Source: The Guardian (Extract)
Posted: September 12, 2023

Conservation groups are calling for state governments to implement measures to contain pet cats, which are estimated to kill 323m native animals in Australia each year.

It comes after the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, last week unveiled a draft national plan to tackle feral cats. Plibersek acknowledged that while feral cats were the main threat to native wildlife, “domestic cats have to be properly managed as well”.

The government’s feral cat plan has familiar echoes in a threatened species strategy unveiled in 2015 by the then environment minister under the Coalition, Greg Hunt. At the time, the government set a target to cull 2m feral cats by 2020, a figure researchers later described as being based on a “shaky scientific foundation”.

Conservation groups including the Nature Conservation Council and Invasive Species Council on Monday called for the New South Wales government to amend state legislation that prevents local councils from implementing cat containment policies.

What’s the problem with pet cats?

Domestic cats have impacts on native wildlife in two ways, says Prof Sarah Legge of the Australian National University. “One is that they hunt themselves. They hunt at a lower rate than a feral cat, but because pet cats live at really high density in towns and suburbs, the predation toll per square kilometre is actually much higher than it is out in the bush.”

Her research has found that pet cats kill up to 50 times more animals per square kilometre in urban areas than feral cats kill in natural environments.

“The other pathway is if we have a lot of pet cats that are not desexed, then there’s a risk that unwanted litters keep contributing to the feral cat population,” Legge says.

Modelling Legge has done for the Invasive Species Council suggests that roaming pet cats kill 546m animals per year in Australia, of which 323m are native.

“Most pet owners don’t think their cat is the problem, but the evidence is that nearly all roaming pet cats hunt and kill our native wildlife,” says Jack Gough, advocacy manager at the Invasive Species Council.

An estimated 71% of all pet cats in Australia are able to roam – of this figure, 78% of roaming cats hunt. Most animals – an estimated 85% – killed by pet cats are not brought home.

“For every dead lizard or bird you find on your doorstep, another four have been left out in the bush,” Gough says.

What measures are in place to stop pet cats from killing native wildlife?

Dr Brad Smith, the acting chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, says: “In Victoria, about half of the local councils have implemented cat containment, while the ACT has introduced territory-wide cat containment.

“When legislated, this has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of native birds, reptiles and marsupials that are killed each night by pet cats.”

In Victoria, at least 38 local governments have implemented either dusk-to-dawn or 24-hour cat containment policies. In Queensland, 74 out of 77 councils have 24/7 containment rules in place.

“The pillars of responsible cat ownership are registration, identification, a cap on the numbers of cats you can keep in the house, desexing and containment,” Legge says. “There is no consistency on any of those five measures across the states and jurisdictions – they all do different things.

“Local governments are responsible for pet cat management, but what they can do is constrained by what’s in their state legislation. In the case of NSW and Western Australia, the state legislation doesn’t allow local governments to put in place cat containment laws in specific areas.”

What more should be done to address the issue?

“We support cat containment across the country, as one of the most effective measures to protect Australian wildlife,” Smith says.

Cat containment is beneficial for both native wildlife and cat health, Gough says. “Cats that are kept at home have lower vet bills, don’t get run over, don’t get injured at the same rate, and live for up to 10 years longer than free-roaming cats. And they don’t go out and kill our birds, mammals, frogs and reptiles.”

The Nature Conservation Council and Invasive Species Council, as well as Birdlife Australia, Wires and the Australian Wildlife Society, are calling on the NSW government to amend the NSW Companion Animals Act 1998, to enable local councils to enforce anti-roaming laws for pet cats.

In WA, provisions under Cat Act 2011 do not allow for enforced containment. Legge says improving regulatory pathways in both states is an important measure.

She says it’s a matter of “how we support local governments to get these laws in place, how they’re resourced to police the laws, how we encourage the public to go along with it”.

“Solving the feral cat problem is really difficult … solving the pet cat problem – technically [is] really easy. Keep your cat indoors – problem solved.”