Parsnips, cranberries and sprouts. Not your Christmas dinner, but a festive trio of fluffy black and white kittens, newly arrived at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Down the hall from the cattery, three other newborns have just been welcomed, along with their parents, into something akin to a feline crèche.
The newcomers are, according to Battersea cattery manager Bridie Williams, “ridiculously cute”. And they come to the end of a year in which 133 kittens were born on the premises, considerably more than any year in the past decade.
“We’ve had over 130 kittens born on site this year,” Williams said. “Normally it would be about half of that.”
Staff say the cost of living crisis, following more sporadic access to veterinary care during the pandemic, has resulted in far fewer pets being neutered. And that, inevitably, led to a kitten boom.
“We have more younger cats coming in because the owners can’t afford the cat or can’t afford to neuter them,” she added. “There are others who haven’t had operations during Covid.”
There is, she admits, a fun side to hosting so many curious and mischievous little cats. A recent survivor, a black kitten named Peach, ended up living in Williams’ office — and participated in several Zoom meetings — because she meowed so loudly whenever left alone that it bothered nearby cats. “She was just ridiculously social,” she said. “So she was my office buddy for a few weeks.”
Since then, her office has been a temporary home for another pair of kittens, Allegro and Lyric, who have just been rehomed. “They cause harm,” Williams said. “They are also very time consuming because they need a lot of socialization.”
Studies have found that cats have a “socialization period” between two and seven weeks when they learn what aspects of their environment are normal and safe. Anything they don’t encounter during this developmental window is more likely to trigger a fear response as adults.
Ideally, Battersea would prefer the kittens to be placed in foster homes during these weeks, but the huge numbers this year mean it has been difficult to find placements for all of them.
To compensate, the staff have drawn up a list of stimuli for the kittens to experience, including both female and male (Battersea has fewer male volunteers, so male office staff are recruited to play with the kittens during lunch breaks) . Audio recordings of household noises such as vacuum cleaners and television are used to prepare them for life outdoors. “We are building kittens that will be confident, happy and able to take care of kids and dogs outdoors and have bravery inside them,” Williams said.
Cats can become pregnant from around four months and, with a feline pregnancy of around 63 to 65 days, can have kittens at just over six months. Generally, cats are seasonal breeders and only enter their breeding cycle from spring to fall and may come into heat every few weeks during this time.
Williams says the steep rise in the cost of living is making it difficult for some pet owners to cover veterinary bills and basic expenses. Battersea recommends owners set aside £1,500 to cover the costs of the first year of keeping a cat.
“Neutral surgery is really important but it costs money,” she said. “I don’t think when people initially think of having a cat they necessarily think of all the costs.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Battersea is also receiving increasing numbers of inquiries from owners of Savannah cats, an expensive cross between a domestic cat and a serval. Hybrids are incredibly attractive creatures, with mottled patterns, large ears, and athletic builds. But their activity level and strong hunting instincts mean they aren’t always easy to manage as pets. “They can do a lot of damage and we hear of people who can’t deal with it,” said Jo Puzzo, the centre’s cat welfare coordinator. “It’s not an animal that should be kept indoors.”
She added: “We brought one to our Kent site, which we housed on a farm.”
Williams said anyone considering getting a kitten should also consider how long it will take to settle them into a new home. “Make sure you have the time and read how hard they try,” she said. “If you have the time, you can have this wonderful kitten come in and give you all this joy and become your beloved cat who can be with you for 20 years. I would still recommend getting a cat, but you just have to make sure you have the right one for you.