Kittens are cute, and no one with a heart would say otherwise. They’re fluffy and soft with tiny little noses and pink toes. They’re precious.
And they’re a big problem in America.
Kittens make up a large percentage of the population of feral cats, a group estimated to be number more than 58 million. That’s one wild cat for every eight people in America.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “feral” cats are cats born and raised without human contact, or cats which have been abandoned or lost long enough to turn wild in order to survive. Often, these wild cats are unable to be domesticated again and are euthanized.
“It’s hard when animal control goes out to pick up one of these feral cats because it’s not an animal that we can simply pick up, bring in and adopt out,” said Courtney Kremer, director of Animal Services in Springdale. “They are hard to catch and usually put down when they come in.”
Most of these undomesticated cats live in groups or colonies, scavenging for food and finding refuge wherever they can, she said.
“Cats are very good at surviving on their own,” Kremer said. “Unfortunately, they are also very good at reproducing.” These cats breed extensively, compounding the feral cat problem. Every year, local shelters in Northwest Arkansas are inundated with litters of kittens found in yards and near businesses. As a result, the shelters are consistently full of helpless kittens, but it’s not the best place for these needy, fragile cats, she said.
“Kittens are tricky to take care of,” said Leticia Stivers, volunteer and Spay Arkansas board member. “It’s best for these kittens to be raised in a home environment, not in a shelter. But people may feel a bit overwhelmed at the responsibility, so maybe they don’t take on that first kitten. I hope to teach people how to take care of newborns during this critical period.”
Stivers, who has been working with feral cats since 1989, will be teaching a class on neonatal kitten care Saturday at the Springdale Animal Shelter. The class will focus on newborn and young kitten care, rehabilitation and issues and solutions surrounding the feral cat problem.
“My hope is that people will leave armed with good, solid information that wasn’t just grabbed off the Internet,” she said. “What we really need is a set of foster homes that would be available when kitten time hits. Then we can relieve the pressure for the shelters and better take care of these animals.”
In 1989, Stivers came across a flyer asking for help caring for a feral cat colony on the Stanford University campus in California. Intrigued, she looked into the job and came across a problem she had no idea existed.
“The campus was covered with wild and feral cats, so overwhelmed that they were going to get an exterminator to kill them,” she said. Disturbed, Stivers joined an effort to trap these cats.
But they wouldn’t be headed to shelters. Stanford University adopted a trap, neuter and release program, reducing the number of cats on campus from 1,800 to 400 in just a few years, she said. The program released unadoptable feral cats back into their habitat once they had been vaccinated and neutered, effectively reducing litters and diseases.
The program also saved the money previously spent trapping, transporting and euthanizing the wild cats, said Stivers. “It costs about $150 to take care of each cat from trap to euthanasia,” she said. “And new cats will simply move into that territory. We were talking about killing thousands of animals and not seeing it work.”
Stivers eventually moved to Austin, Texas, where the feral cat problem was significantly worse, she said. Working with the Austin Humane Society, Stivers spent eight years running a trap, neuter and release program similar to that at Stanford, leading to a reduction in the cat population in that city, she said.
And she hopes to see similar results in Northwest Arkansas.
“Right now, unnecessary tax funds are being used to kill animals that are already here,” she said. “But our shelters are too full right now. Through trap, neuter and release and fostering these kittens, we can reduce the feral cat populations through a grassroots approach without euthanasia.”
“Ninety to 95 percent of feral kittens come from unfixed, feral and free roaming cats,” she continued. “If a litter gets picked up without mom, there will just be another litter to that mother. It’s an expensive issue for taxpayers. Wouldn’t we rather have an additional fire department than spending money killing animals? It just makes sense.”
Newborns and young cats eat on a rigorous schedule:
• Newborn kittens may nurse about every 1-2 hours.
• At about three to four weeks old, they can be offered milk replacer from a bowl and then small amounts of moistened kitten food four to six times a day.
• Kittens from six to 12 weeks old should be fed four times a day as you gradually decrease their access to milk replacer.
• Kittens from three to six months old should be fed three times a day.
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