While the cat boom in Japan continues, it also has a dark side: Of the roughly 67,000 cats euthanized in fiscal 2015, nearly 70 percent were kittens. Spring is the peak season for cats to give birth, and kittens born to mothers whose owners are unknown remains an issue.
Last summer, an employee from a welfare facility came to Kayo Kameyama, the deputy vice-president of the non-profit organization Nerima Neko (Nerima Cats), which manages the activity of cats in the area, for advice. The cat on the premises of the facility that the employees had been feeding had given birth to three kittens, and in what they thought was an action that would help the new mother and her litter, they had prepared and moved the kittens into a cardboard box bed. However, the mother, who was wary of the humans, would no longer approach the kittens in the box, and as a result of their meddling, two of the kittens died of starvation.
Cats go into heat from around the beginning to the end of February, and if they mate, it is said that there is a high chance that they will become pregnant. The gestation period for cats is roughly two months, so in spring animal protection groups are inundated with SOS calls about new kittens. Kameyama stresses, "If the kitten has a mother nearby providing milk, then I want people to just look after the cats without interfering."
This is the same advice that the Animal Care and Consultation Center run by the Tokyo Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health compels residents to follow. Newly born kittens need to be fed every few hours, and need assistance with excrement, as they cannot do it on their own. Kittens brought to municipal health care centers and the Tokyo animal care center before being weaned from their mothers cannot be provided with that kind of care, and are often put down because of it.
Recently, in order for kittens still reliant on milk to survive to adoption, some municipal animal centers are working on expanding the activities of "milk volunteers" that will raise the kittens for a period until they are weaned.
At the beginning of February, another non-profit organization specializing in caring for felines, Tokyo Cat Guardian (TCG), showed the Mainichi Shimbun their methods for caring for kittens still dependent on milk. Staff feed the kittens a specialized powdered milk for cats dissolved in hot water through a syringe. After feeding, they have to assist the kitten in the excretion process by providing stimulus. "Cow milk can cause diarrhea, so it should not be given to kittens," says TCG representative Yoko Yamamoto.
TCG also operates cat shelter cafes to try to connect cats with owners, finding new homes for about 700 cats per year, two-thirds of which are kittens. This wouldn't be possible without the help of the milk volunteers. Unweaned kittens have weak bodies and immune systems, so they are kept for two months until they can be vaccinated against infection diseases. During that time, TCG provides all the supplies and covers the cost of medical care for the cats. Yamamoto explains, "We support the survival of the kittens, whose health is subject to sudden change, by maintaining appropriate temperatures and thorough sanitization."
For unweaned kittens whose mother cannot be located, and kittens wandering around on their own, there is a high chance that an unhappy ending is in store for them. "If you really want to help a kitten, then you should learn what the proper care entails from an animal hospital," Kameyama advises. Animal care facilities are limited when it comes to staff, so one should not assume that they can help provide assistance. "If you really want to help, it requires a lot of hard work, like using the website "Petto no Ouchi (Pet House)" to find a new home for the cat," she says.
Simply saving the kittens is not the end of the problem. Kameyama points out, "If the mother is not spayed, the same problem will only keep repeating itself." A cat can have anywhere from three to six kittens two to three times per year. In the case of the welfare facility that came to Kameyama and Nerima Neko, at the suggestion of the non-profit organization, the staff got the money together to spay the mother cat on the property. "It's important to create regions where we can coexist by limiting the number of cats without owners to one generation through spaying and neutering," Kameyama says.
Tokyo Cat Guardian can be reached for consultation concerning cats via their 24-hour hotline in Japanese at 0570-032-110.