Ask Dr Jane - Transforming the Lives of Hong Kong’s Street Cats

As one of the first vets to be involved in our Cat Colony Care Programme, Dr. Jane has been lucky enough to see the benefits of this amazing programme with her very own eyes! So for this edition of Ask Dr. Jane, we have decided to ask her all about her experiences and feelings over the past 20 years.

Cat Colony Care Programme

20 years ago, how healthy and happy was the average stray cat?
That’s an easy one to answer! There were not healthy or happy at all! The streets were over-populated with stray cats. There was competition for food, uncontrolled breeding and fighting. Many cats were undernourished and suffering with diseases which were left untreated. Your average street cat suffered very poor welfare.

What were the most common diseases?
Chronic skin disease was rife, caused by a variety of factors including mites, fleas, bacteria and fungi. It was not uncommon to see a street cat with most of its fur missing, with red raw and flakey skin; horribly unpleasant for the poor cat, especially in Hong Kong’s hot and humid climate. Other common diseases included viral infections such as cat flu and enteritis, both of which can be fatal if left untreated and, at best, can lead to chronic debilitating illnesses.

How long can a street cat live?
20 years ago the average life-span of a street cat was around 2 to 4 years, often less. These days with desexing and carers to watch over them and provide good nutrition, many street cats are living 10 years or more.

What is the oldest street cat you have seen?
Until recently, I was a CCCP carer myself looking after “Wong Mao” (the Cantonese means “Yellow Fur” in English) a male street cat near my apartment, and he lived to be 16 years old before being put to sleep due to cancer. I have also heard reports from our carers that some cats have reached the grand old age of 20. This is considered a long life span even for a pampered house cat.

 

If a female cat is in poor health, what is the negative effect on her offspring?
If a mother cat is in poor health during her pregnancy, she may abort her kittens, or lose some of them in utero never to be borne. This can lead to uterine infection in the mother cat which, if left untreated, will be fatal. During each pregnancy cycle, a mother cat already in poor condition will become weaker, and her health will hit a downward spiral.

Kittens born to mothers in poor health will likely be underweight, have poor suckling, and not possess the immunity to disease which a normal vaccinated, healthy mother would pass to her offspring. Sadly many of these kittens around 60-70% may not make it to adulthood!

In the past you witnessed many cats and kittens being euthanized due to lack of adopters? How did this make you feel?
Obviously, I felt incredibly sad and frustrated. As a veterinary surgeon my priority is always to save animals and provide them with a good quality of life. Over the years, a combination of lack of education, irresponsible pet ownership and uncontrolled breeding led to a severe cat overpopulation problem. In the 1990s, we had no choice but to euthanize, as there were far too many cats - no space in our adoption centres and not enough loving homes available. This is why in 2000, the SPCA decided to attack the problem at source – through education and desexing, and the CCCP was borne! 20 years later it’s amazing to witness the success of the Programme. At times the demand for kittens and cats far exceeds the supply. This means we are now homing adult cats, even senior cats, which is something we never were able to do 20 years ago.

 

What changes have you noticed in the CCCP structure over the years?
Too many to list here, but the most obvious one being that we started off small with just a few colonies and carers, and were only able to handle a few desexing surgeries every week, fitting them in between other welfare work. We built the CCCP Programme slowly but surely to a level when there was enough work for a full-time vet and 2 nurses operating 5 days a week on up to 50+ cats per day. At our height, we were performing more than 6,000 surgeries per year. We now have 1,900 colonies looked after by nearly1,100 carers. This is an amazing achievement, and an excellent example of the SPCA and the community working together to improve animal welfare from the ground upwards.

What is the most serious case you have helped?
Over the years, I have treated many street cats; some were too sick or injured to save, but thankfully, many of them were able to be helped back to their home on the street. My favourite case in recent years was in 2018, when a street cat called “Bobby” was brought in by our inspectors with a severe neck injury - likely due to a fight he had obviously lost. His wound was so large and infected he required three separate surgeries with special skin flaps to close. Fortunately, through the dedication of his volunteer carer and a lot of hard work by the Society’s veterinary and welfare team, a month later he was able to be released back to the street. Hopefully having learned his lesson with regard to street brawls!

What transformations have you witnessed in the stray cat population over the past 20 years?
In a nutshell from 2000 to now, Hong Kong’s street cats in general enjoy healthier, happier and longer lives…there are fewer cats on the street enjoying a higher quality of life. It’s a win, win situation for these fabulous, feisty, felines!

20 years have passed, you must have conducted thousands of desexing surgeries? Do you ever get bored?
No, never. I have always been a “crazy” cat lady. I truly cannot think of a better or more rewarding way to spend my day than desexing street cats. I get to spend time with these ferocious but fantastic felines, and know I am having a positive effect on their health and welfare. It is the best gig ever!

 

Photo credit: Micros Yip and Virus