3 September 2022, Cats in Flats – The Case for Legalising HDB Cat Ownership

The Cat Welfare Society (CWS) has consistently called for a review of the 30-year old ban on the keeping of cats in HDB flats. Our view has been that the reasoning for banning cats in households is flawed and that responsible cat owners prove that cats can successfully be owned and contained within HDB flats with no disamenities caused. 

In 2012, CWS’ surveys as part of the Love Cats Pilot Project in Chong Pang showed that approximately 90% of cat owners were already practising responsible cat ownership such as sterilising their pet cats and keeping them strictly indoors. It was the irresponsible 10% of unheeding and recalcitrant owners causing some 90% of the cat issues in the estate. 

In 2022, CWS’ #sgcatsinflats surveys across 5 constituencies have continued to support our position with a vast majority already adopting responsible cat ownership practices and approximately 91% not objecting to the legalisation of cat ownership in HDBs.1

We are ready as a society to remove the cat ban and allow for responsible cat ownership in our HDBs. Under CWS’ proposal, cat owners must keep their cats strictly indoors as well as spay/neuter and microchip them. They must maintain the hygiene of their living premises and abide by the Code of Responsible Pet Ownership

Such change will achieve two important aims – first, it will ensure that there are minimum standards of care for the cat and second, it will ensure that no disamenities are caused to neighbours of cat owners. Further, such a regulation will allow for the authorities to penalise and bring to task unheeding and recalcitrant irresponsible cat owners who are causing some 90% of the caseload of governmental and non-governmental organisations. 

CWS continues to advocate for responsible cat ownership with the authorities to better the lives of our pet cats and we hope that you too will turn into advocates for responsible cat ownership. 

For a fuller picture, do read on for a history of the cat ban, dissect the reasoning behind it, explore our survey findings and our recommendations on the way forward below. 

A. History

The reason for the ban, as stated on the HDB website, is that “[cats] are generally difficult to contain within the flat. When allowed to roam indiscriminately, they tend to shed fur and defecate or urinate in public areas, and also make caterwauling sounds, which can inconvenience neighbours.”

This reasoning is wrong. Cats can be safely contained within the flat and should be sterilised, thereby eliminating all the disamenities mentioned. In fact, many already responsibly own cats in HDBs and cause no disamenities at all to their neighbours. It is the irresponsible cat owners who have consistently given cats a bad reputation by allowing roaming or unhygienic conditions to exist. 

In 2000, Dr John Chen, the then Minister for National Development explained in Parliament (then) AVA’s policy on the control of stray cats. He said 

“… [AVA’s] policy on the control of stray cats is to promote responsible cat ownership within the community through a voluntary Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme implemented by various town councils. This scheme was successfully tried out as a pilot project in Tanjong Pagar Town Council in 1998. A survey of residents in this area showed that more than 80% of them were agreeable to having the stray cats around, provided the cats are sterilised and managed so that they do not cause problems. To date 39 areas under 12 town councils are registered…”

In 2002, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the then Minister of State for National Development stated in Parliament that 

“The issue of cats in HDB flats is not a new issue. Again, I want to stress that it is not about cats. It is about human beings …I am not saying that it is a never, never situation with cats. I am just pointing out that there are problems. What the HDB has to do is to strike the appropriate balance between the needs and desires of all, if not most, of the residents … I am aware that the Cat Welfare Society has submitted a re-appeal, and the Ministry will examine the re-appeal …” 

It is worth noting two points:

  • it is the human beings that drive the cat issues – their responsibility, or in this case, their irresponsibility that led to the HDB law not being revisited even when AVA was working on a humane population control mechanism; and 
  • a balance must be struck between the needs and desires of most of the residents 

In 2007, we learnt that AVA was receiving 10,000 complaints concerning stray cats each year between 2002 and 2006 – half were lodged with Town Councils and the remainder with AVA and HDB. In 2008, Minister Mah Bow Tan shared that HDB receives 530 complaints from residents on cats each year. In short, of 10,000 complaints per year in the early 2000s, only 5.3% seemed to relate to pet cats. It is also worth noting that  after the introduction of the Community Engagement and Mediation work conducted by CWS, the caseload for all cat-related feedback has reduced significantly by around 70%.

