Parsnip, Cranberry and Sprouts. Not your Christmas dinner, but a festive trio of fluffy black and white kittens, newly arrived at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Down the corridor in the cattery, another three newborns have just been taken in, along with their parents, in something approaching a feline nativity scene.
The new arrivals are, according to Bridie Williams, Battersea’s cattery manager, “ridiculously cute”. And they come at the end of a year during which 133 kittens were born on site – considerably more than any year in the past decade.
“We’ve had more than 130 kittens born on site this year,” said Williams. “Normally it would be around half that.”
Staff say the cost of living crisis, following on from more sporadic access to veterinary care during the pandemic, has resulted in far fewer pets being neutered. And this, inevitably, has led to a kitten boom.
“We’re having more younger cats coming because owners can’t afford the cat or can’t afford to have them neutered,” she added. “There are some others who didn’t have ops during Covid.”
There is, she admits, a fun side to hosting so many tiny, inquisitive and mischievous cats. One recent rescuee, a black kitten called Peach, ended up living in Williams’s office – and participating in several Zoom meetings – because she miaowed so loudly every time she was left alone that it disturbed neighbouring cats. “She was just ridiculously sociable,” she said. “So she was my office buddy for a couple of weeks.”
Since then her office has been a temporary home for another pair of kittens, Allegro and Lyric, who have just been rehomed. “They do cause mischief,” said Williams. “They’re also exceptionally time-consuming because they need so much socialisation.”
Studies have revealed cats have a “socialisation period” between two and seven weeks of age when they learn which aspects of their environment are normal and safe. Anything they do not encounter during this development window is more likely to trigger a fear response in adulthood.
Ideally, Battersea prefers kittens to be placed in foster homes during these weeks, but the sheer number this year means it has been a struggle to find placements for them all.
To compensate, staff have developed a list of stimuli that the kittens need to experience, including women and men (Battersea has fewer male volunteers so male office staff are drafted in to play with kittens on lunch breaks). Audio recordings of household noises such as vacuum cleaners and the television are used to prepare them for life on the outside. “We’re building kittens that are going to be confident, happy and able to deal with children and dogs outside and have bravery bred into them,” said Williams.
Cats can get pregnant from about four months and, with feline pregnancy lasting about 63 to 65 days, can have kittens when just over six months old. Typically cats are seasonal breeders and only enter their reproductive cycle from spring to autumn and can go into heat every few weeks during this period.
Williams says the steep rise in the cost of living is making it difficult for some pet owners to cover vet bills and basic expenses. Battersea recommends owners will typically need to put aside £1,500 to cover costs for the first year of looking after a cat.
“Neuter surgery is really important but it does cost money,” she said. “I don’t think when people initially think about getting a cat they necessarily think about all the costs.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Battersea is also receiving a growing number of inquiries from owners of Savannah cats, an expensive crossbreed between a domestic cat and a serval. The hybrids are incredibly attractive creatures, with marbled patterning, large ears and an athletic build. But their activity levels and strong hunting instinct mean they are not always easy to manage as pets. “They can do a lot of damage and we’re hearing from people who can’t cope with them,” said Jo Puzzo, the centre’s cat welfare coordinator. “It’s not an animal that should be kept indoors.”
She added: “We did have one come to our Kent site, which we rehomed on a farm.”
Williams said anyone thinking of taking on a kitten should also consider the time commitment required to settle them into a new home. “Make sure you have the time and have read up on how much effort they are,” she said. “If you’ve got the time, you can have this wonderful kitten that comes in and gives you all this joy and grows into your beloved cat who can be with you for 20 years. I’d always recommend getting a cat, but you just need to make sure you’ve got the right one for you.”