by Cheryl Leong on

I own a senior tabby cat who’s pretty much the boss of me. She’s the best fur-iend a grown-up only child could hope for, but also, a monster that I’d introduced into my home 11 years ago.

I’ve long since made peace with the fact that having a cat means my clothes will always have traces of cat hair that stubbornly escaped the lint roller, which is placed strategically atop the shoe rack so we’ll always remember to sweep ourselves before leaving the house.

My things are never kept pristine for very long – the corners of my mattress, my current sofa, and some of my bags are scratched to shreds. So, too, are my (and my dad’s) arms when we try to wrangle her into the shower or cut her nails.

And in the last two years, she’s developed a chronic kidney condition that requires her to be on a special urinary care diet. It’s an expensive vet-prescribed variety of food, so that means I have to specially pick it up at the vet whenever it runs out.

As a first-time pet owner, I didn’t do any homework when I was getting ready to adopt my cat. I didn’t speak to friends about, or even Google, the realities of pet ownership – the lifestyle changes that we needed to make, the sofa(s) and shattered glass items we’d have to say goodbye to, the numerous injuries that would be inflicted upon us, the high vet costs when a pet falls ill, and even the fact that a pet death will leave us bereft one day.

Heck, I didn’t even get my parents’ buy-in before I wilfully brought my cat home. It was an extremely rash and immature act on my part – something that I strongly recommend all potential pet owners not to do. I cannot emphasise this enough.

Luckily for me, all’s well that ends well because despite my mother giving me (and my cat) the cold shoulder for a week at the time, I came home one day to find them sound asleep on my parent’s bed, my kitty lying on my mum’s chest. They were firm friends from that day forth.

My dad, you ask? He quickly became her dedicated feeder, litter tray-clearer, and playtime companion from Week 2.

But not all pet adoption or ownership stories have a happy ending like mine.

A while ago, I received an SOS from a neighbour, who beseeched me to take in her friend’s newly-adopted kitten. The kitten had accidentally swiped a glass trinket with sentimental value off a shelf and, as a result, her friend’s mother was so mad that she had turned the kitten out.

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While sympathetic to the kitten’s plight, I knew I wasn’t prepared for the responsibility of caring for another cat. Instead, I offered my neighbour a list of pet boarders hoping that the unwanted kitten could find a temporary home and not be cast out onto the streets.

However, having been politely stonewalled each time I’ve asked my neighbour about the kitten since, I can’t help feeling pessimistic about the kitten’s fate.

Pet abandonment continues to be a big problem today.

Speaking to Today, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) said that there were 57 cat abandonment cases last year, up from 21 the year before and just nine in 2016. Because of this surge, regulators are wondering if mandatory microchipping might be the answer.

Weighing in, Dr Jaipal Singh Gill, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) noted that currently, it is only compulsory for dog owners to license and microchip their dogs.

“This stricter regulation could be a reason why data from about two years back indicates that the abandonment rate for dogs is coming down year-on-year, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with other animals,” Dr Jaipal told The Pride.

That said, things may not be all that dire, he added. “It’s definitely a situation that needs to get better, but it is an improvement from 10 years ago, when pet abandonment was tougher to investigate. With more CCTVs in HDB estates now, for example, there’s been a number of people found, and charged in court, with pet abandonment. This increased enforcement sends a signal that pet abandonment is a crime and perpetrators will be duly punished,” he explained.

The law may be doing its part to step up, but more worrying are the cavalier attitudes to pet ownership that many people, like my neighbour’s friend, still hold.

Looking after any animal, big or small, is a long-term commitment that a lot of people aren’t ready for – and that’s perfectly OK. It only becomes a problem when we love the idea of having a pet, but aren’t prepared to accept both the good and the ugly aspects that come later.

A beloved pet will offer enormous comfort and companionship, but the practicalities of living with one till death do you part can be daunting.

Dr Jaipal, 36, who grew up with pets since he was seven, has heard plenty of reasons for why people wish to surrender their pets.

“Having no time is a very common reason. People also come to us saying they’re not able to manage unruly pets, are migrating and don’t wish to bring their pets, or find it increasingly stressful to cope with an ageing pet. Occasionally, the main caregiver of a pet can no longer look after it because they’re struck with terminal illness, have passed on, or need to serve time.

“As much as we empathise with some cases, it’s not sustainable for the SPCA to keep taking in people’s pets. We need to prioritise our resources for animals that do not have owners or caregivers – strays, those who have been abused or neglected, as well as those who are hurt.

“What we can do is provide assistance and advice to pet owners, so they may reconsider their decision to surrender their pet and, hopefully, reach a happy outcome. For instance, in cases like behavioural issues with playful or disobedient puppies, we can direct owners to professional trainers who can help solve their problems.”

Being an animal lover also doesn’t mean you need to give one a home if you’re not ready to. An animal-loving friend of mine, who is a parent of twin six-year-olds, recently had to face off against her kids’ sneaky tactics when they cajoled her into a Pet Lovers Centre with the intention of getting a rabbit.

According to her, they were armed with rabbit facts to prove they’d done their research, and she was almost swayed by their arguments. However, based on experience having to pick up after her easily-bored children, she knew she’d eventually end up doing most of the work and resenting it. So, she simply hardened her heart and dragged them out of the store, even though she knew they could be responsible if they wanted to.

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My friend knew she wasn’t keen to take on an added responsibility, and the rabbit shouldn’t have to be caught in the middle of it. Instead, she came up with a nifty solution: Promising the kids that they could help look after their cousin’s rabbit during the September holidays when she’s away.

Taking home an adorable animal on impulse is a really bad idea. So is gifting a pet to others, or getting one when the whole family is not on board with the decision (again, do not do what I did).

As Dr Jaipal summed up, a pet is a lifelong responsibility, a bit like having children.

“Of course, they’re not the same thing. But when you think about the joys of having kids, you also accept that there’ll be challenges, as well as less glorious moments of child-rearing. And that’s what it’s like to own a pet, too – there will be sacrifices you need to make to accommodate an animal, but these are minor inconveniences compared to the tremendous joy that pets bring.”