In Victoria, improving cat and horse welfare is a huge challenge but Dr Liz Walker, CEO of RSPCA Victoria, is confident things can change for the better. By Frank Leggett
RSPCA Victoria deals with over 10,000 cruelty complaints every year. While the organisation is dedicated to rescuing animals from dangerous situations and prosecuting offenders, it also advocates to improve the lives of animals.
Their CEO, Dr Liz Walker, comes from a varied career in veterinary science, small animal practices, corporate positions and not-for-profit organisations. Right now, she is leading the organisation in an undertaking to improve the welfare of cats and horses across the state.
Why is cat welfare such a serious issue in Victoria?
It’s not only a Victorian problem but common across all the states and territories. Our challenge is that there are an enormous number of cats in Victoria and overpopulation is one of the key issues we’re addressing. One female cat and her offspring can produce approximately 5000 cats in a seven-year period. That figure is based on an average of two litters per year, six kittens per litter, and a 75 per cent kitten mortality rate. It’s actually a fairly conservative number.
Are more cats coming into RSPCA shelters?
Yes, and the number is increasing every year. We had about 11,200 cats come into our shelters in the past financial year. Of those, only six-and-a-half per cent, or 730 cats, were reclaimed. Dogs, on the other hand, have a reclaim rate between 60 and 70 per cent. There’s clearly a difference between how people think about dogs and cats.
Many of these cats are likely to be semi-owned and when they are free roaming, they’re more likely to be sick with diseases such as FIV and suffer with abscesses. They are also frequently involved in road traffic accidents and fights.
We’re not sure exactly why the owners are allowing their cats to breed unfettered but we’re on a mission to find out, and to help Victorians better care for their cats.
What is the impact of an increased numbers of cats in the shelters?
The more cats we have, the longer it can take to find them a loving home. Extending the length of stay in our shelters has a real welfare impact on the health and wellbeing of our animals, as they are more vulnerable to disease and other stressors associated with a shelter environment.
RSPCA Victoria runs a number of initiatives to increase the value of cats within the community, such as our education programs and collaborations with local council. We also run a number of cat-centric adoption campaigns to help them find a new home faster.
How big a problem are feral cats?
Broadly speaking, domestic cats are cats with some dependence on humans. Feral cats are unowned, unsocialised and have no relationship or dependence on humans. They are found across Australia; the most recent review estimates a population fluctuating between 2.1 and 6.3 million.
Both domestic and feral cats have an impact on wildlife populations. The presence of feral cats has contributed to the extinction of 22 Australian mammals, while pet cats kill 77.6 million birds each year. We work really hard to encourage cat owners to keep their cats at home through our joint campaign with Zoos Victoria called Safe Cat Safe Wildlife.
What can the RSPCA and veterinarians do?
We educate and support people by offering education and low-cost desexing programs, and both can have a really positive impact. Education is absolutely key to improving how we care for cats—provided quality veterinary care is available so owners can follow through and have their cats desexed, vaccinated, micro-chipped and registered. Our biggest issue is communicating the information to the appropriate people. There are thousands and thousands of cats that need to be desexed.
Can the problem be fixed?
The issue is very clear—there are a lot of cats whose welfare is not as good as it should be. These cats can have a negative impact on the community and the environment. I’m optimistic but we need to engage with a lot of different people. The federal government, state government, local government, animal welfare groups, rescue groups, veterinarians, cat owners and the community in general all need to get on board.
Our priority is to reduce roaming of domestic cats by encouraging pet owners to keep their cats safe at home. This helps to reduce their impact on our native wildlife. We also need to have a separate conversation with public land managers about how to manage the feral cat population in a way that’s justified, effective and humane.
Cats make wonderful pets and they’re incredibly important to our society in terms of the value and comfort they bring to people as companion animals. That value, the human/animal bond and the importance of cats in making us feel connected and good about ourselves, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Is cat registration the answer?
Registration is certainly a big part of the solution. There are about 210,000 registered cats in Victoria and the desexing rate of those registered cats is 95 per cent. Those owners are overwhelmingly doing the right thing.
At the same time, we estimate that there are 1.1 million cats in Victoria, so that means about 900,000 cats are unregistered. It’s really important that we improve the registration rates. Over the past 30 years, dog registration and desexing has reached very high levels. The number of dogs coming into pounds and shelters has decreased and their rate of reclaim is quite high. What we’ve already done with dogs, we need to replicate with cats.
What’s happening in Victoria in regard to horse welfare?
Right now, our inspectorate is watching 500 horses around the state that are at risk of suffering through lack of feed, water and appropriate care.
Horses can live for 30 years and during that time they need to have their teeth and hooves maintained, along with vaccinations and ongoing parasite control. There is also the cost of stabling and feeding and, at the moment, feed is very expensive. It costs thousands of dollars every year to care for a horse.
We know horse owners in our state are under pressure because we have had a 29 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of horse cruelty reports received. In the past financial year, our inspectors looked into the wellbeing of over 10,600 horses across the state. A similar situation occurred during the 2015/16 summer when it was similarly dry and the numbers spiked.
Is the National Horse Traceability Registry going to become a reality?
I certainly hope so. At present, horses are the only domestic species, other than chickens, that don’t have registered traceability. Dogs, cats, cattle, sheep and goats all have identification and traceability systems that apply to them.
A senate inquiry has recently recommended the creation of a National Horse Traceability Registry, which would be terrific. Our inspectors can run into trouble when they see horses because sometimes ownership is not clear. There’s no mandatory requirement to microchip horses and that can make the tracing of the owner extremely difficult. It also means that if there’s a disease outbreak or a natural disaster, we can’t trace horses back to their owners or see history relating to location changes.
Any recent RSPCA Victoria success stories?
On a Victorian level, I’m really proud of the advocacy we did around puppy factories that led to the introduction of the Pet Exchange Register. If there’s no source code provided for an animal advertised online or in print, there should be no sale. Having such a simple system that helps hold breeders to account is incredibly positive. We know the community wants to do the right thing and the majority of cat and dog breeders are doing the right thing. The Pet Exchange Register actively supports those people.
About 80,000 puppies come on to the Victorian market every year but we didn’t know where at least 60,000 of those animals originated. From July 2019, we have had greater oversight and traceability of cats and dogs that are advertised for sale. Prospective purchasers can also access the register to determine if a seller is a legitimate breeder. That’s enormously comforting. I think it’s a great achievement.
Another area where we strongly advocated was for people renting with their pets. As of July 2020, if you want to rent with animals your landlord cannot unreasonably refuse the request. The only way a landlord can prevent it happening is to go through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. People will no longer have to relinquish their animals simply because they change rental accommodation. It’s a great win for people and animals.
Definitions of domestic and feral cats
Feral cats: Cats who are unowned, unsocialised, have no relationship with or dependence on humans and reproduce in the wild.
Domestic cats. All cats with some dependence (direct or indirect) on humans are considered domestic cats. They are organised into three categories:
Owned. These cats are identified with and cared for by a specific person, and directly depend on humans. They are usually sociable although sociability varies.
Semi-owned. These cats are fed or provided with other care by people who do not consider they own them. They are of varying sociability with many socialised to humans and may be associated with one or more households.
Unowned. These cats indirectly depend on humans with some having casual and temporary interactions with humans. They are of varying sociability, including some who are unsocialised to humans, and may live in groups.
The RSPCA Cat Management Report can be seen at www.rspca.org.au/facts/science/cat-management-paper