For years, the city has relied on volunteers to trap feral cats and their kittens, keep them together in shelters for several weeks, and then spay and release the mother before putting the kittens up for adoption.
This was aimed at reducing the city’s feral cat population, which used to be in the thousands.
Now, the San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco Animal Care and Control have instituted a new policy that allows the mothers and kittens to stay together in the wild longer, until the kittens are weaned. They are then trapped and taken to the shelter, where the mother is spayed and released quickly, and the kittens go up for adoption.
Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, San Francisco SPCA president, says the intense stress that feral mothers experience in the shelter is so traumatic that they often get sick or stop eating or nursing, which can also affect the kittens.
“We'll see upper respiratory disease, and we'll see that also affect the kittens,” says Scarlett. “We've had mothers who have bloody urine and we'll also see mothers stop nursing and stop eating. We see a range of issues.”
The new policy, Scarlett says, is a small shift from the previous policy, but seeks to better balance the welfare of the mother with the safety of her kittens. It minimizes the amount of time the mothers have to stay confined.
“Based on what we saw, and what colleagues around the nation saw, the idea of keeping a wild cat in confinement for weeks while she's nursing her litter is no longer the right thing to do,” said Scarlett. “What we're advocating now is that if there's a queen [mother cat] and a litter in a safe space and she's taking care of them, leave them there until the kittens are about 3 to 4 weeks old, and then bring them in. That way we can separate the kittens from the mother, spay her, and get her right back out to where she's most comfortable, and still socialize those kittens.”
But some animal advocates are concerned that the new policy puts the kittens at risk for disease or death.
“The concern is that we won't catch the kittens in time to be socialized, and that's a possibility, or that kittens will be unsafe,” said Scarlett. “And what we say is if they are in danger or they're sick or they're orphaned, please bring them in. But again, if there's a mother taking care of them, that's really the best place for them to be until they can start to eat solid food. So what we're really balancing is the mother's welfare with the kittens’ welfare, and it's not always black and white. And I think that's difficult for a lot of people to understand.”
Maria Conlon, co-director of the Give Me Shelter Cat Rescue, is concerned for the safety of both mother cats and kittens in the wild. The mothers have to fend for food and protect their kittens from predators. Kittens are often undernourished and get sick. The shelter, she says, provides the vaccinations, care and nutrition both mother and baby need.
“I think this is the rolling back of protections that had been in place for this vulnerable population,” says Conlon. “I do realize that many cats are stressed in a shelter environment, whether they're feral or not. But I would question if they’re aware of the stressful conditions of the mom outside.…The primary concerns are leaving them vulnerable, and essentially leaving the kittens to die outside and the mom to fend for herself and try to survive with the kittens.”
The Commission of Animal Control and Welfare will discuss the new policy at its next meeting on Thursday, June 20, at 5:30 p.m., City Hall, Room 408.