Rescuing Cambodia’s Feline Friends

Life is purr-fect for these cat lovers, who have found new meaning in their life after rescuing an army of feline friends from the streets of Phnom Penh and giving them a new home.
Mab Sreymom plays with Bros Khmeng at their home in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Meas Molika
Mab Sreymom plays with Bros Khmeng at their home in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Meas Molika

As a passionate filmmaker, freelance multimedia professional and film production manager, Mab Sreymom spent most of her days on her motorbike, driving across the country to shoot films and pursue her love of travel.

Adventurous and independent in spirit, the 29-year-old’s second home was her motorbike. That was until one day when a four-legged friend in the form of a stray cat walked into her life, changing her outlook on home forever.

How Cats Walked into Her Life

Today, Sreymom is the proud owner of two cats. Bros Khmeng (young man), or sugar Baby, is a white and gray male and Slow Move is a black female. “[She] is such a mean, very mean, cat,” said Sreymom with a laugh as she affectionately describes her pets’ personalities.

Bros Khmeng
Bros Khmeng

However, having pets in Cambodia is a complex issue and raising them is often seen as a task reserved for younger generations.

Sreymom’s love for felines hasn’t always existed. In fact, as a child she was afraid of cats. Her fear stemmed from elders warning her and other kids in her community that touching or playing with cats can cause asthma and lead to death.

But in late-2019, all that changed when Bros Khmeng accidentally stumbled into her life just before the Covid-19 pandemic. Beaten and battered from living on the streets, Sreymom immediately pitied the tiny one-year-old, who had suffered injuries from fighting. The attraction was instant and she fell in love with cats.

Slow Move
Slow Move

“I guess I didn’t really see myself having a pet at all. Not even a dog or cat before, but then I don’t know. These cats are sort of common in my life now, like Bros Khmeng, he is just a stray cat and he came to my house and was injured,” she recalled.

“I just couldn’t leave him on the street because he was bullied by another stray cat. So, I just wanted to take him in [home]. Even before, I was very scared of cats,” she says, her emotions rising as she describes how she first opened her heart to take care of a cat for the first time.

“And Slow Move, she’s very mean. Don’t play with her, she’s very evil and she hurts me now,” added Sreymom, describing the second cat she started to raise during Covid-19.

Slow Move’s previous owners had to go abroad and were forced to leave their pet behind. Sreymom decided to get another pet and adopted Slow Move. She has raised the two cats together ever since and says she feels blessed to have the two cats in her life.

Life-Changing After Having Cats

Before owning cats, Sreymom struggled with the concept of home and reasons to stay there. She was free-spirited and harbored a sense of adventure, spending her days driving across the country to film and have fun in the outdoors.

“Before I had these guys, I moved a lot. I was traveling constantly and I didn’t really miss home. I'd never miss home and had never been interested in home. My home is more like on my motorbike and on the roads. It makes me feel unsettled in terms of like, ‘Do I really have a home?’. I really didn’t have anything to look forward to when I came home,” she said.

“But as soon as these guys came into my life I noticed a little bit of change in me. ‘Is it that I have become more grounded? more mature?’ I think I’m more responsible in terms of having money, thinking about money so I can figure out how to have their food, buy their food, have their vaccinations and health care.”

“Their health care comes first, so I have to be more mature,” she said as she reflected on life when she lived alone without cats. In contrast, today she feels the cats have changed her inner self.

“There is more of a feeling and emotion of home, of comfort and a grounded feeling,” she added.

While owning cats does not prevent her from going out to work or relaxing, Sreymom says she now looks forward to being at home and enjoys cuddling and talking with her cats.

Since becoming a devoted cat owner, when Sreymom now takes long-distance trips, she starts to miss home because of her two cats. While away, she worries about her cats’ survival and if they are taking good care of themselves while she is away.

Due to them being outdoor cats, she normally keeps her windows open so they are free to leave the house while she is away.

