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Management of cats in Australia

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Ratification Date: 14 Jul 2022

Policy

  1. The management of cats in Australia must be evidence-based, must prioritise animal welfare, use practices that mitigate negative impacts to animals, and have clear measurable outcome-based objectives which are reported transparently.
  2. Effective cat management programs involve all stakeholders working together in a coordinated collaborative manner. Appropriate stakeholder engagement and education is also essential.
  3. Practices used to manage cats need to be targeted to the specific cat population (i.e. owned, semi-owned, unowned or feral cats). They should aim to improve cat welfare, minimise cats’ negative impacts and, where possible, use non-lethal management.
  4. Adequately funded research to continually improve knowledge and to advance best-practice cat management is essential.

Background

The presence of cats in Australia brings with it significant value to humans through their roles as companion animals, but also results in a number of potential negative consequences related to: the environment (eg negative impact on ecosystems), animal welfare (eg predation), urban communities (eg nuisance, hygiene) and zoonotic disease (eg toxoplasmosis, salmonellosis).

There are four distinct populations of cats in Australia1,2 based on their interaction with humans:

  • Owned
  • Semi-owned
  • Unowned
  • Feral

Although the populations overlap to varying extents, each requires a distinct management strategy.

Cats have a high reproduction capacity and many have a strong hunting instinct; modifying both these biological processes in order to mitigate negative impacts associated with cats is complex. Recent advances in knowledge and technology have improved our understanding of the effectiveness of various management strategies1 but significant further research is required, particularly to achieve humane and effective management of semi-owned, unowned and feral cats. An understanding of cat population dynamics determined by behaviour, season, food availability, habitat and human intervention is essential for successful management.

Many stakeholders must be involved to achieve effective cat management including:

  • cat owners
  • cat carers
  • rangers
  • conservation groups
  • local, state and territory jurisdictions and government
  • animal welfare groups
  • veterinarians
  • scientists (including social scientists)
  • researchers
  • cat breeders and cat sellers
  • educators
  • landholders

Evidence-based stakeholder engagement and education are essential. Behaviour change initiatives can be used to improve cat management strategies.3,4

Owned cats

Owned cats are the most abundant group of cats in Australia, estimated at 4.9 million in 20215 up from 3.3 million in 2013. These are cats who live in a domestic household, are usually named, have a form of identification, depend on humans for their food, and over 90% are desexed.6 They may live totally indoors, outdoors, or a mix of indoors and outdoors. Although they are fed by humans, their instinct to hunt generally remains and it is estimated that they kill up to 294 million animals (native and non-native species) per year.7,8,9

Management of owned cats involves implementation of responsible cat ownership principles and includes identification, desexing and containment.

Desexing cats is an important way of reducing the number of unwanted cats, improving the health of individual animals, and reducing the potential for problems associated with cats in communities. Routine prepubertal desexing of cats (by four months of age) avoids unintended/unwanted litters and addresses cat overpopulation, in addition to conferring the health and behavioural benefits associated with desexing.  Mandatory desexing programs have been shown to not significantly reduce overpopulation and other problems associated with cats in the community,10 because most owned cats are already desexed.

Cat containment retains cats on their owners’ properties and helps to protect local wildlife from predation, reduces risks to the community and agriculture from zoonotic disease and reduces complaints to local government about nuisance from cats. Managed in this way, owned cats provide many social benefits and pose limited risk to the community and the environment. Keeping cats contained decreases their risk of injury and certain diseases so they can live safe, healthy and longer lives. Contained cats require an appropriate environment with enrichment that meets the cats’ physical and mental needs, allows expression of natural behaviours, promotes good health and welfare and minimises stress. This should include controlled outdoor access where possible. Significant further research is required to optimise the health and welfare of contained cats.

Semi-owned and unowned cats

Semi-owned and unowned cats or their antecedents were once owned by people. Their or their antecedents’ origins were as abandoned, wandering or lost owned cats. They are thought to number approximately 710,000 individuals Australia-wide,11 and it is estimated that they kill up to 324 million animals per year.7,8,9

Semi-owned and unowned cats are variably dependent on humans for food and shelter. They are more abundant in areas where food resources are available. Semi-owned cats are fed intentionally by well-meaning members of the public who do not perceive ownership for the cat. Unowned cats are not intentionally fed but are at least partly dependent on food from humans, eg by scavenging from human rubbish. Research suggests that approximately 3-26.5%of adult Australians may feed a semi-owned cat daily or less frequently.12,13,14,15

Many semi-owned and unowned cats are not desexed, identified, vaccinated or given parasite control.12 They may serve as reservoirs for feline diseases and zoonoses and their numbers may expand rapidly when given access to increased food resources. 

