This Chapter considers public awareness and education about the feral and domestic cat problem in Australia. It also considers responsible cat ownership, barriers encountered by some in the community and best practices for the regulation of domestic cats.
Public awareness of the feral and domestic cat problem
Some evidence received by the Committee highlighted the need to improve public awareness of Australia’s feral and domestic cat problem. In doing so, it was seen as vital that information be delivered in a way that resonated across the community, and particularly to inform and influence pet cat owners.
This was seen as particularly important by contributors who expressed concern that cat owners in particular were protective of their pets and needed convincing that concerns raised by neighbours should be heeded.
Some people submitted allegations that cat owners dismissed concerns of neighbours about their pet cats; and some owners did not believe that their pet cats killed wildlife or roamed at night. The Committee also received an anecdotal report of a cat owner intimidating a complainant.
Inquiry submitters shared their observations about effective messaging techniques. Ms Candice Bartlett of the Invasive Species Council advised the Committee that delivering effective messages to the community required:
… inspiring the community and building a social licence for feral cat control. This is founded on the community having a strong understanding of the need for cat management—both the control of feral cats and the management of domestic cats—inspiring responsible pet ownership.
Dr Tony Buckmaster from the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions (CISS) told the Committee that its researchers were:
… looking at different messages that could be given to make sure that people have their cats contained. There's no single message that will work. It needs to be done depending on the circumstances and depending on the area.
Inquiry contributors proposed relevant factors for developing public awareness programs including that:
awareness campaigns should be driven by the Commonwealth, states and territories rather than by local governments;
improved explanations should be provided to the community about the reasons behind cat control programs such as containment or curfews;
campaigns need to be developed on a strong evidentiary basis including about cats’ impact on wildlife;
there should be an emphasis on animal welfare, and an acknowledgement that many people do not wish to see any animals, including cats, harmed.
The Committee was told that local councils, veterinarians and state governments should be supported to provide public awareness information relating to cats. The mode and responsibility for the development and distribution of public awareness content and programs was also considered. The Committee was advised that content delivery within communities should come through mechanisms including printed publications, guides, pamphlets, online content, videos, interpretive signage and community presentations.
The Australian Veterinary Association was of the view that in developing programs, more research was needed to assess the general public’s concerns regarding cat welfare in relation to cat control methods, including for migrant and remote communities.
The interaction between owned cats and the feral cat problem
Evidence to the Committee highlighted how domestic cats contributed to the feral cat problem, particularly where previously owned cats became either ‘stray’ or ‘semi-owned’ as a result of being abandoned, not desexed or otherwise living in an environment where they were not cared for.
Professor Sarah Legge of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub (TSRH) told the Committee that:
As the human population grows, the pet cat population grows with it. We know that there is a leakage, if you like, of pet cats into the stray or urban feral cat population. Cats get dumped, cats go wandering and there are unwanted litters at the back of the shed. So they certainly do leak into that urban feral cat population.
The CISS told the Committee that:
Domestic cats that are intentionally and unintentionally released into [the] environment by their owners are likely to survive given that they still have all the hunting and behaviour instincts of their predecessors before the species became domesticated. In areas with abundant native or introduced wildlife, the released cat is likely to find sufficient food to survive.
The CISS further explained that:
There is extensive evidence to show that domestic cats contribute to the feral cat population however there is limited evidence as to the rate at which this occurs. It is likely that the rate varies depending on a range of factors including food availability, climatic conditions and location of release.
Another issue raised in evidence and seen to contribute to the development of feral and stray cat populations is the feeding of unowned cats by kind-hearted community members. Ms Helena Forsythe from the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils told the Committee that:
One of the biggest problems we've observed is people feeding unowned cats in public places. We have very multicultural communities across our region, and it is a challenge to communicate to individuals that it's not a good thing to be doing. Personally, they feel that providing food for animals in the park, whether they be birds or cats, is a good thing. They feel that that's a generous thing to be doing, particularly if it's restaurant or bread shop food that might be going to waste. Quite often it's bulk amounts of food that are left out in the parks or reserves, and obviously that attracts not just cats but other animals as well. We don't have any legislation, apart from that on littering or dumping material, that we could impose upon people who do that, and generally councils would not be inclined to fine elderly residents for leaving out leftover food, particularly in areas where we know there are cats being fed.
Responsible cat ownership
Responsible cat ownership is a factor in improving community cohesion, reducing opportunities for predation on wildlife, and limiting domestic cat recruitment into feral cat populations.
Although the Australian Government does not have jurisdiction over the management of domestic cats, the Committee was told that the Threatened Species Commissioner has taken initiatives to strengthen public awareness about the risks posed by cats, and promote responsible cat ownership, including through widely shared social media posts about the impacts of cats on native wildlife. In addition:
The Office of the Threatened Species Commissioner has funded a collaborative research project with the Tiwi Land Council, University of New England, Animal Management in Rural and Remote Communities and the Ark Animal Hospital aimed to reduce the potential impact of cats on native wildlife by promoting responsible cat ownership in the Tiwi Island community of Wurrumiyanga. The project used a variety of methods including a census of cats in the community, a questionnaire to ascertain attitudes towards cat ownership, community education, vet visits for free de-sexing and a cat roaming behaviour study using owned pet cats. The community education included pamphlets about cat de-sexing in the local language.
