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HDB life for cats

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 16, 2013

A pilot project to assess the feasibility of keeping cats in Housing Board flats has been running smoothly a year after it was launched.

Since October last year, 125 cat owners in 123 HDB blocks in Chong Pang have taken part in the study, called Love Cats.

The two-year pilot project, led by HDB, the Ministry of National Development, Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority, Sembawang Town Council and animal welfare agency Cat Welfare Society, aims to encourage responsible cat ownership.

They say door-to-door visits of these cat owners have shown that most of them fit into what the pilot project deems "responsible owners", a boon to animal welfare advocates who hope to see pet ownership rules tweaked in the near future.

Since 1989, HDB flat dwellers have been banned from having cats as pets. The HDB website says this is because it is difficult to confine cats within the flat and when they get out, their shedding, defecation, urination and caterwauling cause disturbance to neighbours. However, cat owners say the same can be argued about dogs too.

Ms Veron Lau, 42, president of the Cat Welfare Society, says the success of the project will be judged on how many of the neighbourhood's pet cats are sterilised, and how many owners will allow their cats to be microchipped and registered.

The second part is especially challenging, she says.

"Some cat owners still have reservations about being registered in a pilot project without knowing what the outcome will be. We continue to step up our education process and to provide assistance to cat owners," she says.

But she adds that more than 90 per cent of Chong Pang's cat owners have shown themselves to be responsible owners.

Animal welfare groups such as the Cat Welfare Society and the SPCA say the ban is outdated and have fought for its repeal for years.

Ms Corinne Fong, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), thinks the rule dates back to a time when there were prolific cat colonies and strays were a bigger nuisance than they are today.

"Back when there was little or no sterilisation programme in place, cats multiplied unchecked," she says. "Since the early 1990s, when SPCA embarked on sterilisation programmes, we have given out more than 30,000 vouchers and are seeing reductions in the community of cat colonies."

Ms Lau notes that the ban does not solve problems and may even lead to irresponsible behaviour.

"When there is an issue about cat ownership, the owner simply receives an official letter asking him to remove his cats. It simply pushes people to hide from the authorities or abandon their cats in panic, leading to more strays," says Ms Lau.

"And owners were not receiving advice on how to handle problems to create a better outcome for all - themselves, the cats and their neighbours."

Under the pilot project, government officers and animal welfare volunteers are able to handle cat-related disputes between neighbours openly, which are usually related to issues of ownership and responsibility. Such cases also give the authorities a chance to educate the public on responsible cat ownership.

This means keeping the cat indoors, having a microchip inserted under its skin for proper identification and spaying and neutering the cat to prevent breeding and reduce its caterwauling.

They also advise flat dwellers to keep only one cat for each household, although responsible cat owners in the pilot project can appeal to HDB to keep their cats if they currently own more than one.

Only cat owners who meet these requirements were allowed to take part in the pilot scheme.

Ms Faziella Isa, 23, a primary school art instructor, signed up for it as her cat Leo, which was adopted from the SPCA in April last year, already fulfils the conditions as part of SPCA's adoption agreement, which requires sterilising and microchipping adopted pets.

"I'm happy to support the project. Cats meow but it's not as loud as a dog's bark."

Under the pilot project, complaints against irresponsible owners are dealt with through mediation led by volunteers and employees of the Cat Welfare Society. They also visit the blocks every few weeks to educate cat owners on how to behave responsibly.

A check with HDB found that it has received 260 pet-related complaints so far this year. Of these, 150 were about cats.

On average, the Cat Welfare Society says it has received one to two cat-related complaints a month from Chong Pang residents since the pilot scheme started. Ms Low notes, however, that some complaints are about stray cats and others usually concern the same few offenders.

The most common gripes are of owners who let their cats outside their flats.

For example, a housewife who wanted to be known only as Fazadah lodged a complaint with the town council a few months ago about a neighbour who would let his cats out in the morning and at night.

The cats would then defecate in the drain by her front door and their fur aggravated her asthma, she says.

But since a Cat Welfare Society volunteer paid her and the neighbour a visit a few weeks ago, Ms Fazadah, 49, has not had any run-ins with the cats, though she is still not in favour of pet ownership in HDB flats. "In the kampung, it's okay, but in HDB flats, it is better that cats and dogs stay outside."

She is the only non-cat owner out of five Life! spoke to who objected to the programme.

Educating cat owners and informing them about the importance of microchipping are the biggest challenges, says Ms Lau.

Some cat owners have the misconception that cats need to explore the outdoors.

Ms Shannon Heo, 35 , a veterinarian with about 10 years of experience who has sat on cat behaviour panels, such as for the National University of Singapore's Cat Cafe volunteer organisation, says this is not true.

"I don't think cats are necessarily outdoor animals anymore because of domestication. They probably were, a few thousand years ago, but the modern cat can be a happy cat even if it is kept strictly as an indoor pet."

Ms Lau adds that owners who feel strongly about taking their cats outside can do so if their cat is on a leash.

"Even dogs are not allowed to roam freely," she points out. "The point is to prevent more cats from becoming strays."

This view is supported by the SPCA, which requires those who adopt its cats to keep them strictly indoors. The rule also ensures the cat's health and safety, says its executive director, Ms Corinne Fong.

"Failure to keep the cat indoors gives us the right to re-possess the kitten or cat. We give the same advice to all adopters regardless whether he or she lives in an HDB flat, a condominium or a landed property," she says.

Some are not convinced that microchipping their cats is necessary, and chose not to take part in the pilot.

A graphic designer in her 20s, who would give her name only as Emily, says: "It's not necessary for me because my cat never leaves the house. I don't know what will happen if they put this thing inside her. Will it hurt her? Will it have any side effects?"

The procedure, where a vet injects a small chip, the size of a grain of rice, under the cat's skin, usually costs $40 to $50. If the cat is lost, the chip can be scanned to retrieve the details of the owner's name and address.

But it can be too costly for some, such as a 44-year-old who gave his name as Mr Rahim. He recently quit his job working for his friend's wedding production company to take care of his sick mother. He lives in Chong Pang but is not part of the pilot programme as he was not able to microchip his three cats.

Under the pilot scheme, the Cat Welfare Society can now provide a subsidy for this. Chong Pang residents can submit their payslips or a CPF statement and the society will subsidise 50 to 100 per cent of the microchipping cost.

It also provides free transport to and from the veterinary clinic.

Mr Rahim hopes to have his cats microchipped under this scheme in the coming months.

Mr Goh Chey Hong, 31, a project manager in a shipyard, qualified for the subsidy and was happy to get his cat Guffy microchipped in order to be part of the pilot.

"It's not fair to brand cats illegal when a dog can be noisier and more lethal if they bite than a cat," he says.

vlydia@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 16, 2013

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