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The Big Read: With ban in HDB flats set to be lifted, can pet cats coexist in harmony with residents?

​​​​​​SINGAPORE — For cat lover Shak, who lives in a two-room rental flat in Boon Lay with his mother, time is the biggest barrier to getting his three cats sterilised.

However, despite some owners’ best efforts, several HDB residents told TODAY that negative experiences with cats have left them hesitant or even averse to lifting the ban on pet cats. 

Ms Revnita Elviyanti, 51, who lives in the same block as Mr Shak, has been scared of cats since she saw a cat sleeping on her pillow as a child. 

When a neighbour’s cat perched on her shoe rack and vomited, she moved the rack indoors. 

Still, Ms Revnita, who is a homemaker, does not mind that many of her neighbours own cats which occasionally wander onto the corridor, as long as they do not enter her flat.  

Wealth manager Jordan Lim’s family was “alarmed” when a stray cat wandered into his flat as they worried that it might dirty the flat or carry disease.

However, Mr Lim, 24, said this experience emphasised the need for legalising ownership of cats in HDB flats, to encourage more adoption of strays. 

He believes that it is a “small portion” of cat owners who do not look after their cats that cause nuisances in the neighbourhood. 

Mr Ash Tan, 44, who is self-employed, has not been bothered by cats in his Tiong Bahru estate as they do not freely roam. 

“Cats are fine in my opinion as they are HDB friendly in size, don’t make too much noise and clean up after themselves,” he said. 

Other residents emphasised that allowing cats in HDB flats may inconvenience those who are afraid of cats. 

Ms Jean Koh, who works in real estate and has a fear of cats since her childhood, said that having cats in HDB flats “creates a very uncomfortable situation” for those who are averse to such pets.

For the 45-year-old, it is “already stressful” to see community cats on a daily basis and a legalisation of cats in HDB flats, which could allow her neighbours to own cats, would be “too close for comfort”.

Additionally, Ms D Chan, who wishes to be anonymous due to the contentious nature of the debate on cat ownership, said that she feels there is a societal “lack of understanding” that not everyone is keen on legalising cats in HDB flats. 

Though lifting the ban may be “public pleasing”, the 49-year-old who works in marketing said cat owners may only be deterred from causing disamenities if harsher punishments are imposed on irresponsible owners. 

Since 1989, HDB dwellers have not been permitted to house pet cats, and offenders may be fined up to S$4,000 if found to have a pet cat in their flat under the Housing and Development (Animals) Rules. 

While the ban on cats in flats has been the subject of heated perennial debate, HDB said it was put in place because cats are “generally difficult to contain within the flat”.

“When allowed to roam indiscriminately, they tend to shed fur and defecate or urinate in public areas, and also make caterwauling sounds, which can inconvenience your neighbours,” it added.

Some members of the public have echoed these concerns about the potential disamenities of cats in HDB flats, such as dirtying common areas and noise pollution. 

On the other hand, animal welfare groups and cat owners have persistently advocated for a change in policy, pointing to irresponsible pet ownership as the primary cause of the behaviour which HDB cited for the ban.

After the release of results from a public consultation launched in 2022 in May this year, Senior Minister of State for National Development Tan Kiat How announced on Dec 2 a proposed cat management framework by the National Parks Board’s Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS). 

When implemented in the later part of 2024, the proposal will allow up to two cats in HDB flats and introduce mandatory licensing and microchipping for pet cats. 

Dr Audrey Chen, director of AVS, said the proposal is the result of many “progressive” steps in consultation with the public, as the issue is “very dear to the hearts of a lot of people”. 

“It is a very intentional (move) to raise the standards of the industry,” she added.

THE ROAD TO LICENSING CATS

The proposal follows AVS’ public consultation exercise on the framework, which garnered over 30,000 responses from September to November last year. 

Close to 90 per cent of respondents said cats are suitable pets, with most of them also supporting cats being kept as pets in HDB flats. 

The survey also found that over 80 per cent agreed that pet cats should be microchipped and licensed as licensing could improve the health, welfare and traceability of cats. 

AVS also conducted focus group discussions this year with cat owners, non-cat owners, cat fosterers, animal welfare groups and veterinarians.

For one animal welfare group, the Cat Welfare Society (CWS), this cause has been the subject of over a decade of advocacy work.

In 2012, CWS launched a pilot cat ownership project in Chong Pang estate, where cat owners were allowed to keep their pets legally in their HDB flats provided certain conditions were met. 