Justifiable reasons for humane control of semi-owned and unowned cat populations include significant adverse impacts on wildlife (including risk to endangered or highly vulnerable native fauna), negative impacts on neighborhood amenities or health and risk to the cats’ own safety, health and welfare.

In the past, legislation and cat control programs have focused predominantly on owned and feral cats, with inadequate focus on effective management targeted specifically at semi-owned and unowned cats. There is an urgent need for research to identify effective and humane management methods to manage urban and peri urban cats, particularly semi-owned and unowned cats.

Trap Neuter Return (TNR)  

Trap, neuter and return (TNR) has been proposed as an alternative to lethal cat control and involves trapping, desexing and then returning semi-owned or unowned cats to their original location. Caretakers typically provide food and shelter and monitor the cats. When foster or permanent homes are available, young kittens and friendly adults are removed and placed for adoption.  

Significant scientific discussion continues regarding the place of TNR programs in the management of cats15,19 such that these programs cannot be supported as a generalised and key strategy in the management of cats.

Feral cats

These cats live independently of humans and, in Australia, are currently estimated to be 2.07 million in number, though this fluctuates between 1.4 – 4.6 million according to seasonal factors.11 It is estimated that they kill up to 1553 million animals per year, most of which are native.7,8,9 They tend to be solitary and their territory can be large and variable, depending on resources.20  They are successful survivors in harsh circumstances and their numbers are in balance with the available food sources, which vary with seasonal changes and land management practices.

There is growing awareness that the feral cat is causing damage to populations of small mammals, reptiles, and birds in many parts of Australia and can also be a disease reservoir. It is now thought that cats have been a contributing cause in 27 (57%) of the 47 extinctions of reptiles, birds and mammals that have occurred in Australia since European settlement.20 Feral cats also contribute to ecological and biodiversity disturbance.

Existing methods do not successfully achieve widespread control of feral cats. Therefore, control measures should be targeted to protect threatened and at-risk species. Standard operating procedures and the relative humaneness matrix can assist in ensuring the most humane options using best practice are used (see https//www.pestsmart.org.au).

The use of exclosures has proven valuable and provides protection for vulnerable species while more permanent solutions are found. However, they are not practical on a large scale and can severely impact larger, free moving animals eg kangaroos. In addition, techniques of landscape management including fire regimes, rabbit, fox and dingo control, grazing management and use of guardian dogs to protect key threatened species  are becoming increasingly recognised for the role they can play in modifying the habitat utilisation of feral cats and, consequently, their impact on wildlife.21

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, can be inhumane, and, if of insufficient intensity, can lead to increased numbers of cats in the target area.22 In fact, eradication can currently only be achieved within predator-proof exclosures and on islands.

Recommendations for cat management

  • Effective cat management requires collaboration between all the stakeholders relevant to the cat population being managed.
  • Appropriate stakeholder engagement and education is essential, including evidence-based behaviour change initiatives.
  • Veterinarians and animal welfare organisations are integral in cat management through their roles in desexing, microchipping, cat health, welfare, research and education.
  • A robust legislative framework is necessary to underpin effective cat management and facilitates the involvement of relative statutory authorities. Where legislation does not exist or is not fit for purpose, this must be addressed with urgency. In addition, it is vital that the roles and responsibilities of state and local government in relation to cat management are clarified in legislation.
  • Veterinary practices should consider entering into formal contractual arrangements with local government and/or animal welfare organisations if they are actively participating in cat management, beyond their core business.
  • Cat management plans should have clear outcomes-based objectives based on the mitigation of documented negative impacts associated with cats, rather than by the number of cats killed or removed. For example, the outcomes-based objectives could include positive response of the wildlife population, reduced incidence of zoonotic disease and decreased nuisance complaints. Management of cats to minimise their negative impacts should use non-lethal management where possible. Lethal control methods must be justified, humane, and targeted to specific cat populations posing a risk to threatened wildlife, while minimising the risk to non-target species.

