Have you noticed the amount of stray and feral cats in your neighborhoods and all over the island? Some people may be beginning to see them as more of a nuisance and a pest than a lovable family pet. Even if you are a dog person, I hope that a little education about these cats will enlighten you and inspire some renewed compassion for these animals.
Note that not all of these cats are wild. Some of them may be strays that got lost and wandered too far away from home or used to live in a house with people but were abandoned. The feral cats are the ones who were born on the streets and have never lived with humans before. Regardless, these animals are not wild and still depend on us to care for them. It is our responsibility for domesticating them in the first place.
Keep in mind that intentionally abandoning an animal whether it belongs to you or another person is against Hawaii State Law. It is also considered dereliction of duty and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline for military members to abandon their pets. The problem with cat overpopulation is especially predominant here on our islands. Do you know why that is? One factor of a cat’s heat cycle is the length of the day; the hormone melatonin is released at night which suppresses the heat cycle.
However, if the days are long enough (generally around 12 hours), enough daylight enters a cat’s eye and triggers their brain to release reproductive hormones instead. Daylight in the tropics is quite consistent due to our close proximity to the equator, causing the shortest days in Hawaii to be about 11 hours and the longest days about 13.5 hours. Due to this, cats can go into the heat almost any time of the year.
Cats can go into heat their first time when they are just three to four months old, and most have had their first heat cycle by the time that they are six months. The average gestation cycle for a litter is about 66 days, and female cats have been known to go into heat just two weeks after giving birth. You can see how this would begin to add up into a major problem, with cats being able to produce a litter approximately every three months for nearly the entire year. This is amplified by the fact that they live in colonies on the island (being around other cats is another factor for triggering a heat cycle) and do not live indoors where their chances of becoming pregnant would be slimmer.
An example to help you visualize how many cats could possibly result from an unaltered female cat, her mate, and all of their offspring over a total of seven years indicates that nearly 400,000 kittens would be produced. This is mathematically controversial due to arguments of the variety of litter sizes, survival rate of cats living on the streets, and the probability of how many kittens in each litter are female.
Still, keep in mind how young cats are when they can begin producing more kittens and how their “breeding season” is not nearly as restricted here as it is on the mainland, and the numbers are still staggering. The proof is living on our streets.
A feral colony is identified by a community member, who captures each cat in a humane trap and gets the animal altered. During the surgery, a very small 1/4” notch is cut into the animal’s ear and heals quickly, which easily identifies them as part of a TNRM colony from a distance. Following recovery, the cats are released back into a safe area where the colony caregiver will look after them and provide them with food and water.
This allows the colony to live out their natural lives without producing additional unwanted litters. Socialized cats and kittens that live with the colony when they are first discovered are removed to place them in good homes. Another way to help with pet overpopulation is to make sure that your animals are spayed and neutered. All it takes is a clever cat to slip out your front door when you are getting the mail, and you could end up with an unexpected litter of kittens to find loving homes for or a brand new feral colony.
Some people may be concerned about the effects sterilization can have on an animal’s health, but altered pets actually live longer and certain health issues are decreased or eliminated completely due to the surgery. Spay and neuter is a small price to pay to improve your pet’s quality of life and prevent further increases in population.
So next time you see a street cat, maybe you will look at them a little differently.
There are many people on our island who are working hard to solve the cat overpopulation problem while still giving these deserving animals the best quality of life possible. Together, we can make a difference for the better in the lives of these cats. You may decide to become a colony caregiver yourself, or you may simply feel more understanding for these animals and the predicament they find themselves in due to no fault of their own. For more information about Trap-Neuter-Return-Manage and the suggested guidelines that effective colony caregivers should follow, please refer to the Hawaiian Humane Society’s Feral Cat Brochure.
Michelle Lidh is an enlisted weather forecaster for the United States Air Force. She lives on Oahu and volunteers with The Hawaiian Humane Society.