How She Raises the Cats

Sreymom feeds her cats mostly with dried cat food. She supplements their diet with cooked meat, such as fish, chicken, and pork, two to three times per month. She spends about $12 a month on dry cat food. Including the cost spent on raw meats, the annual total spent on feeding her cats is about $250. In addition, she spends about $100 a year on the cats’ health care, including vaccinations, flea treatment and deworming.

Last month, she started to consider her cats as her children as she can no longer imagine life without them.

“I was questioning what I feel when I have them with me. Am I going to cry, am I going to be so sad and I am going to miss them? I feel a very strong emotion with them and honestly I see them like my children in a way of independent children,” she said.

From Cat Lover to Pet Store Owner in Phnom Penh

Pich Thida is another cat lover. In 2016, she opened Pet Store Cambodia selling cats and dogs food, and pet materials, including cleaning tools, toilets and some veterinary medicines. Since a young age, Thida has felt compassion for animals and was constantly rescuing cats from the street.

This is a habit she continues today, picking up strays from the capital’s streets to feed at home. Her love for cats and sympathy for them compel her to take good care of them.

Even though her pet shop does not earn much profit, she is able to fund her rescue operations using food from the store. In addition, any profits made are ploughed back into supporting these street cats.

“First, I raised only pets, but I think when I sell pet food I can get the pet food left from selling to feed our pets. Because from the very beginning, I only raised normal cats, therefore, if we don’t sell and when we keep spending on their food only, it’s unprofitable. So, I decided to sell and raise my cats at the same time,” she told Kiripost.

“I don’t feed a few because most of the time when I see the cats while I am driving, I feel pity for them and normally catch them to live with me,” she said.

When Thida first started her rescue mission, ahead of opening the pet shop, her house was filled with more than 10 cats and one dog.

Thida says she loves cats more than dogs because cats are quieter, have a tidy personality, are gentle and – most of the time – get along easily with other cats. This makes it easy to raise many cats at the same time together.

However, raising pets well involves a lot of work and expense, including food, health care service, and materials.

“I don’t earn much profit since I have to spend more on my pets. Nowadays, I am running the business by focusing on their health more than anything else, so the money I spend is also a lot.”

“For example, when we have cats, the cat bowls and toilets have to be clean and new all the time and not only just wash them but always make sure all of those materials are new. And always check their health. Even though we cannot sell them, we still need to check their health once per week.”

Adding to the expense is the fact that all pet foods are imported from abroad, such as Thailand and France, with prices varying depending on the quality.

High-quality food products cost about $25 per kilogram and from $8 to $13 per kilogram for secondary quality products.

Thida also sells cats and dogs in the store. They are bred and raised in Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the customers prefer to buy cats over dogs, as cats can live with many other cats and customers believe they are more suitable to play with children.

Cat Situation in Cambodia

There are at least five million dogs in Cambodia and an unknown number of cats. While there are no official statistics on the number of cats in Cambodia yet, it is estimated to be in the millions and much higher than the number of dogs.

“Due to their large number and uncontrollable reproduction, cats are often considered as a nuisance, property, and even food,” said Martina Mayr, Founder and Director at Animal Rescue Cambodia.

A female cat, her mate, and their offspring can produce more than 11,000 new cats in just six years. This is from an average of two litters a year, with three kittens in each, Mayr said.

And life on the street is tough for stray cats, who face a raft of diseases, such as viral diseases (rabies), infectious diseases (Herpesvirus, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia virus), and genetic diseases (eye deformities, inbreeding). These are all widespread among feral cats, she added.

In addition, homeless cats are at risk of being injured by traffic accidents, suffering from parasites and malnourishment.

Unwanted cats and their offspring are often dumped at pagodas, where local communities struggle to care for them despite their desire to do so. They also have a lack of resources and knowledge. These small spaces that are overcrowded with animals and people are a focus of infection and disease, Mayr said.

She added, “Desexing cats is the easiest and most effective way to prevent this suffering.”

She shared some tips to help cats. This includes spaying or neutering pets to prevent unwanted offspring, vaccinating them and taking them to the vet for regular health checkups.

Mayr advised anyone who finds a homeless animal to contact Animal Rescue Cambodia to help with desexing and medical treatment.