In a new study published in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, experts from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University, worked with the RSPCA’s Greater Manchester Animal Hospital to look at whether offering people who owned multiple cats the opportunity to have their female cats neutered would improve the welfare of the animals.
Cat ownership is popular in the UK, with one or two cats being common in many households. However, owning more than two cats is less common. Whilst it is possible for houses with larger numbers of cats to manage them successfully, this is not always the case, and while the exact relationship between owning large number of cats and hoarding is unclear, evidence suggests there is a strong link.
Thousands of injured, stray and abandoned cats are received by the RSPCA Greater Manchester every year. A significant proportion of these cats in multi-cat households have to be signed over to the RSPCA due to the owners’ inability to care for them and subsequent health concerns.
The general definition of animal hoarding includes the accumulation of a large number of animals; failure to provide minimum care standards such as food, sanitation and vet care; and the failure to respond to the deteriorating condition of animals or the environment around them.
Hoarded animals are typically found in conditions of squalor, malnutrition and neglect, with evidence of inbreeding, poor socialisation and high rates of infectious disease. Hoarding has been recognised as a type of mental illness, although underlying causes have not been fully identified .
Previous approaches to hoarding usually involve confiscating all of the affected animals. This virtually always leads to repeated occurrences of hoarding within the same households, making this problem particularly difficult to address.
 (American_Psychiatric_Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2015 [cited 2015 10.8.15]; V:[Available from: http://www.psychiatry.org/dsm5.).
The aim of this study was to trial an alternate form of intervention in cases of cat ‘hoarding’, to determine if offering female cat neutering assistance to the owners would improve the welfare of the cats and conditions in the home.
A total of 176 cats from ten multi-cat households with a history of complaints to the RSPCA were recruited for the study. An RSPCA veterinary surgeon initially assessed the overall welfare of each of the household’s cat population, individual cat welfare and living environment.
All female cats aged over eight weeks were neutered and basic animal care education was provided to the owners. Follow-up visits were completed two and 12 months later to reassess welfare factors and population numbers.
At the initial visit, the average welfare scores ranged from 5.4-8.7, where 16 represented the best possible welfare. The overall scores significantly improved at both the two and 12 month revisits. By the end of the study period, three out of the ten households had voluntary given up all of their cats, and overall there was a 40% reduction in the number of cats.
Animal hoarding has previously been an unmanageable welfare concern with no evidence to back up intervention techniques. Our results show that with engagement from vets and preventative care and population control, we can significantly improve the welfare of these animals in relatively short timescales.”
Vanessa Whitfield, a senior vet at the RSPCA Greater Manchester hospital, oversaw the vet involvement in this study and has considerable personal experience of visiting and supporting multi-animal households. She said: “The RSPCA Greater Manchester Hospital was delighted to work in partnership with the University of Nottingham on this study and we hope to contribute to more research in this area.
“Animal hoarding is one of the biggest current challenges faced by the RSPCA and other animal welfare organisations in the UK. The complexities of dealing with the often vulnerable owners and the health, welfare and behavioural needs of the cats make these cases demanding of both time and resources.
“The traditional approach of legal seizure of the animals is rarely effective in the long term and can lead to the cats having to be housed by the RSPCA for prolonged periods before they can find new homes. The more holistic approach described in this paper has so far proved to be far more effective at reducing the number of cats present and the risk of recidivism while also improving the health and welfare of the cats. It is also a far better use of the RSPCA’s resources.
“We are looking to expand this work to other areas of the country and also work in partnership with RSPCA Branches, other cat welfare organisations, Universities and human mental health experts.”
A full copy of the report can be found here.