In The UK, Cat ‘Ownership’ Can Be A Hazy Concept

For the second time this week, two people are fighting over a cat after the original “owner” received a request from a microchip company to confirm another person’s claim on the feline.

Charlotte Sawyer of Swindon, a town in southwest England, told her local newspaper she was livid when she got the request to sign over her claim to one-year-old Oreo.

“I can’t believe the audacity of this person trying to steal our beautiful cat,” she told the Swindon Advertiser.

But Sawyer readily admitted Oreo was going out for days and sometimes weeks at a time before returning home, and she hasn’t seen him for four months now.

Sawyer and Oreo
Charlotte Sawyer, left, with her cat Oreo and a pet rabbit. Sawyer’s daughter, right, with Oreo. Credit: Charlotte Sawyer via Swindon Advertiser

Like many cats in the UK, Oreo not only had access to the outdoors, he was accustomed to coming and going as he pleased. Other families were feeding him, and it’s likely he made the rounds among several houses before returning home. Because “home” is a nebulous concept in this instance, it’s not the first time someone has asked Sawyer to relinquish custody of Oreo.

“A woman claiming to be someone who looks for missing cats once knocked on my door and handed me a form asking for permission to change Oreo’s microchip,” Sawyer said. “I wanted to rip it up, I was furious, and told her he was my cat. Now it’s happened again. At least it’s provided some reassurance that he’s still alive.”

While I feel for anyone who loses a pet, I don’t know how someone who truly loves a cat can accept the kitty being gone for days or weeks at a time, not knowing if he’s in danger, hurt or still breathing. That kind of arrangement isn’t in the cat’s best interests, and it’s not compatible with our responsibility to ensure the welfare of our four-legged friends, an obligation all of us take on when we adopt our pets.

The people who encountered Oreo likely thought he was a stray or an abandoned former pet. If they’re requesting a change to microchip registration, it probably means they spent their own money to take the little guy to the vet, where the chip was discovered and scanned.

This is emphatically not a blanket criticism of UK norms regarding outdoor access, by the way. Americans cannot claim moral superiority. In the past week or so we’ve had a Pennsylvania man kill a cat with a blow dart because the feline “was trying to kill my birds,” a vulgar approximation of a human being in New Jersey “repeatedly raped” his pet cat before torturing her to death, and some deranged lunatic in Florida used a cat as target practice, leaving 30 pellets lodged in the innocent animal’s little body.

That represents a tiny fraction of the cat abuse stories from the last 10 days and I’ve omitted the worsted examples because I know we have readers who can’t handle this stuff. (I can’t either, which is why I paused my Google News alerts for most of the past two weeks.)

My point here is not to shock. It’s to underscore the fact that we have absolutely no moral authority when it comes to telling people in other countries how to care for animals.

Outdoor cat
A cat exploring outdoors. Credit: Openverse

Moral authority concerns aside, the two examples of ownership claims by microchip this week raise important questions about the definition of “ownership” and what it means to properly care for a cat.

Like many cat lovers I don’t like the term “owner” and I describe myself as a caretaker, but where the law is concerned, ownership is important concept because it determines who has claim over the animal. The law views cats and dogs as property, whether we like it or not. That’s why animal welfare statutes fall under agriculture and markets law in many US states instead of the criminal code, and it’s why so many of those laws need updating.

Cat culture across the Atlantic is different in that the majority of people who have cats believe our furry friends must have access to the outdoors to live a complete, fulfilled life. In the US, 63 percent of cat caretakers keep their felines strictly indoors, while in the UK it’s virtually the opposite, with 70 percent allowing cats to roam outdoors. Not all definitions of outdoor access are equal: Some people allow only supervised outdoor time in the backyard (or “garden”), some make sure their kitties are safely indoors by nightfall, while others have cats who return at their own whim.

There are also differences regarding geography, traffic density, the prevalence of natural predators and the nature of city life that account for how much outdoor access they allow their cats.

As the UK sets a June 2024 date for the mandatory microchipping of pet cats, disputes like this are going to become more common, which means people would be wise to make sure their cats’ microchips have up-to-date information and have readily available proof that they own their felines. If cat owners don’t establish the criteria for what it means to “own” a feline, the government will.

