SINGAPORE — For cat lover Shak, who lives in a two-room rental flat in Boon Lay with his mother, time is the biggest barrier to getting his three cats sterilised.
The 39-year-old cat owner, who wanted to remain anonymous as owning a cat in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat is currently illegal, works part-time as a delivery attendant in the day and is a bouncer at night, leaving him with little free time.
While he is aware that sterilisation has many benefits, the cost of the procedure is also a concern, as he tries to use more affordable methods to care for his cats, such as buying cat food in Johor Bahru and cat-proofing his gate with corrugated board from his workplace.
Mr Shak is one of many cat owners who know that looking after pets is not just a labour of love. It also involves mindful financial planning and consideration for neighbours, especially when living in a HDB environment where a ban on cat ownership has been in place for more than three decades.
Ms Shelby Doshi, a cat behavioural consultant, said that ensuring a “proper standard of care” is not cheap, as cat food can cost around S$2 per can and she budgets around S$800 per month for her cats.
When rehoming rescued cats, Ms Doshi emphasises the financial commitment of cat ownership to potential adoptees, as even a basic dental procedure can range from S$1,000 to S$1,300.
“In Singapore, when you live in a HDB (flat) you have to share common property with your neighbours and must always be conscious to make a good living environment.
“Often, animals get the negative brunt of things because the owners themselves are not responsible,” said Ms Doshi, 39.
Mr James Wong, who lives with 23 rescued cats in an executive maisonette, has cabinets well-stocked with medications for his rescue cats, many of which have health issues such as asthma or kidney disease that make it difficult for them to get adopted.
He has also installed cat furniture such as vertical climbers, hammocks and scratching posts across his flat, to keep his cats stimulated in an indoor environment.
As his felines are strictly indoor cats, Mr Wong said that he has not received any complaints and is sure that some neighbours may not even know that he has cats.
Similarly, 32-year-old marketing manager Kimberly Chan does her “due diligence” to mesh exits so her four cats do not escape.
“Unlike what people think, cats don’t actually have nine lives. There are so many cases of cats falling and some even end up with broken limbs for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Ms Chan is unsure if her neighbours know that she has cats, since the felines are typically quiet and kept indoors.
THE ROAD TO LICENSING CATS
The proposal follows AVS’ public consultation exercise on the framework, which garnered over 30,000 responses from September to November last year.
Close to 90 per cent of respondents said cats are suitable pets, with most of them also supporting cats being kept as pets in HDB flats.
The survey also found that over 80 per cent agreed that pet cats should be microchipped and licensed as licensing could improve the health, welfare and traceability of cats.
AVS also conducted focus group discussions this year with cat owners, non-cat owners, cat fosterers, animal welfare groups and veterinarians.
For one animal welfare group, the Cat Welfare Society (CWS), this cause has been the subject of over a decade of advocacy work.
In 2012, CWS launched a pilot cat ownership project in Chong Pang estate, where cat owners were allowed to keep their pets legally in their HDB flats provided certain conditions were met.
At the time, 90 per cent of the 126 cat owners were found to be responsible, while the remaining 10 per cent who did not heed the ownership guidelines perpetuated 90 per cent of the cat-related issues in the estate.
During door-to-door surveys conducted in 2022, CWS found that 90 per cent of the HDB non-cat owners did not have concerns about their cat-owning neighbours and had not faced cat-related inconveniences.
In response to TODAY’s queries, HDB said it works with other agencies and animal welfare groups to engage flat owners after it receives complaints about “unpermitted and irresponsible pet ownership in HDB flats”.
Over the past three years, the number of cat-related feedback received by HDB from residents had gone down. HDB received around 1,900 cases in 2020, 1,500 cases in 2021 and 1,300 complaints in 2022.
A majority of the feedback received was related to disamenities caused by cats, such as defecating in common areas. Most cases were resolved after flat owners rehomed their cats, said HDB.
HDB takes legal action against flat owners only as a “last resort”. Only two households have been fined since 2020 after failing to cooperate and rehome their cats which caused disamenities.
On what its future approach would be, HDB said it would continue to work with AVS on “refining the framework” before next year’s launch.
