With an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 homeless cats in Massachusetts, animal welfare organizations, veterinarians, animal control officers and cat lovers will gather at the fourth annual Whole Cat Workshop on Sunday, March 9, to discuss ways to solve the feline overpopulation problem.

With an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 homeless cats in Massachusetts, animal welfare organizations, veterinarians, animal control officers and cat lovers will gather at the fourth annual Whole Cat Workshop on Sunday, March 9, to discuss ways to solve the feline overpopulation problem.


The workshop is sponsored by the Westborough-based Massachusetts Animal Coalition, a statewide, nonprofit group founded in 2000 comprising animal professionals and volunteers dedicated to working together to decrease the number of homeless, neglected, displaced and abused animals in Massachusetts.


Heather Donnelley, MAC's secretary and clerk, said nonprofit humane societies have been dealing with the issue of cat homelessness since the 1800s.


While many Americans consider their pets members of the family, too many others abandon their animals or leave them outdoors without identification, animal rescue groups say. Also, some pets have become victims of the nation's mortgage crisis and are left behind when owners abandon their homes.


"Americans are spending unprecedented amounts of money on our companion animals, consider them members of our families and shower them with holiday gifts, but we also treat them as disposable objects - getting rid of them when we move or surrendering them at the first sign of behaviors we don't appreciate," said Leslie Harris, executive director of the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society in Leverett. The group will be one of the presenters at the cat conference.


Cat overpopulation and homelessness, Harris said, is caused in part because cats are rarely confined by their owners and often lack identification.


"People tend to regard their cats as more independent, less in need of identification and better able to fend for themselves," she said.


Felines are prolific breeders who can reproduce at as young as 4 months old, and an unspayed 4-month-old female kitten can have as many as four litters each year, Donnelly said.


"Spaying and neutering cats at an early age is a necessity before they have a litter, not after," Donnelly said.


Many abandoned and homeless unspayed and unneutered cats breed and produce feral offspring, which are cats born in the wild that never experienced human contact and live in colonies, according the MAC Web site.


"Their kittens grow up shy and distrustful of humans and, therefore, a feral cat colony begins and the population begins to grow," said Stacy LeBaron, treasurer of the Massachusetts Animal Coalition and president of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society.


Massachusetts is not alone in dealing with the problem of cat overpopulation and homelessness, as the entire country is experiencing high numbers of homeless cats. It is estimated that 50 percent of America's cats are feral.


"Sadly, cat overpopulation is a reality in all parts of the country," said Anne Lindsey, founder and executive director of the Massachusetts Animal Coalition. "Many shelters offer spay and neuter programs that are making a difference. There are pockets of success stories around the country and many of them are right here in Massachusetts. But we have a long, long journey ahead of us and progressive, proactive programs are necessary for effecting change."


LeBaron called the problem, "the major issue in animal welfare in New England right now."


Harris said the three main shelters in the Pioneer Valley region of the state alone will house up to 7,000 homeless cats.


At the workshop, speakers from the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, the New England Federation of Humane Societies and the Animal Rescue League of Boston will present facts on cat overpopulation and possible solutions, such as low-cost spay and neutering programs at shelters, higher volume and new adoption programs, and more behavioral counseling for cat owners needing advice on how to care for their pet.


There will also be afternoon sessions run by representatives of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on how to run a feral cat spay and neuter clinic, how to run a foster care program and how to adopt felines.


The Whole Cat Workshop takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 9, at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in North Grafton. Registration is $25 for MAC members and students and $40 for non-members. To sign up for the event visit www.massanimalcoalition.org.