DUBAI // The municipality is launching an ambitious plan to determine how many feral cats are roaming the streets after years of rounding up what has seemed like an inexhaustible supply of stray animals.
Armed with clipboards instead of traps, 30 Dubai Municipality inspectors will compile the city's first cat count from the beginning of next month. The results, expected by the end of the year, will reveal which areas have the highest concentrations of cats and why.
"It's a very big task," said Adil Eltayeb Elbadri, the senior veterinary health officer at the municipality's animal welfare unit. "We will just count the cats; we won't do anything else. Then we can apply a scientific solution."
Cats, which are important in a coastal city to help control the rodent population, can cause problems through prolific breeding. They are also abandoned by owners who tire of them after the felines outgrow their cute-kitten stage.
Rather than combing every alleyway, inspectors will extrapolate a total figure for the city based on analysis of key areas. Based on the idea that stray and feral cats tend to gather around a source of food, the team will do their counts in the radius of one quarter of all public bins in a particular target district.
They will then multiply that number by four to get the figure for that district. Once all main districts are covered, they can then arrive at a rough idea of the number of cats in Dubai, Mr Elbadri said.
"It will not give us an accurate number but it will give us an indicator," he said. "We will then think about solutions like covering up bins [to cut the source of food] or educating the public not to feed the cats."
The survey will be carried out alongside the daily work of the animal welfare unit, which also involves trapping dozens of cats in cages. The majority are neutered or spayed, vaccinated and released back into the same area. The policy has been welcomed by groups which view it as a humane way of dealing with a growing population.
"They breed incredibly rapidly," said Leslie Muncey, the chairwoman of Feline Friends, a Dubai-based non-profit organisation for the welfare of cats. "A single female cat can be responsible for producing 20,000 to 25,000 offspring within five years."
For the month of July in Dubai, 512 cats were collected and 43 of these were euthanised, with the rest released back onto the streets, the unit said. That represented a 55 per cent drop from a peak in July 2008, where 1,161 cats were captured and 105 euthanised. Only the sickest animals are put down.
"There was a peak back then when people lost their jobs and left the country," Ms Muncey said. "Instead of paying to bring their cats back home they dumped them on the street."
The summer months are often the high point for the street-cat population as more owners abandon their pets before going on holiday or leaving the country once their children complete the school year. Shelters and veterinary clinics are usually full to bursting during the period.
The policy of trap, neuter and release was implemented under recommendations from the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which has conducted training programmes with municipality inspectors. The Sharjah Cat and Dog Shelter also follows the programme.
"It costs less than Dh50 to neuter and vaccinate a cat," said Emma Cresswell, the shelter's director. "We have only one vet but we have treated 1,000 cats since February."
The idea of a cat census has been around since the beginning of the year.
Data collection initially began in May but ended soon afterwards because the onset of summer had caused many cats to seek shelter from the sun and away from public view.
"We realised that we were getting a false result," said Mr Elbadri. "This time we hope to get the true picture."