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Booming cat population causes trouble for shelters
Animal shelters and rescue groups across the Valley are gearing up for "kitten season," the time of year when female cats produce more litters than shelters can place. Cats reproduce during warm weather months, typically starting in early spring. In Ceres, however, female cats start having litters as early as February.

"In the Valley it never really gets cold enough for cats to stop breeding," said Brenda Sutherland, director of Hope animal rescue.

Sutherland said that cats can produce three litters in one kitten season, with four to six kittens per litter. Cats can reproduce as young as 6-months old, so a kitten born in February is ready to breed by August. Theoretically, one pregnant cat can result in over 30 new cats by the end of breeding season, counting that cat's offspring and their offspring.

Pet owners who do not spay or neuter their cats soon have more kittens than they can give away. Those kittens end up in animal shelters that are already overcrowded with cats. If they are not adopted, the cats are humanely euthanized.

"To be born just to die is just sad," Sutherland said.

All of those cats can and do become a nuisance for Ceres neighborhoods. Kittens that are not handled by humans or kept as pets grow up to be feral cats, which are considered wild animals and are usually too aggressive to ever make good pets. Stray and feral cats alike are often hit by cars or mauled to death by dogs. They also can transmit diseases to pets.

Strays and ferals sometimes catch small animals and birds for food, but more often they eat garbage or are fed by well-meaning neighbors.

It's hard to resist the miserable meows of a cat in need, but some Ceres residents may be making the cat overpopulation worse by feeding stray and feral animals.

"They're keeping animals healthy enough to reproduce, and that furthers the problem," said animal control officer Michael Shaw.

Sutherland said that she is working with one couple who suddenly found themselves in the role of caretaker for close to 50 outdoor cats. Sutherland said that they started feeding a few stray cats. Those cats were not spayed or neutered, and they quickly reproduced. The couple became overwhelmed by the number of cats on and around their property, and they called for help with the animals. The couple did not want to see any harm come to the feral colony, so Sutherland is helping them get every cat spayed and neutered.

"If they are going to feed cats they must trap and must alter them," Sutherland said.

The city of Ceres does not regulate feral cats. The county Animal Shelter rents humane cat traps, and they accept trapped cats at no charge. Caretakers (feeders) of feral cats who do not want to turn the cats over are strongly encouraged to register their colony with animal services, and have every cat altered, vaccinated, and micro-chipped. Registering a colony will help animal control officers return found feral cats to their colony. Well controlled colonies will not further the cat overpopulation problem.

"Registered colonies will eventually grow old and pass away," Shaw said.

The county Animal Control and local non-profit rescue organizations offer resources for cat owners. Animal Control is currently offering free micro-chips for up to three cats per household, on a first-come first-serve basis.

Hope Animal Rescue is offering low cost spay and neuter clinics for pet cats in March and April. Spays cost $35 per female cat. For more information, call 667-4280 and leave a message.

Alley Cat Guardians works to humanely reduce the number of feral and homeless cats in Stanislaus County by promoting the trap/neuter/return method. They can help with low cost spay or neuter for feral cats. They can be reached at 567-3570.