As noted in Chapter 3, states and territories are responsible for legislation relating to the management of domestic cats, and the laws and practices therefore vary between jurisdictions (see Figure 5.1 below).
The Western Australian Government submitted to the Committee that its Cat Act 2011 commenced fully in 2013 and aimed to provide better control and management of domestic cats, and to promote responsible cat ownership within the community. The Act includes provisions relating to registration, sterilisation and microchipping of domestic cats within Western Australia.
As discussed in Chapter 3, local governments that engaged with the inquiry believed that a more coordinated national effort to provide cat management resources for local governments was necessary. The Committee was made aware of a range of resources developed and used in various parts of the country, aiming to assist community members with improved cat management and ownership. Examples included:
the TassieCat website (www.tassiecat.com) which provides a broad range of information on responsible cat ownership. The website provides expert advice and useful resources to help owners keep cats safe, healthy and happy while protecting the environment and the community.
A Zoos Victoria and RSPCA Victoria campaign about domestic cats called Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife (see https://www.safecat.org.au/) providing cat owners with advice on the best care for their cats to have an enriched life contained at home. The goals of the campaign are improved wellbeing for domestic cats and protecting native wildlife.
The Cat Protection Society of Victoria provides community members who adopt cats with ‘a comprehensive handbook which includes essential medical information explaining that the CPSV has provided their cat with necessary vaccinations, has been de-sexed, wormed and microchipped.
In NSW, a package of 'Good Neighbour' resources released by the Cat Protection Society of NSW, with the support of the Government, councils and other stakeholders has been released to support cat owners and residents. This material aims to support pet owners to understand the importance of confining cats to their property and provides practical advice and support.
Best practices in domestic cat management
The Committee was advised that many states and territories had enacted cat management plans. In most cases, the elements of these plans are to be implemented by local governments.
Some inquiry contributors advocated for a model that had been developed by RSPCA Australia, set out in a 2018 document Identifying Best Practice Domestic Cat Management in Australia. The (Commonwealth) Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) advised the Committee that:
The RSPCA has developed an approach to best practice management for domestic and stray (owned and semi-owned) cats that includes responsible cat ownership and containment and an approach for stray cats. Identifying Best Practice Domestic Cat Management in Australia was released in 2018. The Australian Government supported its development and the Feral Cat Taskforce has been briefed and consulted during development.
RSPCA Australia submitted to the Committee that its best practice strategies to reduce unowned and semi-owned cat populations were:
Limiting the flow of cats from the owned cat population into the unowned and semi-owned populations by reducing abandonment and the incidence of cats roaming and not returning home and the production of unwanted kittens.
Reducing the number of unowned and semi-owned cats through removal of cats (through adoption, or euthanasia if the cat is unwell or injured; trap and kill programs should not be considered as an effective long-term solution to cat management).
Controlling reproduction of unowned and semi-owned cats and supporting the long-term responsible care of semi-owned cats.
RSPCA Australia submitted to the Committee that its strategies to manage owned cats were:
Desexing to prevent the birth of unwanted kittens (particularly pre-pubertal desexing).
Cat containment to prevent cats wandering, becoming lost and to reduce the risk of predation.
Reducing loss, surrender or abandonment of cats by their owners by addressing the reasons why this occurs (for example, behavioural issues, inability to find accommodation that allows cats, financial hardship).
RSPCA Australia’s work has also led to the development of cat management plans in the ACT, Tasmania and South Australia. RSPCA Australia submitted to the Committee that:
A cat management plan may be a useful tool for local councils to identify key priorities, develop strategic and operational plans as well as evaluation measures. Examples of work that has been done in this area include the Australian Cat Action Plan developed by the Animal Welfare League of Queensland and the South Australian Cat Management Plan developed by RSPCA and Animal Welfare League of South Australia.
RSPCA Australia further told the inquiry that:
Effective cat management requires a high level of government and community support, and communication and coordination between all stakeholders; aspects which are often difficult to achieve and maintain over time.
The Australian Veterinary Association submitted that strategies in most cat management plans included:
promoting responsible cat ownership;
provision of affordable desexing in areas of high cat and kitten intake into shelters and pounds;
reducing the number of semi-owned and unowned domestic cats;
continuous improvement of domestic cat welfare and management practices, including improved compliance/enforcement;
expanding cat containment and assisting owners to contain cats where there are threatened and endangered species; and
reducing risks to human health.
Barriers to responsible cat ownership
The Committee received a significant volume of evidence discussing the barriers to responsible cat ownership. These barriers related in particular to the registration, microchipping and desexing of domestic cats.
BirdLife Australia provided the Committee with a table broadly outlining the regulatory regimes pertaining to registration, microchipping, desexing and cat containment in each Australian jurisdiction.
Figure 5.1: Summary of the key measures used in pet cat management in each jurisdiction of Australia
Birdlife Australia, Submission 94, p. 10.
Registration, microchipping and desexing
Inquiry participants made clear to the Committee that requirements across states and territories relating to the registration, microchipping and desexing of domestic cats varied significantly.