At the time, 90 per cent of the 126 cat owners were found to be responsible, while the remaining 10 per cent who did not heed the ownership guidelines perpetuated 90 per cent of the cat-related issues in the estate.  

During door-to-door surveys conducted in 2022, CWS found that 90 per cent of the HDB non-cat owners did not have concerns about their cat-owning neighbours and had not faced cat-related inconveniences. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, HDB said it works with other agencies and animal welfare groups to engage flat owners after it receives complaints about “unpermitted and irresponsible pet ownership in HDB flats”.

Over the past three years, the number of cat-related feedback received by HDB from residents had gone down. HDB received around 1,900 cases in 2020, 1,500 cases in 2021 and 1,300 complaints in 2022. 

A majority of the feedback received was related to disamenities caused by cats, such as defecating in common areas. Most cases were resolved after flat owners rehomed their cats, said HDB. 

HDB takes legal action against flat owners only as a “last resort”. Only two households have been fined since 2020 after failing to cooperate and rehome their cats which caused disamenities. 

On what its future approach would be, HDB said it would continue to work with AVS on “refining the framework” before next year’s launch. 

Under the proposed cat management framework, AVS limits household pets to: 

Two cats (and one dog of an approved breed, as per current limits) for each HDB flatThree cats or dogs, or a combination of three pets in total, for each private premiseAdditional pet licences will be subject to AVS’ approval, and HDB’s approval for HDB residents

During a two-year transition period, cat owners can apply to license and keep all existing pet cats. All pet cats will have to be microchipped before they can be licensed.

First-time licence applicants will have to complete a free online responsible pet ownership course, which will cover topics such as basic pet care skills and responsible pet ownership in the four vernacular languages. 

It will be an offence to keep unlicensed pet cats after the transition period. 

AVS also said that owners will have to ensure that cats are kept in a safe environment and have taken “reasonable steps” to protect cats from indoor and outdoor hazards, such as installing barriers to prevent roaming and high-rise falls. 

House checks may be conducted to ensure pet cats are kept in proper condition and their welfare is not compromised. 

It also “strongly encouraged” the sterilisation of pet cats as the procedure prevents unintended breeding, has health and behavioural benefits, such as reduced risk of some cancers and less inclination to roam and caterwaul.

To support low-income households, free sterilisation and microchipping for pet cats will be rolled out under the Pet Cat Sterilisation Support programme by AVS in 2024. 

‘LITTLE STEPS TO GREAT PROGRESS’ 

For married cat owners and independent rescuers Iris Ng and Than Yan Ren, the proposed cat management framework and legalisation of cats in HDB flats brings some relief.

Ms Ng, 32, a sustainability manager, said she had always been conscious of the ban, which made their decision to adopt their cat “very stressful”. 

“Since (owning a cat in a HDB flat) is not legal…if you upset your neighbour, it becomes something they can use against you,” added Mr Than, a 32-year-old researcher. 

The ban imposed other challenges, including difficulty in securing pet insurance as some insurers do not allow a cat owner’s listed address to be a HDB flat and social concerns of being unable to openly establish a cat owner community in her neighbourhood. 

“Regardless of whether it’s enforced or not, the fact that cat ownership in HDB is prohibited creates a sense of illegitimacy and erodes our sense of belonging as a home,” said Ms Ng.

She added that the mandatory responsible pet ownership course would also help to reach the masses who may not have encountered information from animal welfare groups.

Ms Doshi said the ban reversal is “long overdue” and many cats are already living in HDB flats, and the proposed framework, though still needing areas for improvement, would be part of “little steps to great progress”.

Mr Louis Ng, a Member of Parliament for Nee Soon Group Representation Constituency who in Parliament had advocated for allowing cats in HDB, told TODAY that he was “relieved” by the new proposal, which he called a “significant milestone”.

“I’ve spoken about this for so long because fundamentally it’s a policy that doesn’t make sense. The four reasons that HDB gives (for the ban)… already apply to other animals.”

Mr Ng added: “We have this policy that everybody is violating, we allow it, almost like a status quo —  so why not just change it?”

On the proposed changes, Ms Vivien Cheong, 53, said that despite having negative experiences with cats, she is amenable to the new policy if owners follow suggested practices like keeping cats indoors. 

However, the operation and administration executive is concerned that when the ban is lifted, cat owners who typically maintain a “low profile” may more openly let cats wander outside of the home and cause disamenities. 

While she feels the proposed framework is “pretty comprehensive”, Ms Cheong added that without “active policing” of breaches of guidelines, the framework may only be “good on paper”.

