January and February are typically quieter months for cat admissions, we are always steady on the rabbit front, but we started the year with a high number of small animals from two ‘hoarding’ situations. It certainly kept us busier than usual. Before we knew it there was talk of a global pandemic looming, so when COVID-19 began to hit the headlines, a wave of worry began to creep in. As lockdown looked inevitable many branch-run RSPCA animal centres feared how they could remain fully operational if staff fell ill. Many took the reluctant decision to reduce animal numbers on site and close their doors to new admissions to make sure they could look after their charges. In typical fashion, I took the alternative approach and made the decision to keep our doors open and try our best to take in as many animals as we could. That’s where the fun really began!
We actually ended up taking in a number of animals from those centres who had to batten down the hatches and we quickly expanded the fostering network to make sure we did not turn away any animal in need that was rescued by our colleagues from the National RSPCA inspectorate. Finding new foster homes was surprisingly easy, as so many people came forward to offer their help with their new working-from-home situations. We were also exceptionally fortunate to have access to private veterinary provision from Ashleigh Vets, despite so many other veterinary practices, the RSPCA Greater Manchester Animal Hospital included, rolling back their services, and even closing. It meant we could accept animals with complex needs from all over the North West and Yorkshire areas and be there when we were needed the most. Inevitably our vet bills doubled, as our animal admissions increased by a third, but we achieved the goal of accepting every animal we were asked to help during the 3 months of lockdown and the first month of emergence. This is something I will remain forever proud of. It was an exhausting achievement but we pulled together and worked so hard to make sure everyone got the care and love they needed.
As we hit the summer months we experienced unprecedented numbers of kittens come in and had to expand our team of hand-rearing foster carers to meet the demand. One Sunday evening in July I got a call from an inspector, whose colleague had attended the abandonment of 8 newborn kittens in a plastic bag in a wood. They were barely a day or two old. Two inspectors took 4 each home overnight until they could be transported to experienced foster carers. One group came to our branch and the other group to the Wirral branch. Miraculously 3 of ours survived and the 4 that went to Wirral survived too!
With the huge influx of kittens over summer, and limited access to veterinary care, for the first time in over a decade we had no choice but to rehome unneutered* and not fully vaccinated kittens in order to maintain throughput. This created an entirely new and sizable piece of work, managing and time-tabling the volume of post-adoption neuters and scheduling of vaccinations. The RSPCA Animal Hospital in Salford were outstanding with their help and support to see us through this.
*The RSPCA has long pioneered early neutering and has shared their expertise with other leading animal charities over the years. So much so that it has now become common practice amongst the major animal rescue organisations to neuter kittens prior to rehoming because these days kittens are fertile from 4 months of age. The benefits are far reaching: for the adopter, rescue shelter, cat population control, animal welfare and financially. Though arguably the ones that benefit the most are the kittens, who then don’t have to go through ‘major’ surgery when they are older, and as little as 4 hours after the op are bouncing around like no one’s business!
Who would have predicted there would become a soaring, nationwide demand for kittens and puppies in 2020? Private sellers achieving unthinkable sums of money, with puppies selling for £4,000 and non-pedigree kittens being sold for £500! It was inevitable, in hindsight, that we too would see an increase in enquiries. I remember one week releasing 6 kittens for rehoming and receiving in excess of 200 offers of homes in just 24 hours. Each time we released cats or kittens for rehoming we were simply paralysed by the response! It was not unusual for us to spend 6 hours looking through all the applications to be no further forward than when we started (largely because enquirers had not seen the adoption restrictions imposed by DEFRA in relation to COVID). We had to work out ways to work more efficiently without being operationally swamped each time we placed animals up for adoption. In all honesty it is still a learning curve but we nonetheless endeavour to respond to everyone who gets in touch with us and only release in-demand animals Monday to Thursday and when we have the staffing to cope with the influx of enquiries.
As well as learning to work smart to improve throughput, we also had to adapt to the way in which we have cared for kittens to do the best by them. Once upon a time at the branch all our kittens were raised in foster homes. We would not have dreamed of placing kittens under 4 months of age into a cattery. Yet in the first six months of our centre opening last year we quickly learnt that in some instances kittens were experiencing a more diverse range of human contact at the centre, and exposure to ‘household’ noises, than they would have done in some of our foster homes who maybe kept them in the spare bedroom (which is common practice for rescue work). We learnt last year to be more flexible in our approach to who was housed where as long as they were thriving. As lockdown began, and rolled on, the reality dawned that many kittens in foster homes were receiving limited contact with people (i.e. only seeing those in the household) this meant they could effectively be being ‘under socialised’. So our response was to bring them into the centre (between 6 and 8 weeks old depending on whether they had a mum) so they could spend time with a broader range of people and broaden their auditory, visual and olfactory experiences. This really seemed to help the kittens, but still left us in many instances unable to rehome to families with young children because we could not give as many kittens as usual early-life exposure to a broad range of family life.
A seemingly more positive aspect of our new way of working was the advent of the ‘office cat’. Much like centres who have an office dog come from the kennels for the day, we had a cat that would benefit from more human contact and more home-like comforts. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a substitute for a foster home or a forever home, but just a temporary aid. It also meant I created quite a gallery on my phone of ‘helpful’ office companions.
Another new activity for us was helping owners who found themselves with pregnant cats or nursing queens because they could not access neutering from their vet because of the impact of the pandemic on veterinary services. In some cases we were asked to help raise the kittens and return mum (neutered) once her nursing duties were complete. Or we supported the owner with food and litter and then took in the kittens once old enough to leave their mum (and had the mum cat neutered). We anticipate this becoming a more routine occurrence as time goes on and we are only too happy to help where we can. The impact of COVID on the cat population, as a result of the reduction in veterinary service to perform routine procedures like neutering, is going to be huge. Current estimates suggest that only 84% of the cat population is neutered and we need to be at around 92% to maintain numbers and avoid a cat crisis of overpopulation.
As kitten season peaked and Autumn crept in we began to see a common theme emerge in the animals that were coming in. They were either under-socialised and in need of either specialist homes or longer rehab, in distressing states of neglect or suffering with cat flu. Without doubt the latter two reasons occurring directly due to financial constraints and neglect in the case of animals like Henry the guinea pig who was found ‘stray’ heavily matted with fly strike. He actually had maggots falling out of his rear ended. He was rescued on a Saturday afternoon and we admitted him to a specialist, out of hours, to save his life (and we were successful).
The second lockdown and tier 3 measures have left us with fewer animals in our care than normal (currently 80 compared to 100+), but those we do have require much more help (mentally and/or physically) and I fear this is a sign of things to come. We have already seen a number of animals signed over or returned because owners have lost their jobs or homes and can no longer afford to care for their beloved pets. It is why we are working with local food banks/clubs to help keep animals and people together during these tough times.
2021 may be fast approaching, but in the final part of this blog series, let’s take a moment to celebrate the highlights of what you have helped us to achieve in 2020….. Coming soon!