Fighting feral cats

feral cat

Vets have a key role to play in educating cat owners as part of a plan to limit the impact of feral cat attacks on native wildlife. By Cameron Cooper

As a self-confessed “crazy cat lover”, Dr Katria Lovell of Redlands Veterinary Clinic in Brisbane shudders at the thought of up to two million feral cats being culled. She knows, however, that something must be done to reduce their numbers, with CSIRO estimates indicating that feral cats kill up to a million native birds and animals a day in Australia.

Dr Lovell fears a controversial Australian government initiative to drastically reduce their number by 2020 will have wider fallout.

“Unfortunately, within that feral cat population we’re going to find that there’s a huge cohort of domestic cats that get caught up in that action,” she says.

First introduced into Australia by European settlers, the feral cat population is thought to number between 1.5 and at least 5.5 million. The felines are efficient killers of smaller animals and birds and breed quickly.

One difficulty the issue presents is that there are three broad populations of cats in Australia: owned, unowned or stray and feral.

A humane kill

Some stray cats that have minimal interaction with humans could be at risk in a cull, along with domestic cats which go missing. RSPCA NSW veterinary scientific officer Dr Jade Norris believes any culling strategy should involve a “humane kill”, with feral cats being put to death instantly or being rendered insensible until death ensues without pain. 

Dr Norris is concerned that efforts to shoot, trap or bait felines under the government plan could fail that test. “Some of the methods are actually not humane,” she says.

“Unfortunately, within that feral cat population we’re going to find that there’s a huge cohort of domestic cats that get caught up in that action.”—Dr Katria Lovell, vet, Redlands Veterinary Clinic

The RSPCA believes poisons such as 1080 and para-aminopropiophenone (PAPP) are inhumane, arguing that they cause animals to suffer before they die. More government funding and resources should be injected into finding humane methods of killing animals, according to Dr Norris, who says the “biological warfare” to which animals such as rabbits have been exposed in the past has caused significant pain.

“We should be smarter and kinder about it by using non-lethal reproductive controls, which would prevent culling in the first place and inhumane killing methods.”

Vets in frontline

What can vets to do to help reduce the attacks on native animals? The starting point is to encourage desexing of cats before sexual maturity to minimise the number of stray or unwanted animals that can then go rogue.

“Unfortunately, we do have more cats and kittens out there that are worthy of love than we do have loving homes,” says Dr Paula Parker, president of the Australian Veterinary Association.

She also encourages vets to educate owners about how cats can enjoy a healthy, happy life as an indoor pet and, in particular, that it’s important to restrict their outdoor access at night—i.e. when their nocturnal hunting instincts kick in.

Aside from saving wildlife, Dr Parker says keeping cats indoors can dramatically reduce their own likelihood of being hit by cars, getting bitten by snakes, and having other misadventures. However, it is important to ensure that indoor cats have an enriched life, having access to toys and ideally an outdoor cat run.

“It’s important that we don’t just shut the door and keep them inside—they need to be happy,” Dr Parker adds.

Dr Lovell agrees that vets can do more to extoll to cat owners the virtues of an indoor life for their pets.

“Unfortunately, we do have more cats and kittens out there that are worthy of love than we do have loving homes.”—Dr Paula Parker,
president, AVA

“We’re still seeing a huge percentage of domestically owned cats being allowed to roam free at night and that’s where we have to target our education and energy.”

Adoption programs are also seen as an important way of moving stray cats into a loving home environment, but Dr Parker urges caution in approaching cats on the street which may be stressed and aggressive.

“We don’t want people to put themselves in jeopardy.”

Emotional toll

Dr Parker says better control and management of all cat populations will help reduce the need for vets to perform one of their most harrowing duties—euthanasing unwanted cats.

“We’re all vets because we love animals and it can be challenging especially when we have to euthanase a lot of animals. That’s not what we were intending to do as vets.”

The AVA and the RSPCA both endorse more resources for research into the impact of feral cats on native animals, and for the development of non-lethal and totally humane approaches to population controls.

Dr Lovell adds that more education of the public is also required to deter the purchase of cats from ‘kitten farms’ and online markets such as Gumtree, Trading Post and Facebook’s Marketplace.

“It’s perpetuating the whole cycle of there being too many unwanted cats and kittens because they are so easily accessible.” 


Solution may be all in the genes

Gene drive technology is shaping as potentially the best—and most humane—weapon in the arsenal against feral cats.

While shooting, poisoning and trapping is currently the most common way of reducing feline numbers, the CSIRO is at the forefront of a plan that could see cats in feral populations producing only male offspring. Gene drives can affect genetic inheritance via sexual reproduction and allow certain genetic traits to be passed from a parent organism to all offspring. Over time, a targeted population could die out due to lack of breeding partners.

While such technology shows great promise, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s National Science and Conservation manager Dr John Kanowski says the science is still in development and could take at least a decade to be implemented.

“But we think it’s the most promising development on the horizon,” he says. “There’s essentially no negative impact on that animal other than it won’t have any offspring.”

The AWC has been in the headlines for constructing massive cat-proof fences around reserves in places like the Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary in the NT and Pilliga in NSW. The fences keep out feral cats and foxes and give endangered animals such as bettongs, bilbies and bridled nailtail wallabies a chance to survive and thrive.

“At these properties you can see these animals just doing what they should be doing,” Dr Kanowski says. “They used to be as much a part of the Australian bush in the past as the kookaburra or the gumtree.”

Dr Kanowski says AWC’s satellite tracking of feral cats reveals that the felines can travel huge distances to catch their prey, underlining the importance of educating cat owners about the importance of responsible pet ownership.

“The risk with people disposing of cats is that the animals will then be part of this cohort of animals that might travel very large distances and have an impact over a really significant area. So just raising that awareness through a respected profession such as the vets is very important.”

He concedes that while a more sustainable solution such as gene drive technology will be needed in the long term, for now the cat-proof fences have a key role to play in minimising feral cats’ impact on native animals and wildlife.

“We still need stopgap measures such as the fenced areas and we may need them for 20 years. [Current debates] are all predicated on the fact that the gene drive approach will work and that’s not yet guaranteed.”

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