Ms Aarthi Sankar, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said that mandating meshing of windows and gates, keeping cats strictly indoors and sterilisation are other areas that could better ensure responsible cat ownership in flats.

For some people like the cat rescuer James Wong, the cap of two is on the “low end” as cats are “social animals”.

Many people who started out adopting a single cat from him average out at three or more cats after some time, and cat rescuers may have more.

Mr Wong, a 41-year-old senior finance manager who has rescued and rehomed many cats, is also concerned that the proposed cap will cut off the supply of “good adopters”, who may hesitate to adopt another cat despite having the means. 

Both SPCA and CWS cited concerns over possible misunderstanding of the proposed threshold of two licensed cats.

“There is a risk that irresponsible cat owners with more than the proposed threshold number of cats might look to abandon or recklessly give their cats away without realising they can get licences for more than the threshold number of cats during the transition period provided they are responsible,” said Ms Thenuga Vijakumar, president of CWS. 

Data from surveys undertaken by CWS in the past two years show that a majority of HDB cat owners have one to three cats, and a “more logical” starting point would thus be three cats, she added.

“Since the proposal for private housing is to allow three cats or dogs, or a combination of both, it would make sense to follow the same flexibility for public housing. It would also ensure that we do not have double standards between public and private housing.”

Ms Thenuga also cited the need for a special licence for “critical groups” such as fosterers and caregivers who take in cats that have been abused, neglected or abandoned.

Agreeing, Ms Aarthi from SPCA said that a better threshold would have been three cats per household, and a threshold that takes into consideration the floor space of an owner’s home.

Dr Teo Boon Han, managing partner and veterinary consultant at VetTrust Singapore Consulting and Solutions, said that a hard limit on cats per household is “arbitrary”, as the number of pets is “only one factor in a larger equation” in ensuring pets welfare.

“A pet owner can have one small breed dog but not meet its welfare or health needs and can cause significant disamenities to his neighbours. 

“Conversely, another pet owner can have many large breed dogs in a single household, and bring them out for walks multiple times a day, feed them the best food and have them well trained,” said Dr Teo. 

EXPLAINING CAT BEHAVIOUR 

TODAY spoke to three vets: Dr Geetha Nellinathan, owner of The Cat Vet, Dr Rachel Tong, co-founder of Pawlyclinic, a digital veterinarian platform, and Dr Teo Boon Han, managing partner and veterinary consultant at VetTrust Singapore about cat behaviour.

‘Roaming’ outside 

While cats have commonly been perceived as roaming animals, vets said that cats adapt well to indoor environments Unsterilised cats are more likely to roam due to mating instincts, and unsterilised male cats tend to spray to mark their territory Unlike dogs, cats are a lot more independent and can be kept mentally stimulated in a “well-designed” home with obstacles, heights, built-in steps, platforms, scratching posts

Procreation

On average, female cats can have more litters a year compared to dogs Cats in tropical climates can breed three to four times a year, unlike dogs which breed twice a year As female cats come into heat monthly, two cats could soon turn into 20 cats There is “great risk” of overpopulation of cats, if they are not sterilised

Microchipping 

Microchipping and licensing improves the “traceability” of pet cats in returning lost pets or accounting for owners who abandon their catsAdministered by vets, a microchip is a rice-sized transponder injected into a pet’s skin to leave a permanent identification system that can be read by a microchip scannerWhile cat licensing is currently not mandatory, pet cat owners and community cat caregivers can already register their cats’ microchips with AVS’ database

Sterilisation

How it works: The sexual organs of the cat are surgically removed under general anaesthesiaWhy sterilise: Eliminates unintended breeding and reduces risk of developing medical conditions like reproductive tract cancers and “undesirable behaviour” such as urine spraying, roaming, and caterwaulingCost: Sterilisation can cost S$200 to S$400 for female cats and up to S$200 for male cats, said AVS’ Dr ChenFor lower-income pet owners, schemes like the proposed Pet Cat Sterilisation Support programme will provide free sterilisation. Animal welfare groups like CWS and SPCA also provide sterilisation support Collapse to view Expand to view

‘CRITICAL OMISSION’ OF MANDATORY STERILISATION 

Many cat owners and animal welfare groups told TODAY that sterilisation of cats is a priority for responsible pet ownership, and called for mandatory sterilisation to be a licensing condition in the proposed framework.

For Ms Michelle Shoo, 34, who has four cats and has fostered 60 cats over the past three years, the benefits of sterilising one’s cats cannot be understated. 

