What do you call a pile of kittens? A meow-tain.
Ah, spring. It’s such a welcome time: crawfish is readily available, festival season kicks into high gear, and flowers are in bloom. But for shelters and rescues around New Orleans the sense of dread is building: we know that the kittens, they are coming. Much as we adore those bundles of fluff and fun, and delight in uniting them with loving owners, the numbers arriving at our door will go from a trickle to a flood as spring advances.
But why is it that this time of year heralds a stampede of tiny tigers? The amount of daylight is key: female cats’ hormonal systems are triggered to go into heat once they’re able to bask in at least 10 hours of light per day. Soon after, the fertility pheromones a future mama cat emits can be detected by potential papas as far as a mile away – and she’ll entertain multiple suitors. If you’ve ever looked at a litter of kittens and doubted they could have the same parents, you could very well be right – females often mate with multiple toms, and it is possible for kittens in a single litter to have different fathers.
Just 60 – 63 days later, the resulting babies will arrive in the world. At the Louisiana SPCA, we take in orphaned kittens, work with our amazing network of Kitten Krewe foster parents to raise them up to be big and strong, and adopt them out into happy homes. But there are only so many homes available, while there are a LOT of babies: last year alone, we took in 850 kittens.
This number is so large in part because as long as the weather remains relatively warm, cats will continue to go through heat cycles. Given how temperate our climate is, this means that cats can have as many as 3 litters of kittens per year. Well-nourished females are capable of getting pregnant again almost immediately after giving birth to a litter; and kitties in New Orleans almost always have an excellent food source: mice and rats, which are their favorite prey. Since the average litter size is 4 – 5 kittens, one female can produce 12 – 15 new cats in her community in just one year. Her daughters can also quickly contribute to further family growth: kittens can get pregnant at as young as 4 months of age.
This all adds up to a big feline overpopulation problem. Rapid feral cat colony growth can stress caretakers struggling to provide sufficient food for increasing numbers of cats, and frustrate neighbors who are uncomfortable having a half dozen or more cats on their property at once. Moreover, mating cats exhibit behaviors that are a major nuisance to nearby humans: they yowl in the middle of the night, fight each other, and spray urine to advertise their available fertility.
So how can we address this problem? The good news is that the Louisiana SPCA can help. Through our TNR (Trap, Neuter, and Return) program, we’re able to provide free spay or neuter surgery to feral cats in Orleans Parish for the rest of this year. Feral cats from other parishes are also welcome but there is a surgical fee. This service includes a rabies vaccine and an eartip (the universal signal that a community cat has been sterilized). In addition, we have humane traps available to borrow (with a refundable deposit) at multiple locations around the City.
You can be a hero for kitties in your community by using these resources to make sure all the feral/stray cats on your block have been spayed or neutered. If you enjoy hunting or fishing, you may find that trapping cats for TNR is right up your alley: like those activities, it combines patience with the thrill of outsmarting a clever animal. So if TNR is your thing, we’d love to have you volunteer with us, as we can direct you to other areas of the city where cat populations are high and trapping is desperately needed. In 2017, we were able to spay or neuter over 3,500 feral cats. With your help, 2018 can be even bigger, and get us farther towards our goal of ending the problem of cat overpopulation in our city!
Sara Dawdy, Feral Cat Intervention Coordinator … AKA the cat whisper