Guidelines

Owned, semi-owned and unowned cats

  • Education of the community on responsible cat ownership and care is an essential part of any control and management program.
  • Adapting programs to fit with specific customs particularly in indigenous communities should be a consideration.
  • Cats should be desexed prior to puberty (less than four months of age) to eliminate unplanned breeding, and minimise urine spraying, roaming and fighting. Prepubertal desexing of cats should be encouraged by owner education, adoption of veterinary practice policies to make prepubertal desexing routine practice and incentives such as a reduction in registration fees (where cats are registered) for cats desexed prior to puberty.
  • All cat breeders should be licensed, registered and adhere to relevant state or territory codes of practice.
  • Owned cats should be permanently identified with microchips and registered by local authorities as required by legislation. Visible identification either on a tag or collar should be encouraged to facilitate contacting owners of lost and wandering cats.
  • People who feed cats they do not own (semi-owned cats) should be encouraged to have the cats desexed and microchipped (and registered, if required) if they are going to continue to care for them.
  • Unowned cats who are unhealthy or at risk should be reported or trapped and handed over to the local government animal management authority or shelter for assessment and care. Any person trapping cats should comply with the Model Code of Practice for the Humane Control of Feral Cats and standard operating procedures.
  • Where removal of free-roaming cats is justified, physical capture methods are preferred in urban areas to allow identification checking of cats and to facilitate return of identified cats to their owner or carer and rehoming of unidentified or unclaimed cats.
  • Authorities and shelters receiving cats should determine whether the cats are identified and if so, contact their owners. When a cat is taken to a pound or shelter in areas where municipal councils offer cat registrations and identification, the cat should be traced back to their owner if possible and the owner provided with education about issues relating to free-roaming cats.
  • Most unidentified cats should be kept for at least seven days (or according to local laws) prior to being made available for rehoming, during which time, attempts should be made to locate owners or carers of the cat. Cats exhibiting or suffering from severe welfare compromise should be euthanased on a welfare basis. This could include cats who are severely ill or injured, or who are unsocialized, and unidentified cats with extreme anxiety who are not suitable for rehoming (based on appropriate behavioural assessment after at least three days in a non-stressful environment.23
  • Management of semi-owned and unowned cats must be given higher priority by local government. Effective strategies must be implemented by targeting areas of high numbers of free-roaming cats/ cat-related complaints and/or high cat admissions and impoundments to shelters and councils.

Feral cats

  • Humane, non-lethal control methods must be used where possible. Exclosures can be a useful method to protect endangered wildlife species, however they are often not practical on a large scale and can have negative effects on non-target species.
  • Lethal methods should only be used where there is no non-lethal, humane alternative available. Lethal control methods must be humane and targeted to specific feral cat populations posing a risk to threatened wildlife, while minimising the risk to non-target species, and be demonstrated to have a positive population effect on the threatened species.
  • Those involved in feral cat control should comply with national standard operating procedures and use the most humane method, based on the relative humaneness matrix (available on the PestSmart website).
  • Where trapping for feral cats is conducted close to homes, the ownership status of cats should be determined before any lethal control methods are used.
  • More resources must be made available to further study the effect of feral cats on native fauna.
  • There is a pressing need for research and development of new humane and effective methods to manage feral cats. This should include non-lethal management techniques which improve the environment for wildlife, making it more supportive of wildlife breeding success and reducing predation success of cats. The development of more humane and target specific poison baits or delivery methods24 which minimise negative impacts on non-target species is critical. Genetic measures involving the CRISPR/Cas 9 gene editing technology provide significant welfare potential but require critical social and non-target species evaluation.25

