, the problem of unwanted cats is trickier. But advances have been slow and steady, and are finally becoming apparent in the number of cats kept by the SPCA.

‘I don’t want to, but …’

Just two years ago, the situation was dire.

“We cannot accept any cats at this time as every cage in this building is full,” read the sign that the SPCA posted on its door in April 2014.

The agency’s waiting list for pets – not feral cats or emergency cases – had 48 cats on it, with an estimated wait time of three months.

Now, there is no waiting list to surrender an unwanted pet cat. But the SPCA has a protocol that keeps people from just walking in the door and handing over Fluffy or Felix.

And the new procedure, which involves phone conversations about what could be done to help the owner keep the cat, is a big part of the SPCA’s success.

From October 2015 to May 2016, the SPCA took in 3,225 cats, a drop of more than 1,400 from the same seven-month period in 2007-2008. Many more people called about surrendering cats, but SPCA staffers turned the calls into deeper conversations.

“You ask them why they are surrendering, and they often say, ‘I don’t want to give up my cat, but ...’” Willoughby said.

The reasons are usually similar.

“Allergies, landlord won’t allow, moving, divorce, an owner illness or, sadly, death, behavioral problems,” Furry said.

Some callers say they can’t afford spay or neuter surgery, food or medications. The SPCA offers tips and a list of experts who can address behavioral issues, advice on low-cost vet care and a pet food pantry, and, for those who are moving, “a very comprehensive list of pet-friendly rentals,” Willoughby said.

“No matter what the problem, we give them alternatives to surrender,” he said.

In the end, Cynthia brought her cats to the SPCA, where they were checked by a vet, vaccinated and provided effective flea treatment. The SPCA also loaned her a cat crate where the cats could live at a relative’s house while Cynthia’s own home was treated for fleas. Cynthia got a referral to a low-cost veterinarian and a coupon for the cats’ first visit there, information about a pet food pantry, and a bag of food and kitty litter.

“I felt so relieved that our house wasn’t going to be catless,” Cynthia said.

“My daughter has ADHD, so for her to have an animal is a big thing. Both the cats sleep with her.”

She was surprised to find the SPCA so interested in helping her keep her cats.

“I felt bad calling and saying I had to surrender them,” she said. “The people there were so helpful.”

Fewer kitten litters

Thanks to a comprehensive program to sterilize feral cats, fewer litters of kittens are being born under porches or in bushes. Caretakers of the feral colonies trap the adults. They are then vaccinated, spayed or neutered by Operation PETS, in conjunction with Feral Cat Focus, for $25, “as funds remain available,” said Linda Robinson, executive director and a co-founder of Operation PETS. The tip of one ear is clipped off as a sign that the cat has been sterilized, and he or she is returned to the cat colony.

Operation PETS also offers low-cost spaying and neutering for pet cats whose owners meet income requirements.

Since it was founded in July 2008, Operation PETS has spayed and neutered 48,663 cats, 15,419 of which were feral.

Cats can begin to breed at six months, and can have an average of eight kittens in three litters a year, said Robinson. So those 48,663 cats could have created hundreds of thousands of kittens.

“Spay and neuter prevents those future litters,” she said.