11 thoughts on “In The UK, Cat ‘Ownership’ Can Be A Hazy Concept”

  1. Totally agree!! Animal abuse is in every corner of the world. Yet i read comments on social media going after other countries. Everything you read that happens overseas happens here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully not the Chinese practice of eating cats, but otherwise, yeah. There are fairly regular stories about authorities stopping trucks coming into China from Vietnam, Cambodia, etc., laden with boxes of thousands of cats en route to restaurants in China. On one hand it’s good that Chinese authorities bust those “shipments,” on the other it makes you wonder how many get through and whether the busts are for appearances, as so many things in China are.


  2. I have four indoor senior cats and I know that here in the UK a lot of people think it’s cruel to keep cats indoors but I think they live longer healthier lives, and are kept safe from the clutches of disgusting excuses for human beings as mentioned above.

    Regarding the woman who is so annoyed that someone has the ‘audacity’ to want to claim her cat as their own clearly she doesn’t give a flying f*** if she’s ok with him being missing for days, weeks or in this case four months at a time!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Wendy. I agree with you, it’s bizarre to be like “Oh, my cat is still alive? That’s good to know. No, you may not care for him!”

      I was out of my mind the one time Bud went missing, and it couldn’t have been more than an hour.


    2. Rescue groups i know will take away cat if they ever found out cat was let outside. Woman on my block was put on dna list, meaning do not adopt, after cat escaped one too many times and most likely died. In less than five minutes i saw this cat almost get hit by a taxi and chased by two unleashed dogs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Before I adopted Bud, I’m pretty sure every shelter I visited made adopters sign agreements that they would not let their cats outside. Same deal, they reserved the right to take the cat back if you did that.

        When I went to see a female cat who was listed on Petfinder, a woman with the rescue told me I should spray her with water any time she got near the front door so she’d be scared of going near it.

        Suffice to say I never did anything like that when I adopted Bud. In fact I let him explore the apartment hallway at night when it’s quiet, with my supervision of course. I know he will run back inside the second he hears another person approaching and he’s terrified of the elevators, which he thinks are magical rooms that swallow people and sometimes spit out new people.

        He does like to stop in front of the other apartment doors so he can listen and smell, and he likes exploring the lobby when no one’s around, but I really don’t have to worry about him trying to run out because I know he doesn’t want to.


  3. We have Bertie – a “wanderer” who goes to multiple houses in our little street. We are VERY fortunate that everyone knows him, and he has his own what’s app group so we can keep track of him. He is microchipped to us, and we pay any vet’s bills and feed him every time he comes to us. The ownership – i.e. the responsibility for his health and well-being is 100% mine. Bella goes out but not very far and again is known to all our immediate neighbours – she is also chipped to us. Bertie went missing for a few days, and I did all the posters and multiple web group messaging to find him – offering a substantial reward. ( The stress and anxiety were enormous). After about a week, we got a call from a house nearly a mile away where they had seen his”missing” notice on a neighbourhood news site. We were fortunate that no “ownership” was disputed, and they were very kind and caring to him while they tried to find out where he was from and wouldn’t accept any reward ( I sent them a hamper anyway). I would fight to my last penny if anyone claimed or held either of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bertie and Bella are very lucky to have you and your wife as their faithful servants, even if they may act like your devotion is the natural order of things.

      I’m sure Bertie was just reporting back to Her Majesty to update her on Bella’s clandestine operations.


  4. I live in the US, and my city requires that all pet cats be licensed (including microchipping) and indoor only. Feral colonies are permitted if registered and managed with TNR. In a different state before microchipping, someone stole our five-year-old’s cat, whom we tended to daily, and we were unable to get her back.

    That said, I do enjoy a UK children’s book series about Six-Dinner Sid, who, as you surmise, is an outdoor cat who visits six neighbouring houses in turn for his meals. At the end of the first book, the humans figure out what’s going on and take collective responsibility for him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really sorry to hear about your kid’s cat. There were a lot of those stories in 2020, 2021 and 2022 and I’ve written about a few of them here. The consensus from law enforcement seemed to be that when most shelters were emptied out during the early pandemic and breeders paused their operations, there was a market for stolen pets.

      That’s a horrible thing to do to people and to the animals.


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