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12th July 2023

A new cat population model developed by researchers at Cats Protection will for the first time show the relationship between populations of owned, feral, stray and shelter cats in the UK.

The research – published with open access in the science journal PLOS ONE – is the first of its kind in the UK to combine multiple life history parameters of Felis catus into an integrated model of cat demography and population dynamics.

The matrix model combines survival and reproductive rates of these subpopulations with the transitions between the groups, across a range of ages and neutered statuses into a unified framework enabling better understanding of population size, structure and changes through time. 

By developing the model, the charity has created a theoretical framework that allows for further development and the simulated investigation of population management interventions. 

Through example scenarios, the researchers highlight the importance of studying domestic cat populations in their entirety.

Examples of the model’s application presented in the research show that changes to neutering of the owned female cat population has profound effects on all cat subpopulations.

  • Reduced neutering of owned cats results in population booms of all subpopulations, especially in the stray cat subgroup.
  • Prepubertal neutering of owned cats is important for all cat subpopulations. Neutering owned cats younger reduces overall population growth rate of all subpopulations.

Cats Protection’s Feline Epidemiologist and lead researcher on the work Dr Jenni McDonald PhD said: “We previously had little robust understanding of just how important the links between cat subpopulations are. Our study shows that connectivity between cat subpopulations can have a big influence on population dynamics. 

“However, this is just the beginning we’re excited to now have a model framework that we can continually refine and update going forward in support of the charity’s work to ensure the UK cat population is balanced so that every cat has their best possible life.”

Cats Protection’s Director of Feline Welfare said Dr Maggie Roberts BVSc MRCVS said: “This is a big step forward in our holistic understanding of cat populations, and paves the way for further research in this field. The current findings highlight not only the important effect neutering owned cats has on all cat populations, but also how the timing of neutering in itself is key to population management.  

“It’s a stark reminder during this cost-of-living crisis of the importance of the prioritisation of timely neutering to prevent a growth in population that cannot be adequately supported.  With the support of private veterinary practices, Cats Protection runs the largest cat neutering programme in the world.  We have launched our new consolidated neutering scheme across the UK and encourage veterinary practices to join us.”

Cats Protection is the UK’s leading feline welfare charity and has helped an average of 157,000 cats and kittens a year over the last five years through its national network which includes around 210 volunteer-run branches and 34 centres.

(Cat): empirical modelling of Felis catus population dynamics in the UK (McDonald et al, 2023) can be viewed on PLOS website. 

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