How can we address the issue of cat overpopulation by encouraging responsible ownership?
The RSPCA, along with other cat welfare charities, has been running educational programmes and operational initiatives to encourage owners to neuter their cats for many years. Free neutering vouchers are provided via the RSPCA’s inspectorate and branches to those in need, of which redemption is currently at around 50 per cent.
One of the RSPCA’s five priority areas of work is to address the overpopulation of pets — a problem that is measured by the number of dogs, cats and rabbits housed in animal rescue and re-homing centres. The number of cats in rescue centres is consistently growing year-on-year and is currently at crisis point, with many cats having to be euthanised due to the lack of available homes.
The RSPCA has traditionally approached its educational campaign messaging with animal welfare in mind (e.g. by highlighting the effect that not neutering one female cat will have on the overall cat population). Recognising the need to review this strategy, the RSPCA commissioned Collaborative Change to deliver a social research piece with stakeholders and pet owners. Allowing the charity to take a more bottom up approach to this growing issue, the project methodology was designed to allow actionable insights to form the basis of a communications strategy designed to achieve long-term and sustained behaviour change through increased neutering rates.
Taking a three-stage approach to the research element of the project, the key aim of the primary research was to gain an understanding of the motivations for cat ownership and barriers to neutering and appropriate healthcare (e.g. vaccinations). Recognising the need to take a targeted approach in order to have the greatest chance of achieving sustainable behaviour change within target communities, the project methodology placed the identification of specific target audiences where intervention was most needed (demographics, geographical hotspots and attitudinal segmentation) at the heart of the approach.
A piece of extensive quantitative research was delivered to verify/refine cat population models, plug gaps in behavioural influences, understand the relationship between behaviour and attitudes, outline audiences and key messages/levers, quantify potential impacts and define the parameters for the following qualitative phase. With this solid evidence base acting as a platform for the design of the qualitative research phase, the team were able to refine the approach iteratively allowing the project steering group the opportunity to reflect and refine the methodology in line with key findings.
Building on background evidence gathered as part of comprehensive desk research activity, a number of tele-depth interviews were conducted with key stakeholders in the issue (i.e. RSPCA front-line staff, animal rescue charities, re-homing centre managers) to further our understanding of the issue prior to delivering qualitative research activity with members of the public.
With all previous phases of research activity informing the design of in-depth qualitative interviewing with cat owners, the final phase of audience engagement was delivered with the need to craft a range of actionable recommendations in mind. With identified non-neutered and neutered pet owners refined by geography and demography forming the sample, interviews focussed on identifying the values that motivate pet owners to neuter, perceived costs/ benefits of neutering, knowledge and skills which enable/ prevent owners from neutering and triggers to neutering behaviour — allowing the project team to understand the issue in the round and make comprehensive recommendations for communications and services that move beyond awareness raising to encouraging and enabling behaviour change.
A range of actionable insights created as an output of all social research activity are currently being used to enable the RSPCA to develop a national communications strategy — once complete, this strategy will underpin specific hotspot work in areas where the cat population is a particular problem and inform efforts to increase owner engagement with the issue and neutering activity.
A partnership approach
A dedicated project wiki was established at the start of the project to share research updates, invite comment, allow submission of data and evidence and allow partnership working throughout the life of the project. With the research phase of the project drawn to a close, the project wiki is currently being used as a robust knowledge base and online hub for continuing multi-agency efforts to tackle this growing issue.