Dog welfare has improved significantly in Ireland in the past two decades. The number of stray dogs being euthanased in dog pounds is down from over twenty thousand to less than a thousand, laws have been brought in control commercial dog breeding, and new animal welfare legislation has improved the protection for dogs under Irish law. Dogs also now need to be microchipped, so they are securely linked to their owners
But what about cats? Traditionally, cats have been second-class creatures in Ireland. While there have always been cat lovers who dote on their pets, many people still see cats as farmyard animals, better outside chasing rats and mice rather than indoors by the fireside. Even away from the farm, there's a mistaken impression that cats are aloof, independent creatures who will do anything to please themselves. As for feral cats, they are seen as a nuisance, no better than other pests that need to be controlled.
This less-than-loving attitude to cats is reflected in the proportions of different species brought to vet clinics. In the UK, the ratio of animals visiting vets is around 50:50 dogs to cats, while in Ireland, typically over 65% of a veterinary waiting room is made up of dogs, with only around 30% cats. My own clinic in Bray has a dedicated cat section, with cat-only waiting room, consulting room and hospital ward). Cat owners love this: 100% of the patients in our cat-only waiting room are cats!
To those of us who adore cats, it's difficult to relate to understand why people don't seem to care so much for them. Yes, cats are more independent than dogs, but this can be an appealing characteristic rather than a mark to hold against them. When a cat gives you affection and attention, you know that they really mean it. And given a chance, cats can be just as companionable and adorable as dogs.
The truth is that cats do better under Irish law than many people think. Pet cats, just like dogs, are classified as 'protected animals' in the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2014 (this means "any creature in the possession or under the control of a human being"). This means that if you are looking after a cat, you have a legal duty to protect its welfare. You have to provide food, water and shelter, and you must take precautions to protect the health of the cat. It's against the law to allow a cat to fall ill and then to fail to seek treatment. You also have a responsibility to ensure that you do not leave a cat unattended without making adequate provisions for its welfare. Finally, it's an offence to abandon an animal. You cannot just 'stray' a cat because you don't want it any more.
The legal situation is more complicated for feral cats. If any animal is living "in a wild state", then they are no longer classified as a "protected animal". This is logical: by definition, it is impossible for any animal in the wild to be under control of a human being. Who could be held accountable for housing, feeding and caring for a free-living cat in the wild? When the new law came in, many people who care about feral cats were understandably concerned. Since feral cats were living in a wild state, and they were therefore not "protected animals". Did this mean that they had no legal protection?
Fortunately, this is not the case. The only difference between pet cats and feral cats under the law is the fact that nobody may have a direct obligation to care for them. Feral cats are still protected from cruelty, just like other living, sentient creatures. Under Irish law, any act, or failure to act, that causes unnecessary suffering or endangers the health and welfare of any animal is an offence. It's against the law to injure - or to poison - feral cats, just as much as it would be to do this to pet cats.
Even with this legal protection, feral cats in Ireland have difficult lives. Estimates of the national feral cat population range from 200000 to over a million: the truth is that nobody knows how many there are. Most people are aware of feral cat colonies in their neighbourhoods. These cats play an important role in controlling pests like rats and mice, especially in locations where there may be waste food, such as the back yards of restaurants and hotels.
For this reason, feral cat colonies should be an asset to human society. However, to integrate successfully, such colonies do need human help. If they are left on their own, they breed too rapidly. Too many kittens are born, there's not enough food for them, and they end up as hungry, sickly creatures with short, brutal lives.
The answer is simple: responsible people in the area need to implement Trap-Neuter-Release schemes to ensure cat populations are kept at a manageable level, so there's enough food and shelter for all. To find out more about how these schemes work, visit www.feralcatsireland.org.
Should we do more for cats in Ireland? Yes, of course. While there are many dog-only animal charities (Madra, Dogs Trust and many others), there are very few cat only charities, and these tend to be smaller local groups (e.g. Greystones Kitty Hostel). Many charities cover dogs and cats (eg ISPCA, Blue Cross and DSPCA),but cats need more support to ensure that they don't suffer unduly and that when rescued, they receive the focused care that they deserve.
Support your local cat charity!