In 2012, CWS launched the Love Cats Pilot Project in Chong Pang where cat owners were allowed to keep their cats legally provided certain conditions were met. At that time, 126 cat owners were identified in the 123 blocks. 90% of them were found to be responsible but the others were unheeding and recalcitrant to cat ownership guidelines. That 10% contributed to 90% of the cat issues in the estate.  

The question then is should the greater responsible majority of cat owners be penalised for the actions of the much smaller irresponsible minority? 

CWS takes the view that they should not and has advocated for the legalisation of responsible cat ownership in HDBs for many years. The legalisation would set out specific regulations on what constitutes responsible cat ownership. This is an outcome that will fully balance the interests of residents who are pet lovers and those who are concerned about what a change in policy would mean for them. 

In fact, in 2018, Minister Lawrence Wong himself identified that the crux of the issue was irresponsible cat owners when he stated: 

“HDB’s pet ownership policies have to strike a balance between residents who are pet lovers and those who are not. A necessary precondition is responsible pet ownership. Most cat-related dis-amenities are due to the irresponsible behaviour of certain owners. Pet owners must ensure that their pets do not adversely affect the living environment in high-rise, high-density Singapore. … In May this year, AVA appointed the Cat Welfare Society (CWS) as a third party mediator for cat-related issues nationwide….We can consider further expansion when the Chong Pang pilot meets these outcomes, and when there is strong community support in other parts of Singapore.”

B. Survey Findings at a Glance

In 2022, CWS embarked on a #sgcatsinflats study to understand what the society really felt about cat ownership in HDBs. We carried out door-to-door surveys between April and July 2022 across different HDB estates in the North, South, East and West of Singapore; specifically Nee Soon East, Telok Blangah, Bedok, Chai Chee and Boon Lay. Through this study we wanted to understand how far our society has come in its understanding and tolerance, if not acceptance, of cats in our residences.  

I. Responsible cat owners are the overwhelming majority

  • ~91% have already sterilised their pet cats, 
  • ~91% keep their cats indoors at all times with some 71% taking steps like meshing their gates and windows to cat-proof their house.

In short, a staggering majority of cat owners are already practicing responsible cat ownership and cause no disamenities at all to their neighbours. As we went door-to-door, we frequently observed that many neighbours of cat owners did not even realise that their neighbours had cats! 

A developing area is the microchipping of cats where there is currently a low take-up rate (~27%) among the individuals surveyed. We found that this was because of a lack of ownership and meaning to microchipping – it is not mandatory and without a registry, seen as not being necessary or that there was no need for indoor cats. It is likely that the majority of the cats that are microchipped could have passed through the Stray Cat Sterilisation Programme which has only been in place for about 4 years. The 27% rate shows that microchipping can quite quickly be introduced and adopted as part of responsible cat ownership requirements. 

II. The typical cat owner is responsible and only has a small number of cats

  • The majority of HDB cat owners (~85%) actually keep only 1-3 cats. 
  • Only a tiny few (~1%) keep more than 6 cats and in those cases, the owners practised responsible cat ownership (including sterilisation and cat-proofing one’s house). 

While we do hear sensationalised stories of severely overpopulated homes in the press, it must be borne in mind that this is an incredibly small minority of individuals. In many cases, CWS’ early intervention programme to help sterilise cats for owners who cannot afford sterilisation and to identify potential mental health issues such as hoarding tendencies to flag to the appropriate authorities are successful in reducing the numbers significantly. However, the unheeding and recalcitrant owners continue to have a detrimental effect on responsible cat owners. It is only through penalties that such owners’ can stop negatively affecting their cats’ and neighbours’ lives. 

III. The neighbours of responsible cat owners do not experience disamenities

Approximately 90% of the HDB non-cat owners who know of neighbours who own pet cat(s), have no concerns about their cat-owning neighbours. They do not face any cat-related inconveniences such as their neighbour’s pet cat(s) shedding fur, defecating or urinating in public areas or making caterwauling sounds.

IV. Approximately 92% of respondents agreed that the cat ban need not continue in place

  • Approximately 55% felt that the existing HDB policy should be changed to legalise keeping cats as pets (~55%) and a further 36% were neutral to such policy 
  • Only about 8% felt that the existing ban should continue to remain in place. 

Even if we look at the smaller subset of only non-cat owners, the same level of support emerges. So why are even non-cat owners supportive or neutral to legalisation? 