Under the proposed cat management framework, AVS limits household pets to:
Two cats (and one dog of an approved breed, as per current limits) for each HDB flatThree cats or dogs, or a combination of three pets in total, for each private premiseAdditional pet licences will be subject to AVS’ approval, and HDB’s approval for HDB residents
During a two-year transition period, cat owners can apply to license and keep all existing pet cats. All pet cats will have to be microchipped before they can be licensed.
First-time licence applicants will have to complete a free online responsible pet ownership course, which will cover topics such as basic pet care skills and responsible pet ownership in the four vernacular languages.
It will be an offence to keep unlicensed pet cats after the transition period.
AVS also said that owners will have to ensure that cats are kept in a safe environment and have taken “reasonable steps” to protect cats from indoor and outdoor hazards, such as installing barriers to prevent roaming and high-rise falls.
House checks may be conducted to ensure pet cats are kept in proper condition and their welfare is not compromised.
It also “strongly encouraged” the sterilisation of pet cats as the procedure prevents unintended breeding, has health and behavioural benefits, such as reduced risk of some cancers and less inclination to roam and caterwaul.
To support low-income households, free sterilisation and microchipping for pet cats will be rolled out under the Pet Cat Sterilisation Support programme by AVS in 2024.
‘LITTLE STEPS TO GREAT PROGRESS’
For married cat owners and independent rescuers Iris Ng and Than Yan Ren, the proposed cat management framework and legalisation of cats in HDB flats brings some relief.
Ms Ng, 32, a sustainability manager, said she had always been conscious of the ban, which made their decision to adopt their cat “very stressful”.
Ms Aarthi Sankar, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said that mandating meshing of windows and gates, keeping cats strictly indoors and sterilisation are other areas that could better ensure responsible cat ownership in flats.
For some people like the cat rescuer James Wong, the cap of two is on the “low end” as cats are “social animals”.
Many people who started out adopting a single cat from him average out at three or more cats after some time, and cat rescuers may have more.
Mr Wong, a 41-year-old senior finance manager who has rescued and rehomed many cats, is also concerned that the proposed cap will cut off the supply of “good adopters”, who may hesitate to adopt another cat despite having the means.
Both SPCA and CWS cited concerns over possible misunderstanding of the proposed threshold of two licensed cats.
“There is a risk that irresponsible cat owners with more than the proposed threshold number of cats might look to abandon or recklessly give their cats away without realising they can get licences for more than the threshold number of cats during the transition period provided they are responsible,” said Ms Thenuga Vijakumar, president of CWS.
Data from surveys undertaken by CWS in the past two years show that a majority of HDB cat owners have one to three cats, and a “more logical” starting point would thus be three cats, she added.
“Since the proposal for private housing is to allow three cats or dogs, or a combination of both, it would make sense to follow the same flexibility for public housing. It would also ensure that we do not have double standards between public and private housing.”
Ms Thenuga also cited the need for a special licence for “critical groups” such as fosterers and caregivers who take in cats that have been abused, neglected or abandoned.
Agreeing, Ms Aarthi from SPCA said that a better threshold would have been three cats per household, and a threshold that takes into consideration the floor space of an owner’s home.
Dr Teo Boon Han, managing partner and veterinary consultant at VetTrust Singapore Consulting and Solutions, said that a hard limit on cats per household is “arbitrary”, as the number of pets is “only one factor in a larger equation” in ensuring pets welfare.
“A pet owner can have one small breed dog but not meet its welfare or health needs and can cause significant disamenities to his neighbours.
“Conversely, another pet owner can have many large breed dogs in a single household, and bring them out for walks multiple times a day, feed them the best food and have them well trained,” said Dr Teo.
EXPLAINING CAT BEHAVIOUR
TODAY spoke to three vets: Dr Geetha Nellinathan, owner of The Cat Vet, Dr Rachel Tong, co-founder of Pawlyclinic, a digital veterinarian platform, and Dr Teo Boon Han, managing partner and veterinary consultant at VetTrust Singapore about cat behaviour.