Sterilisation removes the risk of excessive breeding and can also stop heat cycles for female cats, said Ms Shoo, a talent partner in a logistics multinational corporation. 

Heat cycles can be uncomfortable for the cat which can lead to “aggressive and unacceptable behaviour”, she added.

Ms Thenuga said: “Sterilisation also helps minimise certain behaviours such as caterwauling, indiscriminate roaming and spraying to mark territory. These are the very reasons cited by HDB for not allowing cats in flats in the first place.”

Ms Aarthi added: “The suggested framework aims to reduce hoarding by setting a cap on the number of cats allowed per household. However, a critical omission in this framework is the lack of a mandate for cat sterilisation.”

While she acknowledged that the framework is a “start” and not “perfect”, Ms Kerstin Schulze from Project Luni said that mandatory sterilisation should be “non-negotiable”. 

“We see the results of people’s cats accidentally having litter after litter or unsterilised roaming cats contributing to kittens being born on the street on a daily basis and it breaks our hearts,” she said. 

Project Luni is a non-government organisation that has rehomed over 1,250 cats and sterilised over 1,100 cats from 2017 to 2022. 

The “market” of cat adoptees has become more saturated since the Covid-19 pandemic, and there has been a spike of abandonment cases in the last year, added Ms Schulze. 

“Only through enforcing sterilisation — stopping the addition of cats to the current population — and microchipping — to identify and fine abandonment cases —  can the worst aspects of current problems be resolved.”

Ms Wati Salamat, 50, an education consultant and independent cat rescuer of over 15 years, was “highly disappointed” by the lack of mandatory sterilisation in the proposed framework. 

She said that reports of abandoned cats occur almost daily. One of the cats currently staying with her, Lionel, is blind, and was rescued from a household that had 38 cats whose owner was unable to pay for the treatment of its badly infected eyes. 

If the cat ban were to be lifted without prompt enforcement and penalties for irresponsible owners, mediators would have “less leverage” to address cases of excessive cat breeding, Ms Wati warned.

“Previously with the cat ban, we would tell owners, ‘Well, you are not allowed to have even one cat, but out of goodwill and because you are cooperative, we will sterilise all your cats and let you keep one or two’,”. 

“But with the new law, two cats (are) allowed with no (mandatory) sterilisation, the owner can easily say, ‘It is my right to keep two unsterilised cats and I can choose whichever’.”

WHAT AVS SAYS

On the cap of two cats per household, AVS’ Dr Chen said that the proposed limit was based on “assimilating the information” from public feedback and the need to balance preferences. 

Ensuring that the community “remains harmonious” is a priority and while there are no immediate plans to change the proposed limit, AVS would be open to feedback and review depending on the future landscape, she said.

Guidelines on responsible cat ownership are not “prescriptive” as AVS has met cat owners with various needs, including those unable to mesh their homes as they are renting their residence.

Some owners have other “management approaches”, such as keeping windows closed at all times as the air-conditioning is always turned on, added Dr Chen. 

“The number of cat owners out there may not make it very practical for AVS to do house checks to ensure that every cat owner has actually meshed their house before we actually grant the licence.”

On why mandatory sterilisation is not a proposed licensing condition for cats, Dr Chen said AVS “strongly encourages” sterilisation as it recognises the health and behavioural benefits of the procedure. 

Under the proposed framework, sterilisation is incentivised during the two-year transition period, where cat owners who sterilise their cats will have free cat licences with lifetime validity. 

Those who do not sterilise their cats will have to regularly renew their licences at a higher fee following the two-year transition period. 

Current licensing fees for dogs are similarly tiered, as the licence fee for owners’ first three sterilised dogs is S$15 per dog, as compared to S$90 per unsterilised dog.

“Some owners do not sterilise their cats for various reasons, including lack of awareness on the benefits of sterilisation…Other owners are unable to sterilise all their cats as they had taken in or kept too many cats and the cost of sterilisation becomes too high,” said Dr Chen.

If sterilisation was mandated, this would also incur “regulatory costs” to ensure people have met that licensing condition, she added. 

Dr Chen said AVS would take a “stepwise approach” to allow cat owners to adjust to the proposed changes, and review the framework based on the survey results and while it is being implemented over the next few years.

The public can share feedback on the proposed framework through an online survey at https://go.gov.sg/cat-framework until Feb 1 next year.

Additional reporting by Ili Nadhirah Mansor and Nicole Lam. 

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