What was most important to them if cat ownership is allowed in HDBs, was (i) accountability; (ii) regulation; and (iii) education. 

  • Under accountability, multiple respondents flagged that as with all other pets, such as dogs or hamsters, the onus is on the human owner to be responsible over their pet cat(s). But there should also be proper procedures put in place to track pet cat ownership such as through licensing and maintaining a pet cat database. This can be achieved through microchipping and registration for easy identification and traceability of pet cats to their owners, which can also help prevent abandonment.
  • Under regulation, there needs to be a set of clear standards that pet cat owners need to adhere to. While animal welfare groups such as CWS can offer guidelines for responsible cat ownership, we do not have enforcement powers to ensure compliance. What is needed is for the authorities to legalise the ownership of cats in HDBs and alongside with it, to establish regulations with penalties imposed on unheeding and recalcitrant pet cat owners who continue to refuse to observe responsible cat ownership practices despite multiple reminders to do so. 
  • Under education, households who keep pet cat(s) should be taught responsible cat ownership practices, so that pet cat(s) can be cared for without causing disamenities to neighbours. 

C. The Crucial Factor – Responsibility 

CWS takes the view that responsibility is the determining factor. Responsible cat owners will ensure that pet cats are kept safe and well provided for in their homes without causing any nuisance to their neighbours. They are not the causes or contributors to feedback on roaming pet cats, caterwauling or smelly homes, which are the result of irresponsible cat owners and not the cats themselves.

As then-Minister for National Development Mr Lawrence Wong himself identified, it is the disamenities caused by the irresponsible behaviour of certain owners that needs to be stopped. It is not cat ownership in and of itself that is a problem. 

CWS advocates for the following as a minimum standard of responsible cat ownership:

  • Mandatory sterilisation of pet cats once they are old enough (approx. 5 to 6 months old)
  • Keeping pet cats safely indoors at all times 
  • Cat-proofing/securing the windows, gates, service yards, balconies etc of one’s house with grilles or mesh no wider than 2” (or smaller if the pet is a kitten) to ensure pet cats cannot fall out accidentally
  • Microchipping of pet cats
  • Maintaining the hygiene of the environment (e.g. litter boxes that are cleaned at least once daily)
  • Ensuring the health and well-being of the cat (e.g. providing good quality food and fresh water daily, appropriate medical care when needed, sufficient stimulation in the form of toys, scratchers and time playing with them)

Pet cat owners must adhere to responsible cat ownership guidelines or face escalating penalties for non-adherence. 

Legalising pet cat ownership in HDBs will benefit both cat owners and non-cat owners alike. Through regulations and the setting of clear standards for responsible cat ownerships, it would help clarify what cat owners should or should not do, with the aim of more effectively curbing cat-related disamenities caused to neighbours. This would bring us one step closer to achieving a harmonious existence between humans and felines. 

We hope that you will lend your voice to this advocacy journey 

D. Survey Methodology

Our survey obtained responses from a representative sample of HDB residents comprising both cat owners and non-cat owners. From the onset, we took a neutral and impartial stance by selecting blocks at random in the chosen estates to carry out the surveys and included flats of different sizes from 2-room to 5-room/Executive units. We went door-to-door to gather as many responses as possible while giving residents the option to decline or participate in the survey after the purpose is explained to them. Regardless whether they were for, against or are indifferent towards the existing prohibition on the keeping of cats in HDB flats, we made sure to capture all responses. Knocking on the doors of 3,673 homes across 30 HDB flats, we eventually managed to collect 697 responses, which corresponds to a 19% response rate.

The survey results reinforce our longstanding position that banning the keeping of cats in HDBs is not the solution. What is needed are clear regulations on responsible cat ownership. Several notable findings emerged from the survey, revealing the reality of the cat ownership situation in HDBs right now. Overall, the data we collected can help clarify some of the common misperceptions and concerns that have been raised on this issue. Our hope is that the findings can offer a guide for authorities in setting clear standards for responsible cat ownership to ensure that pet cats are properly cared for without causing disamenities to neighbours and that repeated breaches of regulations by irresponsible cat owners are penalised.

1 – Comprising respondents who would “strongly support”, “support” or are “neutral” about legalisation.

#sgcatsinflats #responsiblecatownership

Cat Welfare Society

At Cat Welfare Society we believe every cat should live a life free from fear and suffering. This is why we exist, to help those who can't help themselves.


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