While submitters each had differing perspectives based on the jurisdiction which they were discussing, some key themes emerged about how each of these could best be managed.
Submissions to the inquiry considered ways in which cat registration could be used to improve responsible cat ownership. These included:
reduction of registration fees where cats have been confined or desexed;
fines for failure to comply with registration requirements; and
Submissions to the inquiry considered ways in which desexing could be used to improve responsible cat ownership. These included:
providing financial incentives for the desexing of cats; and
working closely with veterinarians and local councils to ensure that community groups could access reduced price or free desexing for clients, including subsidies or vouchers for low-income residents.
Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand of the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation discussed how having cats desexed was often difficult for people on lower incomes who may look after a stray cat:
… if you identify the areas where you've got really high levels of free-roaming cats, they will be the low socioeconomic areas, and we're talking about families of two or four people living on less than $650 a week, so how do they ever afford to have a cat desexed, microchipped and registered, which could cost from $250 to $500 in some areas? The cat has kittens and they either wander or are given away. It's not going to work by trying to legislate it, but we know that, if you doorknock and you offer free desexing of all those cats, the people are so grateful.
Dr Michael Banyard from the Australian Veterinary Association was asked about whether it was cheaper to desex a dog or a cat. He advised the Committee that:
… it's less expensive to desex a cat than a dog. Obviously, there are significant differences in sizes. The basic answer is it is less expensive to desex cats than dogs, and that includes with the current techniques that are recommended to desex cats prior to their reaching puberty, to overcome the early strays and the rapid breeding that occurs at a young age.
A number of submitters highlighted the free desexing program instituted by Victoria’s Banyule City Council as a best practice model for the provision of low cost desexing for domestic cats.
Box 5.1: Banyule City Council
Victoria’s Banyule City Council is considered as a best practice model for the management of cats in an urban community as a result of its free domestic cat desexing program. Facing a significant volume of cat-related complaints along with the surrender of large numbers of healthy cats in the municipality, local animal management officers had little choice but to take the animals to local pounds. These facilities were often full, meaning that the animals would be euthanised, a difficult outcome for both animals and council staff.
Council staff understood that cost imperatives were the main reason that residents sought not to desex their animals which led to the birth of multiple litters each year. Council staff worked with the RSPCA to develop a free cat desexing program. Under the program, owners of cats in the municipality are provided with free desexing, microchipping, free council registration for the first year, and access to transport as part of the service if it is required. Based on the figures provided to the inquiry, the program, which has been running for seven years, has been very successful. Key outcomes have included increased number of cats desexed, many cats being rehomed, and a significantly reduced number of cats being euthanised.
The use of microchipping was also considered by inquiry participants. The key recommendation from many was the consideration of a requirement that domestic cats be microchipped, unless owned by a registered breeder.
In the main, the implementation and enforcement of cat containment or curfew policies are within the domain of local government. DAWE submitted to the Committee that:
The NESP Threatened Species Recovery Hub has surveyed local governments to understand by-laws and found that a small, but increasing, number of local governments in South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia have or are working towards introducing curfews or containment for domestic cats. For example: 17 new suburbs are cat containment areas in the ACT; 10 local government areas in Victoria, such as the Frankston City Council, have a dusk to dawn curfew and seven have a 24/7 curfew; Mt Barker District Council in South Australia has a night curfew; and a cat outside of its yard in Alice Springs can be impounded.
Submitters told the Committee about the benefits of cat containment. The TSRH advised that containment ‘is an increasingly used management strategy for domestic cats, particularly in urban and suburban areas.’ Further, the TSRH noted that ‘Many cat owners understand that an outdoor lifestyle brings with it threats to the health and safety of their cats…’. TSRH added that owners were most likely to take advice from their veterinarians about cat care and management.
Dr Buckmaster from the CISS told the Committee that a curfew might be beneficial to reduce the impacts of cats on native wildlife:
They do hunt more effectively at night. There was actually work done in Canberra in the nineties that showed that, during the day, cats will roam only 200 or 300 metres into the natural areas, but at night they might go up to a kilometre. They're more effective at hunting at night, but they're still able to hunt during the day. Quite often cats are bringing home birds. It's likely that a 24-hour curfew would be beneficial. But, again, it depends on the data.
Local governments across Australia told the Committee about their own curfew and cat containment programs, or cited the need to establish one in their communities.
Cat containment was strongly supported by inquiry participants, particularly in areas where native wildlife was prevalent. It was acknowledged that requiring cats to be contained on properties, such as by erecting a ‘cat run’ could be costly to the property owner. The benefit of a night time curfew was also advocated by multiple submitters.
BirdLife Australia submitted to the Committee that more needed to be done:
Management strategies that aim to keep free-roaming cats (be that feral or pet) at supposed manageable or stable levels in the landscape are not compatible with native species conservation. Desexing and/or cat night-time curfews are not sufficient. While night curfews are likely to decrease domestic cat predation of mammals, they will not protect diurnal bird and reptile species... Cats also readily learn how to take specific prey, meaning a single cat can have a disproportionately devastating impact on the local populations of particular species.