Singapore needs an informed and substantive debate on the co-existence and stewardship of stray cats in our housing estates.
Before clear reasoning can be heard, we need to quiet the uproar of myths and urban legends about cats and their caregivers, which threatens to drown out rational discussion.
Two facts need recognition before we consider the myths.
The first and most important fact is that cats are territorial, not nomadic.
Males have a wider territory than females, but they are territorial nevertheless. While males share their territory with receptive females, both sexes will fight to defend their territory from rivals.
This fact underpins both their real behaviour and the myths about them.
The second is that cats are domestic, not wild.
The cats that populate our streets didn't exist in the wild before domestication.
The early men who tamed wild cats didn't intend to harbour ferocious predators which could not be handled, and accordingly bred selectively by giving house room to the docile.
This explains why the welfare of stray cats is the responsibility of an intelligent and well-developed society.
Now to the myths:
Myth #1 - Providing welfare, including feeding, increases the stray cat population wherever it's done.
Not true! Cats' territorial nature limits the migration of other cats onto their turf.
But their population does increase when people abandon their pet cats and when they fail to neuter both pets and strays. Then, due to their relatively short reproductive cycle, an area can be rapidly overrun.
Myth #2 - Cats prefer to be strays. Another way of saying this is to say that cats cannot live as house animals because they need to exercise and explore in the outdoors.
Both not true! All strays are directly or indirectly made, i.e., they can be traced back to some irresponsible owner who abandoned either the animal or its parents; they don't choose to be strays.
Also, a cat gets all the exercise and mental gymnastics it needs indoors if it is allowed to run through and explore the house, which is its territory.
Myth #3 - Cats scratch cars.
Not true! Cats have retractable claws in all four paws, and do not drag their claws when they walk.
Their claws are no different in consistency than the nails of most other animals, and are softer than many materials, including the impact-resistant paint on modern cars.
The greatest source of scratches on cars is from the roads on which they are driven.
Myth #4 - The life of a cat is incomplete or "not right" unless it experiences sex and parenthood, and so it is not healthy for a cat to be sterilised.
All not true! Animals reproduce to continue their species, not for their individual enjoyment. Reproduction puts the female at great risk, and can lead to its death.
An unsterilised male is overly aggressive, picks fights it cannot win, and often dies a slow death from severe injuries in battles with other males.
Sterilisation performed by a licensed veterinarian in fact extends a cat's life span and improves its quality of life.
Myth #5 - Cats soil public walkways, stairwells and void decks.
Not true! A cat's instinct is to bury its faeces and to urinate in earth.
Of course, if its entire territory is paved, and nature calls, well... even people - who should know far better - relieve themselves in drains, lifts, etc.
Myth #6 - Feeders of stray cats leave behind a mess that breeds cockroaches, mosquitoes and rats.
Not true! The majority of litter in any estate is garbage and trash left by the residents. The cockroaches are bred in the estate garbage containers and catchments.
The mosquito problem comes from water containers allowed by residents, from old tyres and plant saucers to fallen leaves.
If irresponsible feeders leave bowls unchanged and unscrubbed, they are part of the problem, not the whole problem.
Stray cats do not live out a full life span. Their life expectancy, if they survive to adulthood, averages six to seven years. Pet cats often survive fifteen to twenty years.
People cause this situation by abandoning pets and failing to sterilise the animals they are responsible for. Strays do not deserve to be abused or killed.
If a cat cannot be adopted and cared for as a domestic pet, feeding and sterilising it is a reasonable and humane way to provide for its welfare.
A proven method of controlling stray cat populations is the Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage approach, which is advocated by all senior organisations responsible for stray cat management, including AVA, SPCA and the Cat Welfare Society.
Responsible feeding means that food is dispensed at a specific time in a specific location, and then cleaned up after the feeding is completed. It is a necessary part of the effective management of stray cats.
Some volunteer caregivers have the resources to bring injured strays to a veterinarian, and others adopt the animals that they take care of.
In summary, there are many myths circulating about stray cats, and not enough truth. Benevolence and compassion are the hallmarks of a mature and gracious society, which Singapore aspires to be.
Good stewardship of the stray animals we collectively create is a step in the right direction.
Staff Advisor for NTU Cat Management Network
This letter was written as a response to an earlier letter by another reader.