What to do about the stray cat problem

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stray cat problem
Photography: zosimus – 123RF

Nearly 200 years after the first free-roaming cat was introduced to metropolitan Australia, the ongoing management of uncared-for cat populations continues to cause headaches for those tasked with their containment. By Tracey Porter

Being asked to euthanise seemingly healthy animals is an occupational challenge that all veterinarians must grapple with.

The ethics become a lot less of a dilemma when the animal concerned is a semi-owned or unowned cat capable of causing a public health threat, fighting with or transmitting diseases to its domesticated cousins or killing an assortment of native wildlife.

According to the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP), there are around 700,000 cats living without appropriate care in urban areas across Australia. 

But with towns and cities supporting a high density of feral cats, including cat ‘colonies’ at sites such as rubbish tips and skips, it is believed the real numbers could be as high as 2.5 million.

Not everybody’s friend

The NESP’s unique research program, the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, found that on average, each roaming pet cat kills 186 reptiles, birds and mammals per year. On average this is made up of 110 native animals including 40 reptiles, 38 birds and 32 mammals.

In Australia, at least 34 mammal species have become extinct since European settlement, with cats believed to have been primary contributors to over two-thirds of these extinctions. 

Examples include native marsupials like two species of pig-footed bandicoots, the lesser bilby and the desert rat-kangaroo; and native rodents including at least four species of hopping mice and two species of rabbit rat.

In addition, cat-borne parasites such as toxoplasmosis, which spreads when felines release millions of tiny parasitic ‘oocyst’ eggs into the environment through their faeces, causes the loss of over 62,000 unborn lambs each year.

In many parts of Australia, street cats are trapped and removed before being put to sleep, raising ethical and challenging emotional questions for the veterinarians charged with putting down otherwise healthy animals.

But with the control and management of urban semi-owned and unowned cats typically addressed at both a local and community level—with key stakeholders such as the RSPCA, municipal shelters and vets—there is currently no national, or even state or territory-based strategies in place to address these types of issues.

States of divergence 

Several different strategies are being attempted to help encourage responsible cat ownership and reduce the impact of feral cats.

These include allowing owners to walk their cats on a lead, requiring cat owners to microchip and register their pets, the launch of more public education programs and working with local vets to encourage more discounted sterilisation clinics.

To help protect the 61,000 native birds, 2000 native mammals, 30,000 native reptiles and 6000 native frogs falling prey to uncared for cats in Canberra each year, the ACT Government recently introduced a law requiring all cats in new city suburbs to be kept indoors or in cat runs at all times.

People who feed unowned cats should be encouraged to take full ownership including having them desexed and microchipped.

Australian Veterinary Association

While releasing feral and stray cats into the wild is banned in most states and territories in Australia, the ACT is also home to a program called trap, neuter, return (TNR)—run by the Canberra Street Cat Alliance—which sees wild cats trapped, desexed and then released onto the streets to live in ‘cat colonies’ in suburban parts of the city. TNR strategies are the subject of strong debate and while some studies have shown a reduction in cat numbers using TNR, others argue that TNR is not an ethical solution to stray cat management, and less successful than responsible rehoming or euthanasia.

Stakeholders in other municipalities have taken a different approach with councillors in Bendigo in Victoria unanimously voting for a cat curfew to be imposed day and night to stop them from going outside of their property. Meanwhile councils across other states including Mount Barker District Council in South Australia and Wodonga in Victoria, have introduced new bylaws imposing strict curfews and confinement laws.

Research from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub found that every suburb that has a 24-hour curfew on cats will save around 200,000 native animals per year.

Moving forward

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) says it has a clear policy on stray or semi-owned cats.

Last updated in 2016, the AVA’s guidance on unowned cats suggests that control methods must be humane to the target cats and be effective in the long term.

It prefers physical capture methods in urban areas to allow impounding and recognition of domestic cats that have owner identification and advocates compulsory trace-back and education of owners of straying domestic cats in areas where municipal councils offer cat registration and ID procedures.

The AVA says that in regard to legislation and cat control programs, most attention has been paid to owned domestic and feral cats, with little information on free-ranging colonies of cats that exploit highly modified habitats in urban fringe and rural areas.

In a submission issued as part of the national inquiry into the issue of feral and domestic cats in Australia, the AVA noted: “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.”

The association is clear that more research into humane control of unmanaged cat populations is needed.

It asserts that 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 nuisance. 

“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. Most unowned cats should be kept for at least seven days (or according to legislation) prior to being made available for rehoming, or be euthanised.”

With the adverse impacts on the mental health of shelter staff in Australia tasked with euthanising healthy animals is well documented, the AVA says it is important that effective education campaigns around responsible cat ownership are in place, as well as early desexing programs, to reduce the unwanted cat population and shelter euthanasia rates.

As a result of a national inquiry into the issue of feral and domestic cats in Australia, published in February 2021, The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy has recommended that the Federal Government develop a clear strategy for the management of stray and domestic cats. 

The days of free-range felines roaming our city streets in large numbers could well be numbered.

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