Desperate for kittens

Images above: Zeb and Ziggy

Lockdown stampede for furry companions sees animal charity swamped by applications

Freezing adoption applications for animals in need of a home is not a decision an animal charity takes lightly. But that is what the Covid emergency has forced Hounslow Animal Welfare Society (HAWS) to do. Since the first lockdown, exactly a year ago, they have been swamped with people wanting to adopt cats and kittens. And with the demand for feline companions showing no signs of abating, HAWS has had to call a temporary halt.

“It’s a bit of a nightmare,” says HAWS trustee Carol Atkinson. “I even had one (adoption) application from Glasgow. People are desperate to get kittens, in particular.” Some people have told her that they’ve seen kittens advertised online, with the seller asking up to £1000 per kitten.

Hounslow Animal Welfare Society is currently dealing with around 300 adoption applications – ten times as many as they usually get. To put this in context, from January to March this year, the charity has taken in 34 cats, along with a small number of rabbits and guinea pigs. Many of those cats have already been adopted, so would-be-owners currently outnumber the available felines by more than ten to one.

HAWS has also decided not to publish details of available kittens on the website. Because even with a freeze on online applications, Carol says if people think kittens are available, “they’ll flood us with emails and phone calls and we’ve got more than enough applications already!”

Images above: Monty and Charlie; Louise

Background checks complicated by Covid

Then there are the problems caused by people buying pets over the internet during the Covid emergency.

“We hear very sad stories where people have bought a kitten online and it’s turned out to be too young to have left its mother and is very sick. So they can’t afford the vet bills. They surrender the kitten to our care for rehoming once it’s finished its treatment. People are grateful – they realise they have made a mistake, and they cannot really afford to have a pet,” Carol explains.

“In other cases, if someone contacts us saying their cat is pregnant and they can’t cope, HAWS will take the feline family in, rehome the kittens, spay the mother and return her to her owner.”

People weren’t always able to get vets’ appointments for spaying during lockdown, she says, though that has now improved.

The lockdowns have complicated adoption procedures for animal charities, because it is now far more cumbersome to do background checks. In “normal” times, one of the HAWS home visit team would go around to meet a potential adopter and check that their home and lifestyle was suitable for a pet. It would also provide an opportunity to chat with the person, or family, involved about what kind of cat or kitten might be suitable for them.

But since last year two HAWS Trustees have been doing those checks virtually:

“Checking Google Earth, satellite maps, asking people to send video clips of their gardens, their fencing, and all the things we would normally assess at a physical home visit.”

There are then long conversations with the would-be adopter to make sure they are not just asking to adopt an animal because they are working at home and lonely.

“We ask them to think about what happens once they do go back to working normally, to having a social life again, and how that will work for the pet they have adopted. Our concern is that they wouldn’t have time for a pet, and would want to return it. We need to ensure it’s a home for life.”

Images above: Ginger and Hermione

Essential that the cat meets the children in the family

Even when an online adoption request is approved, Covid regulations can cause further complications. Adopters naturally want to meet a cat before taking it into their home. But at the moment, potential adopters are not allowed to go into the HAWS foster homes where the cats are being cared for. Carol says that “meetings” between adult cats and a couple who want to adopt can be facilitated online, via Zoom or FaceTime.

But she says if there is a family involved: “it’s essential that the cat actually meets the children, which has slowed things down. However, our foster carers have worked out inventive ways to make it safe – for instance by putting the cat or kittens into a pen in their garden.”

Luckily, unlike many other animal charities in this most extraordinary of years, HAWS has managed to keep its head above water financially.

“We’ve haven’t been able to do any of our normal fundraisers,” reflects Carol. “But our saviour has been our tie-up with our local Pets at Home stores. They’ve got a charitable arm, and we have been extremely lucky, not just with straightforward cash donations, but vouchers we can spend on food and equipment we need.”

A pet-food donation bin in Sainsbury’s in Chiswick has also helped to keep the charity afloat. “We get a lot from there,” says Carol. “It also helps supply feral cat colonies we support with food.” During Covid, she adds, “people do seem to have been more generous with the food donations. Our colleague used to go and empty the food bin once a week, but she’s doing it three times a week at the moment.”

Carol admits that if you’d told her when lockdown started in March 2020 that we’d still be in a similar situation a year later, she wouldn’t have believed it. She thinks that 2021 is likely to be another difficult year.

But if you’re hoping to adopt a pet from HAWS this year, don’t despair. Carol believes there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

“Once we can meet potential adopters in their gardens, it becomes a bit easier”, she says. “We can physically check details like how close they are to any busy main roads and give the adopters advice on how to potentially make things safer for their new pet. Hopefully, it will soon be a little bit easier to get adoptions organised more quickly!”

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