BEHIND the otherwise ordinary doors of a regular Victorian house in leafy Broomhall is a cat haven.
Room upon room full of cats flank the hall.
There are black and white cats, ginger cats, tortoiseshell cats, grey cats. Most of these cats are newcomers, and are among the 60 cats looked after in this house every year.
But the home itself is not new to cats.
The Sheffield Cats Shelter was established 115 years ago in 1897 by Jane Barker, and has been providing a home for abandoned cats ever since.
But, in the past few years, the number of cats being left at its door has rocketed, says manager Shirley Buckingham.
The problem is simple: “We have too many cats in the UK and far too many unneutered female cats.”
Kittens can be irresistible but, if left unspayed, they can fall pregnant as young as six months old, and then, after the litter is born, the female kittens too can fall pregnant after six months. Quickly cat numbers can escalate out of control.
“As a result there are cats living on the streets, in hedges, in greenhouses, and these kittens – if they are not given a home by the time they are eight weeks old – grow up to be feral,” says Shirley.
And this, she says, brings about a whole range of problems.
“Living in these conditions, cats develop all kinds of diseases such as feline AIDS.”
Feline AIDS – formally known as Feline Immunodeficiency Virus Infection – causes immunodeficiency disease in domestic cats. Feline AIDS is in the same category of viruses as human HIV, which causes AIDS.
On average, a cat with feline AIDS will live around five years, though the likelihood of infection increases with age.
Cats suffering from feline AIDS experience a range of symptoms, including inflammation of the lymph nodes, swollen gums, and inflammation of the cornea in the eye, not to mention fever. Yet, in many cases, this can be avoided. If more cats were spayed, fewer would be exposed to diseases.
“We get around 30 calls a day from people who do not want their cats any more,” says Shirley. “The trouble is, a lot of them allow their cat to have just one litter, as if they are doing the cat a favour.
“We love cats but allowing them to have too many is just cruel.”
Neutering also has a positive impact on wildlife. The fewer unwanted cats there are, the lower the feral population.
The RSPCA also believes that neutering cats at an early age reduces their ‘hunting instinct’ and as such reduces the chances of cats hunting endangered species.
The average cat kills up to around 40 small creatures each year. The UK’s domestic cat population is estimated to be between nine and 10 million, which amounts to at least 300 million deaths of small creatures a year.
And, unfortunately, the majority of these are garden birds whose numbers are already in rapid decline.
The scale of the problem is such that Sheffield Cats Shelter cannot accommodate all the cats that need a home in this city. It relies on people adopting them.
“We even have the ctas spayed for the prospective owner,” says Shirley. “There is an adoption fee but we have them treated for any infections – we just want people to foster them and look after them and feed them.”
The fact this problem exists at all points to a cultural obsession with cats. And it’s an obsession that goes back millennia.
“Historically cats were always idolised,” says Shirley. “But the cat as a pet in Britain became popular in Elizabethan times and then, in pre-war Britain, the cat was a very working class thing which helped control vermin.”
Times have changed. New research has shown cat owners tend to be more middle-class than dog owners. Cats are also more likely to be owned by households with a garden and, remarkably, by people who have a degree.
And, while we sometimes think of cats as being aloof and unfriendly, Shirley says that is a myth.
“They have hugely different personalities and they are supposed to be very therapeutic,” she says.
But while Shirley – who is herself a cat-owner – adores cats, she’s adamant that action has to be taken to control the cat population.
“The biggest problem is that often they are free. Recently we were given a box of kittens. When the person found them the kittens were taped inside and taken to a place where no-one was supposed to find them.”
The Cats Shelter at Broomhall is often left to pick up the pieces of these callous acts, often taking kittens in, nurturing them and feeding them. But it needs financial help to continue to do so, as well as volunteers to adopt kittens and cats themselves.
To look after its 60 cats the Sheffield Cats Shelter spends more than £40,000 on veterinary bills and goes through 16,000 tins of cat food a year.
“People just need to have their cats neutered,” says Shirley.
If they did, the problem of feline AIDS, the declining bird population, and the number of abused and tortured cats would be reduced.
“I’ve put the phone down in tears before now,” says Shirley. “People need to realise the responsibility they are taking on when they buy a kitten or are given one.”
There are various donation options on the Sheffield Cats Shelter website as well as a gallery of pictures of cats that are up for adoption. Log on to The Sheffield Cats Shelter for details.