An unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change was an explosion of kitten populations, which is overwhelming local veterinary practices and animal shelters.
The Humane Society for Southwest Washington observed a massive influx of kittens coming through its doors due to a longer kitten season, or the time in which cats are giving birth to their litters. In Washington, kitten season begins at the end of February or early March and lasts through October. However, it hasn’t stopped since it began in 2021.
The animal shelter sent out 611 kittens to foster in 2021, said Megan Dennis, vice president of shelter operations. There are still more felines coming to the shelter. Despite this influx, there is enough space and accommodations for the incoming kittens.
“This isn’t unique to Washington or Vancouver,” Dennis said. “This is happening across the country. It’s something we’re having to figure out and really trying to navigate.”
Warm weather, longer days and increased access to food contribute to kitten season. In 2021, shelter staff witnessed a significant increase in the number of kittens being born and cats getting pregnant. It’s a quick and continuous cycle, as cats can become pregnant when they’re as young as 4 months old and can produce multiple litters a year.
The most critical factor in the increase in kitten season, however, was a pause in spay and neuter programs.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the shelter had to halt animal surgeries to comply with state regulations on utilizing personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, said Lauren Overman, vice president of shelter medical operations. The use of these tools, as well as surgical drugs, minimized veterinarians’ procedures, including spaying and neutering animals.
“We did what we could for our colleagues in human hospitals,” she said. “Now, we’re just trying to catch up.”
Most progress in reducing the homeless cat population was lost because of the brief pause of public and shelter spay and neuter programs, Overman said. However, the shelter’s medical staff are putting in extra time and effort to make up for lost time.
There are about 400 people on the waitlist to spay and neuter their cats, she said, but staff are hopeful their current efforts will reduce the length of the kitten season in 2022.
Troy Schlines, WellHaven Pet Health veterinary doctor, said spay and neuter procedures are booked until March.
Similar to the Humane Society, the clinic’s system was quickly overwhelmed once routine surgeries continued — as were employees. Medical staff were shorthanded to meet the needs of clients and were booked out a few weeks at a time, he said, but things have leveled out since then.
Other effects in pet care
Bob Lester, WellHaven Pet Health chief medical officer, said there was a preventive care issue at the beginning of the pandemic. Pets were not coming in to get their vaccines or protective care, which resulted in more disease.
Overman said the shelter’s medical team saw more cases of feline panleukopenia virus, a highly contagious viral disease that is fatal to kittens. There was also an observable spread of disease within the homeless animal population.
Although there was an uptick of disease and mortality rates, there is an abundance of progress still being made.
Shelters are adopting out animals at an increased rate. Additionally, dogs that are imported from across the country to Washington are regularly being adopted, which has nearly solved dog overpopulation. Cat overpopulation is still an issue, Lester said, but there have been noticeable improvements.
“People were more eager to find some sort of connection being trapped at home, and pets filled that void in many cases,” he said. “(They) are understanding the joy that comes with connection (and) the mental and physical wellbeing of having a pet.”
However, pets are not just gifts, and prospective owners should guarantee they are prepared to welcome a new family member into their home, especially for the long-term, Schlines said.