Management of cats in Australia
Ratification Date: 29 Jul 2016
Environmental and conservation consequences of the large numbers of cats in Australia should be managed in a humane manner that takes into account the welfare of the cats and other affected animal species.
Cat management is the shared responsibility of state and local governments, animal shelters and members of the public who own or feed cats.
There are three distinct populations of cats in Australia1:
- Owned or domestic,
- Unowned or stray, and
Although the populations to some extent overlap, each requires different management strategies.
An understanding of cat population dynamics is essential for successful management and implementation of legislation, and veterinarians must be involved in the management process.
Owned cats: These are cats that live in a domestic household. They are usually named and have a form of identification. Over 90% are desexed and they may live totally indoors or a mix of indoors and outdoors. Although some may hunt birds and small mammals, they are mainly dependent on their owners for food. Whilst an easy target for legislation around desexing, identification and confinement, this population and their largely responsible owners are not the cause of most complaints about cats. Cat ownership is recognised as conferring a significant societal benefit.
Owned cats should be identified by microchip with details recorded on a database accredited by Domestic Animal Registries Incorporated, and registered with the relevant state or local government where required. Reproduction should be controlled, in most cases by permanent surgical sterilisation. Cats should be contained or subject to a curfew in accordance with local legislation to protect the cat from accident and infectious disease, to prevent predation on wildlife and to reduce community nuisance. Contained cats require appropriate environmental enrichment to minimise stress.
Mandatory desexing programs have not been shown to significantly reduce overpopulation and other problems associated with cats in the community. Instead, voluntary desexing of owned cats should be encouraged by owner education and financial incentives such as a reduction in registration fees.
Unowned cats: Sometimes known as semi-owned or semi-feral, these cats or their immediate antecedents were once owned by people. Their origins are as abandoned or lost cats and they often live in larger colonies than feral cats.
Unowned cats are largely dependent on human society for food and shelter. They are typified by ‘factory’ cats, cats living around rubbish tips and colonies maintained by well-meaning members of the public who perceive their only responsibility for them is to provide food. It is this population that is responsible for most of the complaints about cats in urban areas. Most are not desexed, vaccinated or given parasite control. They serve as repositories for many feline diseases and zoonoses and their numbers expand rapidly when given access to ample resources. The welfare of these individuals and colonies is often poor.
Denny and Dickman observe that stray cats living in self-perpetuating populations in urban, peri-urban and highly modified rural habitats constitute possibly the largest subgroup of cats in Australia and remain largely unrecognised.1 In terms of legislation and cat control programs, most attention has been paid to owned domestic and feral cats, with little information on colonies of cats that exploit highly modified habitats in urban fringe and rural areas.
People who feed unowned cats should be encouraged to take full ownership including having them desexed and microchipped. When they are not prepared to do this, unowned cats should be reported or trapped and handed over to the local government animal management authority or shelter for assessment and care. More research into humane control of unmanaged cat populations is needed.
Authorities and shelters receiving cats should determine whether they are identified and if so, contact their owners. The welfare and health of cats must be managed as a priority. Unowned cats should be assessed for health and temperament. Most unowned cats should be kept for at least 7 days (or according to legislation) prior to being made available for rehoming, or be euthanased. Cats that are severely ill or are very anxious or stressed should be immediately euthanased.
Trap Neuter Return (TNR) strategies have not been shown to be effective under Australian conditions as the cats often do not have a good level of welfare once released, continue to hunt and predate, and can be a significant public nuisance1,2,3.
Feral cats: These are wild cats that have escaped domestication. They are born outside human society and have no or minimal contact with people. They are not reliant on humans for survival and obtain food by hunting and scavenging. They tend to be solitary or live in small family groups of 3–4 guided by a matriarch. Their territory can be large and variable, depending on resources. They are successful survivors in harsh circumstances, expert at eluding capture. There is growing public awareness that the free-living feral cat (Felis catus) is causing damage to populations of small native mammals, reptiles and birds in many parts of Australia and can be a disease reservoir. Denny and Dickman1 state that feral cats occur throughout the Australian mainland and on more than 40 islands off the Australian coast. They note that feral cats are linked to the mainland extinctions of seven species of mammals.
Humane control, where possible, is a legitimate and necessary objective for managers of national parks and a desirable objective for managers of agricultural and pastoral lands. Control may also be necessary in urban areas that support significant populations of native fauna or where neighbourhood amenity or health is being affected.
Control of cats may be extremely costly and result in only temporary predation relief for native animals and birds. Currently available technologies (trapping, shooting and poisoning) are unlikely to achieve eradication. In fact, this can only be achieved within predator-proof enclosures and on islands.
- Control methods must be humane to the target cats and be effective in the long term.
- Methods used to control cats should minimise risk to non-target species.
- Evidence must first justify that there is a cat problem in the target area.
- Physical capture methods are preferred in urban areas to allow impounding and recognition of domestic cats that have owner identification.
- Management of impounded cats with owner identification should be similar to that used in animal shelters and municipal pounds.
- Trace-back and education of owners of straying domestic cats should be compulsory in areas where municipal councils offer cat registration and identification procedures.
- Owned cats should be permanently identified with microchips (preferred), tattoos, tags or collars.
- Owned cats should be desexed prior to puberty to minimise unplanned breeding, roaming and fighting.
- Effective control requires coordination between researchers, state and territory jurisdictions and government agencies.
- Education of the community on responsible pet ownership is an essential part of any control and management program.
- All cat breeders should be licensed, registered and adhere to relevant state or territory codes of practice.
Sufficient resources must be made available to further study the effect of feral cats on native fauna. Studies should include the interrelationship between predators (including feral cats, foxes and other predators), habitat destruction and prey (including birds, rodents, rabbits and native fauna).
Control and management of both the feral and urban unowned cat population is currently severely under-resourced and more funds should be dedicated to this.
Research is also required to determine the relationship between urban owned cats, urban strays, rural cats and free-living feral cat populations. This should include research on the interaction of these different populations, and the part that each plays in maintaining feral populations and destroying native fauna.
There is a pressing need for continuing research into more innovative, effective and humane methods of control and eradication of feral cats4. The development of the new poison bait Curiosity® appears to be a step forward and evaluation of its effectiveness and any welfare implications will be monitored.
Other relevant policies and position statements
- Denny EA, Dickman CR. Review of cat ecology and management strategies in Australia. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Canberra, 2010.
- Longcore T, Rich C, Sullivan L. Critical assessment of claims regarding management of feral cats by trap–neuter–return. Conserv Biol 2009;23:887–894
- RSPCA Australia. Research Report: TNR March 2011.pdf
- Moody E. The potential for biological control of feral cats in Australia. Australian Nature Conservation Agency, Canberra, 1995
Zito S, Vankan D, Bennett P et al. Cat ownership perception and caretaking explored in an internet survey of people associated with cats. Plos One 2015. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0133293
Date of ratification by AVA Board: 29 July 2016