A national effort to reduce the number of stray cats by sterilising them humanely is now in place again islandwide after more than a decade.
The stray cat sterilisation programme was quietly extended across Singapore in May.
Under it, volunteers who take strays from HDB estates to selected veterinary clinics will not have to pay a cent to get them sterilised and micro-chipped. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) funds half of the costs, while the Cat Welfare Society funds the rest. It typically costs between $30 and $60 to neuter a cat and another $20 to microchip it.
A similar programme ran from 1998 to 2003 before it was deemed ineffective and scrapped by the AVA, in favour of removing the then 80,000-strong stray cat population from the streets altogether for public hygiene reasons.
Strays were instead culled, pet owners educated not to abandon cats, and groups encouraged to house them at their own cost.
The AVA's decision back then was criticised by animal welfare groups, which subsequently funded sterilisations on their own. They said sterilisation would have reduced the stray population effectively if the measure had been given more time to take effect.
In 2007, the AVA proposed a new sterilisation programme, but it had no takers as town councils did not want to clean up after the cats. In 2011, it was partially re- launched as a trial in four areas.
It was extended islandwide in May this year after the trials showed sterilisation managed to cut the stray population, the AVA said. "For sterilisation to be more effective... there has to be greater coverage," said a spokesman, adding that the programme supports sterilisation as "a humane way" of controlling numbers.
The move has drawn praise from animal welfare groups, which say culling is inhumane and ineffective. They said the drop in stray cat numbers from 80,000 to about 50,000 now, together with the fall in culling figures, is evidence that sterilisation works.
"If euthanisation numbers have decreased, it surely means that sterilisation is working, as fewer cats need to be culled," said executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Corinne Fong.
The AVA euthanised about 1,000 strays last year, down from 3,300 in 2008 and 13,000 in 2001.
"Mindsets do change over time," said Ms Fong. "I'm happy that the AVA saw it fit to re-introduce this initiative. It would have been good if it had sustained (the previous programme) - imagine what the stray cat population would be now."
Cat Welfare Society vice-president Veron Lau estimated the society and its volunteers sterilised "tens of thousands" of strays over the past decade. Last year alone, it sterilised 4,479 cats, she said.
"With this additional funding, it means that we can do more."
Groups hope stray cat numbers will fall to a more manageable 20,000 within five to 10 years. To do this, said Ms Lau, policies other than sterilisation have to succeed such as preventing cat abandonment. She also noted that sterilisation has not yet dented the numbers in industrial estates.
Dog welfare groups have also urged the Government to adopt a national sterilisation scheme, rather than culling, to reduce stray dog numbers. The AVA has regularly emphasised that its priority in the case of dogs is public health and safety, as stray dogs may attack people or carry rabies.