Other relevant policies and position statements

References

  1. Legge S, Woinarski JCZ, Dickman CR, et al. (2020) Cat ecology, impacts and management in Australia. Wildlife Research. 47:i–vi.
  2. Webber BL (2020) Increasing Knowledge to Mitigate Cat Impacts on Biodiversity; Perth, Western Australia;
  3. McLeod LJ, Hine DW, Driver AB (2019) Change the humans first: Principles for improving the management of free-roaming cats. Animals. 9:555.
  4. Mcleod LJ, Evans D, Jones B, et al. (2020) Understanding the relationship between intention and cat containment behaviour: a case study of kitten and cat adopters from RSPCA Queensland. 10:1214.
  5. Animal Medicines Australia (2021) Pets and the Pandemic Available online: https://animalmedicinesaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/AMAU005-PATP-Report21_v1.41_WEB.pdf.
  6. Hall CM, Adams NA, Bradley JS, et al. (2016) Community attitudes and practices of urban residents regarding predation by pet cats on wildlife: An International comparison. PLoS ONE. 11:.
  7. Murphy BP, Woolley LA, Geyle HM, et al. (2019) Introduced cats (Felis catus) eating a continental fauna: The number of mammals killed in Australia. Biological Conservation. 237:28–40.
  8. Woinarski JCZ, Murphy BP, Legge SM, et al. (2017) How many birds are killed by cats in Australia ? Biological Conservation. 214:76–87.
  9. Woinarski JCZ, Murphy BP, Palmer R, et al. (2018) How many reptiles are killed by cats in Australia? Wildlife Research.
  10. Centre for Companion Animals in the Community (2007) Mandatory Desexing in the ACT- Has it worked?; Australian Veterinary Association;
  11. Legge S, Murphy B, McGregor H, et al. (2017) Enumerating a continental-scale threat: how many feral cats are in Australia? Biological Conservation. 206:293–303.
  12. Zito S, Vankan D, Bennett P, et al. (2015) Cat ownership perception and caretaking explored in an internet survey of people associated with cats. PLoS ONE. 10:.
  13. Toukhsati SR, Bennett PC, Coleman GJ (2007) Behaviors and attitudes towards semi-owned cats. Anthrozoos. 20:131–142.
  14. Rand J, Fisher G, Lamb K, et al. (2019) Public Opinions on Strategies for Managing Stray Cats and Predictors of Opposition to Trap-Neuter and Return in Brisbane , Australia. 5:1–16.
  15. Crawford, Calver, Fleming (2019) A Case of Letting the Cat out of The Bag—Why Trap-Neuter-Return Is Not an Ethical Solution for Stray Cat (Felis catus) Management. Animals. 9:171.
  16. Spehar DDD, J.Wolf P, Wolf PJ (2018) The impact of an integrated program of return-to-field and targeted trap-neuter-return on feline intake and euthanasia at a municipal animal shelter. Animals. 8:.
  17. Swarbrick H, Rand J (2018) Application of a protocol based on trap-neuter-return (TNR) to manage unowned urban cats on an Australian university campus. Animals. 8:.
  18. Tan K, Rand J, Morton J (2017) Trap-neuter-return activities in urban stray cat colonies in Australia. Animals. 7:.
  19. Wolf PJ, Rand J, Swarbrick H, et al. (2019) Reply to crawford et al.: Why trap-neuter-return (TNR) is an ethical solution for stray cat management. Animals. 9:.
  20. Woinarski JCZ, Legge SM, Dickman CR (2019) Cats in Australia. Companion and Killer; 1st ed.; CSIRO Publishing: Clayton South;
  21. McGregor H, Legge S, Jones M, et al. (2014) Landscape management of fire and grazing regimes alters the fine-scale habitat utilisation by feral cats. PLoS ONE. 9:e109097.
  22. Lazenby BT, Mooney NJ, Dickman CR (2014) Effects of low-level culling of feral cats in open populations: A case study from the forests of southern Tasmania. Wildlife Research. 41:407–420.
  23. Moore AM, Bain MJ (2013) Evaluation of the addition of in-cage hiding structures and toys and timing of administration of behavioral assessments with newly relinquished shelter cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 8:450–457.
  24. Moseby KE, McGregor H, Read JL (2020) Effectiveness of the Felixer grooming trap for the control of feral cats: A field trial in arid South Australia. Wildlife Research. 47:599–609.
  25. Moro D, Byrne M, Kennedy M, et al. (2018) Identifying knowledge gaps for gene drive research to control invasive animal species: The next CRISPR step. Global Ecology and Conservation. 13:e00363.

Date of ratification by AVA Board: 15 July 2022