A new campaign to force pet owners to neuter their cats to reduce suffering and save wildcats has won widespread support from experts and official bodies.

Animal welfare groups and wildlife agencies have backed a petition calling on the Scottish Government to make micro-chipping and neutering of pet cats compulsory. This will save hundreds of thousands of unwanted kittens from pain and death, as well as preventing interbreeding with rare native wildcats, they say.

The wildcat is one of Scotland’s most endangered mammals, with maybe as few as 100 left scattered across the highlands. One of the reasons it is disappearing is repeated mating with domestic or feral cats.

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Around four-fifths of the estimated 880,000 pet cats in Scotland are neutered. But that still allows over 280,000 new kittens to be born every year, potentially doubling the stray cat population every two years.

There are currently reckoned to be about 400,000 feral cats in Scotland. According to campaigners, many of them face disease or starvation, and are shot by gamekeepers or die prematurely.

“Homeless cats endure atrocious conditions and suffer unspeakable deaths,” said Dr Elspeth Stirling, who has launched a campaign group, Cats Liberation.

“We would not allow such suffering for our own companion animals at home. So why allow it for those that are the victims of a broken system which fails to protect neither the animals nor the public.”

Stirling has lodged a petition in the Scottish Parliament to ban the keeping of unneutered cats in Scotland. “All owned cats to be neutered, micro-chipped, and registered,” it says. “The responsibility and cost to be borne by the owner.”

She proposes a licensed exemption scheme to allow “responsible breeding” of owned cats. “The voluntary approach has gone as far as it can go,” the petition says.

“A new approach is needed with immediate impact if a tipping point into environmental disaster is to be prevented.”

Stirling, a retired clinical psychologist who lives in Angus, has six cats of her own. She works with cat welfare groups, and has helped trap and neuter over 4,000 feral cats in the last 20 years.

“Many awful things happen to cats and kittens living rough and few of us witness their suffering and deaths,” she said.

Her petition to Holyrood was a “progressive proposal” to manage the cat population, she argued. It was urgently needed “to prevent a disaster for the Scottish wildcat whose future hangs in the balance.”

It was backed by Scottish Wildcat Action (SWA), which brings together the Scottish Government, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and 19 other partners, funded by the National Lottery.

“Hybridisation with domestic cats is one of the principal threats to the Scottish wildcat,” said Allan Bantick, chair of the SWA steering Group.

“The neutering of pet cats is a simple way to contribute to the survival of the wildcat and is something we encourage owners to do through our supercat campaign alongside vaccinating and micro-chipping,” he added.

“We would support compulsory cat neutering and micro-chipping as such legislation would greatly help efforts to conserve the wildcat as well as significantly improving cat welfare.”

The animal welfare charity, OneKind, also supported the petition. “A growing feral population is vulnerable to poor food availability and harsh weather conditions,” said the group’s policy adviser, Libby Anderson.

“These are real welfare concerns and for many years cat protection groups have looked after stray and feral cats, with neutering and vaccination at the heart of their programmes.”

Feral cats were sometimes persecuted and shot on private land, Anderson claimed. Fieldworkers had found dead and decomposed cats in the “stinkpits” used by some sporting estates to dump dead animals.

Sharyn Wood, a volunteer with Cats Protection Arbroath, described pet owners who didn’t neuter their cats as irresponsible. “Micro-chipping would allow these owners to be identified and hopefully prevent the proliferation of generations of abandoned cats on the street,” she said.

Politicians were more cautious, stressing they were “sympathetic” to the campaign but declining to endorse compulsory neutering. “I think it’s something we should reflect on and see how the dog micro-chipping programme works,” said the SNP MSP Christine Grahame, convener of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on animal welfare.

She had a rescue cat called Mr Smokey, who is neutered and micro-chipped, but she doubted whether compulsory moves were “feasible” at the moment. The petition was “very worthwhile” because it would help educate pet owners, she argued.

The Liberal Democrat MSP, Alex Cole Hamilton, urged pet owners to take a responsible approach. “I’m sympathetic to the view that we need to control the cat population, and will hear the arguments as they come to the Scottish Parliament,” he said.

The Scottish Government recognised the risks that unneutered cats posed to wildlife. “We also acknowledge that many people in Scotland keep and breed domestic cats responsibly,” said a spokesperson.

“We support programmes aimed at responsible ownership and voluntary neutering of cats and would need to look very carefully at any scheme that proposed new legislation in this area.”

Suffering cats

A cat was recently found living under a shed in a garden in Arbroath. “She was very thin with the bones in her spine standing out,” said Sharyn Wood, a volunteer with a feline charity.

“Within four hours of going to a foster home she gave birth to six kittens. She needed help in feeding these kittens as she was so poorly nourished herself.”

If she hadn’t been rescued her kittens would have died or become feral, Wood thought.

Two weeks ago she helped trap a five or six year old, unneutered male who was living in an overturned dustbin on the edge of a housing estate. “He was battle scarred, flea ridden and suffering from cat flu,” she said.

“He could barely open his eyes. He was friendly so had obviously been a pet.”

Cats Liberation campaigner Elspeth Stirling recounted how six young breeding female cats and 25 kittens had been found living in a garden on the edge of a small town. “Neighbours were overrun with semi-feral starving cats,” she said.

The 25 kittens were weak, with heavy lice and flea infestations, and four died. “The location is within 15 miles of an area where there is evidence of the rare and endangered Scottish wildcat.”

According to Stirling, there was another case in which 40 adult cats and 25 kittens were living on a farm. “Their shelter comprised outbuildings thick with layers of farm-bird droppings,” she said.

“Their food was plates of cat biscuits in the open once a day. Six kittens died, several were unable to hear, all were inbred and weak.”

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Cover image thanks to Airwolfhound, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Other photos thanks to Elspeth Stirling. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 17 September 2017.