In 2008, a dainty one-plus-year-old Siamese cat, whom we later named Small Fry, was trapped by a volunteer with The San Francisco SPCA Feral Cat Assistance Program, and brought to our spay/neuter clinic to be altered. It was soon clear that Small Fry was once someone’s pet and had either been lost or abandoned because she was wearing an old, plastic flea collar that had been put on her when she was a kitten. The flea collar had become dislodged at some point and was now caught at an angle, around her neck, across her shoulder and under one of her front legs. Shockingly, as Small Fry had grown bigger, the flea collar had become embedded in her flesh, actually slicing her open. Our hospital performed extensive surgery on her, and after she finally healed, she was adopted into a loving home.
This poignant story is just one of many we see at The San Francisco SPCA, since the stray animal population in the United States is now largely made up of cats. The flip side of this reality is that cats have now replaced dogs as the most popular companion animal in this country.
The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association’s 2007–2008 National Pet Owners Survey reveals that there are more than 88 million owned cats in the nation compared to approximately 74.8 million owned dogs. Nearly 34 percent of U.S. households own at least one cat, while 39 percent have at least one dog. However, while 63 percent of dog guardians own a single dog, 56 percent of cat guardians have an average of 2.3 felines.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to these statistics. Winning the pet popularity stakes hasn’t translated into positive benefits for cats. The majority of felines in shelters are un-owned and more than 70 percent of them will be euthanized. In fact, the number one cause of cat death in the United States is euthanasia in shelters. And while just 15 percent of owned cats were adopted from shelters, only two to five percent of lost cats are ever reclaimed.
What’s the reason behind these alarming statistics? Research and surveys consistently show that cats are less valued than dogs; they are more often neglected, they receive less attention and affection, and they are more readily abandoned or surrendered to shelters. This is a vicious cycle – because felines are generally less valued, there is speculation that the human-animal bond does not develop as strongly with cats as it does with dogs, and so the chronicle of neglect and easy disposal of cats is compounded.
A 2008 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that cats typically receive considerably less medical attention than their canine counterparts and are less likely to see a veterinarian for routine check-ups and vaccinations. The survey also reported that many cat guardians believe that cats don’t get sick, or that they can take care of themselves. With misconceptions like these, it’s not surprising that veterinary visits for felines have actually declined by 11 percent since 2001.
So, being Top Cat hasn’t paid off for felines in terms of health and safety. At The San Francisco SPCA, we see heartbreaking confirmation of this every day. The majority of the cats at our shelter are strays, transferred to us from our partner, the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control. From time to time, our Feral Cat Assistance teams inadvertently trap cats – like Small Fry – who are once-owned pets; when they are examined at our spay/neuter clinic, we find that they’ve already been altered or they’ve been declawed, or occasionally they’ve been microchipped and we are able, in rare instances, to trace the owner.
The SF/SPCA is a microcosm of the rest of the country: 75 percent of the animals adopted from The SF/SPCA are cats, and while summer always brings an influx of kittens to the shelter, this year posed particularly difficult challenges. In June, our shelter was already home to a large number of adult and senior cats even before the kittens started pouring through the doors. We were suddenly faced with the unthinkable prospect of temporarily placing a “No Vacancy” sign up as maximum kitty capacity loomed.
An urgent plea for adopters, as well as media attention and support from the community, gradually brought the number of felines down to manageable levels – we found homes for 50 cats in the three days following our appeal! Nevertheless, we and other shelters in surrounding areas are still urgently looking for more adopters to save cats’ lives. The downturn in the economy has played a major role in this worrying situation – with people losing their homes and/or jobs, owner-surrender and abandonment of animals has increased.
The San Francisco SPCA is committed to addressing the needs, now and in the future, of our community’s companion animals. Our new Leanne B. Roberts Animal Care Center is a community resource that has greatly expanded our ability to provide medical, spay/neuter, feral cat assistance, foster, and rehabilitation services. Our nonprofit hospital and spay/neuter clinic provide free, low-cost or subsidized care and support for animals, both owned and unowned. We also offer subsidized spay/neuter services to several Bay Area rescue groups.
We are also striving to encourage regular veterinary care for cats – and dogs. Many veterinarians recommend a six-month wellness checkup; this can have a marked effect on a pet’s life and longevity, because it’s amazing how an animal’s health can change over a short period of time. Cats and dogs age five to seven times faster than humans, so for them, a yearly visit to the veterinarian is the equivalent of a person seeing a doctor every five to seven years. This is not enough for humans to maintain good health, and it’s not enough for pets either. Prevention should be the watchword for healthcare, especially in an age of soaring medical costs and shrinking resources. This is as true for dogs and cats as it is for humans.
Finally, in March the newly formed CATalyst Council, a coalition of the veterinary community, nonprofit, industry, and animal welfare-related organizations, named San Francisco one of the Top 10 Cat-Friendly Cities in the nation based on such data as cat ownership per capita, level of veterinary care, micochipping, and cat-friendly local ordinances. I am proud that San Francisco is in the forefront of the movement to improve the health and status of felines nationwide.