While cats have commonly been perceived as roaming animals, vets said that cats adapt well to indoor environments Unsterilised cats are more likely to roam due to mating instincts, and unsterilised male cats tend to spray to mark their territory Unlike dogs, cats are a lot more independent and can be kept mentally stimulated in a “well-designed” home with obstacles, heights, built-in steps, platforms, scratching posts
On average, female cats can have more litters a year compared to dogs Cats in tropical climates can breed three to four times a year, unlike dogs which breed twice a year As female cats come into heat monthly, two cats could soon turn into 20 cats There is “great risk” of overpopulation of cats, if they are not sterilised
Microchipping and licensing improves the “traceability” of pet cats in returning lost pets or accounting for owners who abandon their catsAdministered by vets, a microchip is a rice-sized transponder injected into a pet’s skin to leave a permanent identification system that can be read by a microchip scannerWhile cat licensing is currently not mandatory, pet cat owners and community cat caregivers can already register their cats’ microchips with AVS’ database
How it works: The sexual organs of the cat are surgically removed under general anaesthesiaWhy sterilise: Eliminates unintended breeding and reduces risk of developing medical conditions like reproductive tract cancers and “undesirable behaviour” such as urine spraying, roaming, and caterwaulingCost: Sterilisation can cost S$200 to S$400 for female cats and up to S$200 for male cats, said AVS’ Dr ChenFor lower-income pet owners, schemes like the proposed Pet Cat Sterilisation Support programme will provide free sterilisation. Animal welfare groups like CWS and SPCA also provide sterilisation support Collapse to view Expand to view
‘CRITICAL OMISSION’ OF MANDATORY STERILISATION
Many cat owners and animal welfare groups told TODAY that sterilisation of cats is a priority for responsible pet ownership, and called for mandatory sterilisation to be a licensing condition in the proposed framework.
For Ms Michelle Shoo, 34, who has four cats and has fostered 60 cats over the past three years, the benefits of sterilising one’s cats cannot be understated.
Sterilisation removes the risk of excessive breeding and can also stop heat cycles for female cats, said Ms Shoo, a talent partner in a logistics multinational corporation.
Heat cycles can be uncomfortable for the cat which can lead to “aggressive and unacceptable behaviour”, she added.
WHAT AVS SAYS
On the cap of two cats per household, AVS’ Dr Chen said that the proposed limit was based on “assimilating the information” from public feedback and the need to balance preferences.
Ensuring that the community “remains harmonious” is a priority and while there are no immediate plans to change the proposed limit, AVS would be open to feedback and review depending on the future landscape, she said.
Guidelines on responsible cat ownership are not “prescriptive” as AVS has met cat owners with various needs, including those unable to mesh their homes as they are renting their residence.
Some owners have other “management approaches”, such as keeping windows closed at all times as the air-conditioning is always turned on, added Dr Chen.
“The number of cat owners out there may not make it very practical for AVS to do house checks to ensure that every cat owner has actually meshed their house before we actually grant the licence.”
On why mandatory sterilisation is not a proposed licensing condition for cats, Dr Chen said AVS “strongly encourages” sterilisation as it recognises the health and behavioural benefits of the procedure.
Under the proposed framework, sterilisation is incentivised during the two-year transition period, where cat owners who sterilise their cats will have free cat licences with lifetime validity.
Those who do not sterilise their cats will have to regularly renew their licences at a higher fee following the two-year transition period.
Current licensing fees for dogs are similarly tiered, as the licence fee for owners’ first three sterilised dogs is S$15 per dog, as compared to S$90 per unsterilised dog.
“Some owners do not sterilise their cats for various reasons, including lack of awareness on the benefits of sterilisation…Other owners are unable to sterilise all their cats as they had taken in or kept too many cats and the cost of sterilisation becomes too high,” said Dr Chen.
If sterilisation was mandated, this would also incur “regulatory costs” to ensure people have met that licensing condition, she added.
Dr Chen said AVS would take a “stepwise approach” to allow cat owners to adjust to the proposed changes, and review the framework based on the survey results and while it is being implemented over the next few years.
The public can share feedback on the proposed framework through an online survey at https://go.gov.sg/cat-framework until Feb 1 next year.
Additional reporting by Ili Nadhirah Mansor and Nicole Lam.