This is a question about whether introducing a law which restricts the number of cats that a person can own would have the effect of reducing cat hoarding cases. Cat hoarding is a mental health problem in a not insubstantial number of people. I can say that with some confidence because quite often the news media reports on cat hoarding cases. These cases are distressing for animal advocates because invariably the cats have suffered, often severely. Cat hoarding works against cat welfare. But nothing is done about it proactively. I don’t see any preventative measures to stop cat hoarding taking place. Although I am targeting America in this article the same argument applies to anywhere, obviously. The only reason why I am discussing America is because more news of this type comes out of America.
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I think you’ll find that some US states administrations or local authorities have discussed cat ownership limits but they’ve not progressed to enacted legislation.
Do laws change people’s behaviour?
We have to take a philosophical viewpoint on this. It would be almost impossible to enforce a law which states that all the citizens of, let’s say the state of Florida, can only keep a maximum of five domestic cat companions. In other words, the upper limit on cat ownership in Florida would be five. That seems a reasonable number to me. But you couldn’t check that. You would have to take it on faith that the citizens of Florida obeyed the law. But would they?
In my opinion, the vast majority would, partly because of civic duty and partly because laws and other formal rules create a structure in society which gradually infiltrates the human mind and becomes a norm. Of course, the rules have to be fundamentally accepted as reasonable but if you have that acceptance, they will, in general, be followed. And you don’t need everybody to follow a law which restricts the number of cats people can own. If, say, 80% of the public followed such a law it would reduce the number of cat hoarding cases and improve cat welfare. It would not need to be enforced vigorously or almost at all. It would just be followed.
Research indicates that legislation (the laws that govern us) can be loaded with morals and ethics. In fact, all law is based upon morality. Morality is not enforced but the law is. People follow a good level of morality in the interests of creating a stable and satisfactory society. At least that is the goal and it is followed, by-and-large, in developed countries. Therefore, laws can influence behaviour. Laws can mold behaviour. One of the classic cases is the wearing of seat belts.
When they first came out there was resistance to it but over the years drivers now put on their seat belts automatically without question. That behavioural change came about because of the introduction of laws making the wearing of seat belts obligatory.
By-and-large people pay their taxes although it varies from country to country as to the level of compliance and there will always be some who will avoid paying their due. But with respect to a law restricting the number of cats that people can own, we are not looking at 100% compliance. We are looking at trying to mold the behaviour of a small minority of people who keep too many cats to the point where they can’t cope and where the animals are neglected and suffer ill health and injury as a result.
As cat hoarding cases do come to the notice of the police through reports from neighbours, it would be possible for them to be punished under the law that I propose which would send a signal to others with a predisposition to cat hoarding. Although, punishment for cat hoarding must be accompanied by education and mental health assessment and where needed treatment.
Example of cat hoarding
Every week, in online news media, we have an example of cat hoarding and the suffering experienced by the animals concerned. Today, International Business Times reports on a woman in her fifties who died in her home. Police officers entered the home to investigate. They found the dead woman and 53 cats and a dog. Twelve of the cats were dead and the dog was in very bad health. The dog was in a crate with multiple dead cats according to a police officer. There were 23 cats living in the same room. All the cats and the dogs were removed for veterinary treatment.
There is nothing extraordinary about this report. It just went terribly wrong due to the mentality of the person or persons involved.
The point that I would like to make is that introducing a law limiting cat ownership to 5 cats in one home would, over the long term, alter the attitude of cat owners nationwide. It would become a norm that five was the limit.
This would have a beneficial effect upon cat welfare. However, what underpins cat hoarding is not only the mentality of the people involved but also the surplus of cats available in society. In parallel with a change in the law as suggested there would have to be renewed efforts to reduce the number of unwanted cats in society. That would mean stricter rules on neutering cats at an early age. One difficulty is that a small percentage of people allow their cats to breed.
In fact, cat hoarders often take in cats that are unsterilised and so they breed causing a huge problem. These cats come from homes where they are abandoned and become stray or feral cats. There is a need for a parallel law on obligatory spaying and neutering combined with obligatory micro-chipping. These are the kind of laws which can upset some people because they like their freedoms. However, it is time for change. One issue in the desire for change and improvement in cat welfare is that there are bigger issues for governments to deal with. Historically, animal welfare is not a top priority and so legislation to improve animal welfare tends to get pushed back and nothing ever happens which is why we continually see cat hoarding cases and too many unwanted cats in society.
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