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Saturday, May 25, 2024
Gov & Politics

Climate change: Kitten season is crazy thanks to warmer winters

Kitten season starting earlier is bad news for shelters and wildlife alike.

Let me start by apologizing to anyone I have offended by using a Sphynx kitten as the featured image for this post. Some people find them ugly or creepy, or both. It’s unfair to judge the breed until you’ve pet one, though. I find something oddly soothing about snuggling up with a cat (or dog) and feeling soft, warm skin instead of fur. If I psychoanalyze myself, maybe it reminds me of a human baby and that brings out my mothering instinct? I don’t know, I just think they are so ugly that they’re cute!

I’d also like to preface my commentary by sharing that I worked as a veterinary assistant and technician for over a decade. To be fair, I started my career cleaning cages, then I was a receptionist and assistant before working as a veterinary technician at a small hospital at the end of my career.

Whether I was at a smaller practice or a 24/7 emergency center, I always ended up with at least 1 litter of kittens every Spring. People would bring in a box of hamster-looking newborns after the mother was hit by a car or just went missing. If you haven’t experienced the “joy” of handraising a litter, it’s mostly a lot of time bottle feeding on the toilet in the middle of the night asking yourself, “Why did I do this to myself again?” (Kind of like when I got pregnant with my son when my daughter was 3 weeks old).

Raising one baby involves bottle feeding every few hours, followed by taking a warm tissue and rubbing their butts to stimulate a pee and poop (warm, wet tissue or cloth mimics the mother’s tongue). They can’t go to the bathroom on their own for a few weeks, but when they do—Boy is that a mess, as they crawl all over each other in the box. Fun! So imagine the feeding and bathroom routine x8 (if you have a big litter). By the time you’re finished with everyone and you lay back down to sleep—Mew!—they’re all hungry and crying again. I forgot to mention the time it takes to mix the formula and warm up the bottle.

Anywho, I did that every Spring, sometimes with more than one litter. That’s why I felt immediately stressed when I saw this article. Kitten season being out of control doesn’t just mean that veterinary staff will need more volunteers for the abandoned babies. It means even more strays running around spreading disease, having more babies, and getting hit by cars. It becomes more work for shelters that provide a catch-and-release type program where they trap strays, spay and neuter them, then release them back to the same area, to prevent overpopulation that mating season brings with stray populations.

Before I let you go on to read the article, let me just suggest: If you have a lot of strays where you live, contact the nearest ASPCA and ask if they have a program where they fix stray cats for free. If they do, you can ask to borrow humane traps to catch them in and transport them to the shelter to be fixed. It will save a lot of headache as these cats reproduce year after year.

This article from Grist was written by Sachi Mulkey. Enjoy!


Sachi Mulkey
Sachi Mulkey, Climate Reporter

It’s almost that magical time of year that the Humane Society of America likens to a “natural disaster.” Kitten season.

“The level of emotions for months on end is so draining, said Ann Dunn, director of Oakland Animal Services, a city-run shelter in the San Francisco Bay Area. “And every year we just know it’s going to get harder.”

Across the United States, summer is the height of “kitten season,” typically defined as the warm-weather months between spring and fall during which a cat becomes most fertile. For over a decade, animal shelters across the country have noted kitten season starting earlier and lasting longer. Some experts say the effects of climate change, such as milder winters and an earlier start to spring, may to blame for the uptick in feline birth rates.

This past February, Dunn’s shelter held a clinic for spaying and neutering outdoor cats. Although kitten season in Northern California doesn’t typically kick off until May, organizers found that over half of the female cats were already pregnant. “It’s terrifying,” Dunn said. “It just keeps getting earlier and going later.”

Cats reproduce when females begin estrus, more commonly known as “going into heat,” during which hormones and behavior changes signal she’s ready to mate. Cats can go into heat several times a year, with each cycle lasting up to two weeks. But births typically go up between the months of April and October. While it’s well established that lengthening daylight triggers a cat’s estrus, the effect of rising temperatures on kitten season isn’t yet understood. 

One theory is that milder winters may mean cats have the resources to begin mating sooner. “No animal is going to breed unless they can survive,” said Christopher Lepczyk, an ecologist at Auburn University and prominent researcher of free ranging cats. Outdoor cats’ food supply may also be increasing, as some prey, such as small rodents, may have population booms in warmer weather themselves. Kittens may also be more likely to survive as winters become less harsh. “I would argue that temperature really matters,” he said.

Others, like Peter J. Wolf, a senior strategist at the Best Friends Animal Society, think the increase comes down to visibility rather than anything biological. As the weather warms, Wolf said people may be getting out more and noticing kittens earlier in the year than before. Then they bring them into shelters, resulting in rescue groups feeling like kitten season is starting earlier.

Regardless of the exact mechanism, having a large number of feral cats around means trouble for more than just animal shelters. Cats are apex predators who can wreak havoc on local biodiversity. Research shows that outdoor cats on islands have already caused or contributed to the extinction of an estimated 33 species. Wild cats pose an outsized threat to birds, which make up half their diet. On Hawaiʻi, known as a bird extinction capital of the world, cats are the most devastating predators of wildlife. “We know that cats are an invasive, environmental threat,” said Lepczyk who has published papers proposing management policies for outdoor cats.

Scientists, conservationists, and cat advocates all agree unchecked outdoor cat populations are a problem, but they remain deeply divided on solutions. While some conservationists propose the targeted killing of cats, known as culling, cat populations have been observed to bounce back quickly, and a single female cat and her offspring can produce at least 100 descendants, if not thousands, in just seven years. 

Although sterilization protocols such as “trap, neuter, and release” are favored by many cat rescue organizations, Lepczyk said it’s almost impossible to do it effectively, in part because of how freely the animals roam and how quickly they procreate. Without homes or sanctuaries after sterilization, returning cats outside means they may have a low quality of life, spread disease, and continue to harm wildlife. “No matter what technique you use, if you don’t stop the flow of new cats into the landscape, it’s not gonna matter,” said Lepczyk. 

Rescue shelters, already under strain from resource and veterinary shortages, are scrambling to confront their new reality. While some release materials to help the community identify when outdoor kittens need intervention, others focus on recruiting for foster volunteer programs, which become essential caring for kittens who need around-the-clock-care.

“As the population continues to explode, how do we address all these little lives that need our help?” Dunn said. “We’re giving this everything we have.”


Excerpts or more from the article originally published on Grist: https://grist.org/science/kitten-season-animal-shelter-cat-wildlife/ was republished here, with permission, under a Creative Commons License.

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