Written by - Kaylene Allan, Cat Management Officer, Kingborough Council
Balancing the joys and health benefits of pet cat ownership with the protection of native wildlife is a key challenge for cat management. Containing domestic cats within an owners’ house and yard is essential to achieving this balance, and offers many important health and welfare benefits to cats. Encouraging more cat-owners to keep their cats within their property requires an understanding of what motivates them to prevent their cats from roaming.
Research in the UK found that information about the impact of cats on wildlife and even evidence showing that one’s cat was predating on native animals, did not influence a cat-owners’ willingness to contain their cat, or convince them that domestic cats are a threat to wildlife.
This is supported by New Zealand research which found that the most important influence for cat-owners to keep their cats inside at night was understanding the benefits for one’s cat (such as safety and comfort) rather than the benefits to wildlife. Not unexpectedly, cat-owners were more motivated to contain their cat at night when it was a positive experience for themselves, rather than an unpleasant one - such as being woken by the cat or the cat toileting inside. Interestingly, the views and behaviours of others also influenced cat-owners’ intentions and behaviours. For example, the approval by other household members and veterinarians was an important motivator for cat-owners, as was having neighbours who kept their cats inside at night.
A recent Tasmanian study of cat-owners’ found four main barriers to cat containment - the belief that roaming is necessary for a cat’s well-being, a lack of motivation and care for ones’ cat and a belief that it is too difficult.
Programs involving peer support and education, and that promote the benefits of containment for cats, along with positive experiences of cat-owners are likely to be more successful than those that focus on education alone. Engaging veterinarians as advocates and offering practical support and advice on how to contain one’s cat are also recommended.
Most importantly, each of us can make a difference to a household or family member, friend, peer or neighbour - offer support, share your experience or model of responsible pet cat ownership. Remember - contained cats live longer, healthier and safer lives than free-roaming cats and that cats are magnificently adaptable creatures. Cats can be content inside, in a yard or an enclosure and will get the necessary exercise, enjoyment and stimulation if you plan for their needs.
Cat Management on Bruny Island
Bruny Island is an important biodiversity hotspot – it is a designated site of global importance for bird conservation and has the highest recorded number of native terrestrial mammal species (27 of Tasmania’s 34 species) of any Tasmanian offshore island. It also has a dynamic tourism industry and grazing (predominantly sheep) accounts for about 14% of land use. Experience from around the world highlights that protection of these values from the impact of cats will require three key elements: strong community engagement, strict by-laws for domestic cat ownership and research to inform on-ground best-practice management of stray and feral cats.
A Bruny Island Cat Management Working Group (BICMWG) has been established, representing the Bruny Island Community Association, Environment Network, Primary Industry Groups and Kingborough Council. The aims of the group are to engage the Bruny Island community in cat management and to liaise with council on relevant issues, such as council by-laws. The group has also coordinated two very successful surveys on community attitudes towards cat management.
A series of cat management forums and workshops have been held in partnership with Department Primary Industries Parks Water and Environment (DPIPWE) and the University of Tasmania including on cat-borne diseases and farm management.
Procedures are in place to support community members to trap feral cats humanely and according to legal requirements. Traps are available for loan and trapping, and euthanasia protocols have been developed, along with a data collection system. The program is coordinated by a member of the BICMWG.
‘Citizen science’ activities are under way to involve community members in research to learn more about the distribution and activities of cats and at-risk wildlife on Bruny. These include the ‘Cat Tracker’ project to track the roaming behaviours of pet cats, and a remote camera monitoring program on private land to assist in protecting at-risk wildlife and livestock from cat predation and cat-borne disease (funded by NRM South, Naturally Inspired Grant program).
By-laws for domestic cats
By-laws to promote responsible pet cat ownership are essential to prevent recruitment of domestic cats into the stray and feral cat populations, limit the impact of domestic cats on wildlife and agriculture, and ensure protection for domestic cats during feral-cat control programs.
Community surveys of Bruny Island residents and ratepayers in 2015 and 2016 found strong community support for responsible pet cat ownership. Of the 157 respondents, 81% supported the strict management of domestic cats (including some level of containment of domestic cats) and 78% supported a limit on the number of cats per household.
Kingborough Council has given in-principle support for domestic cat by-laws for Bruny. The by-laws will bring the requirements for cat ownership in line with those for dog ownership. The proposal includes the compulsory de-sexing and microchipping of domestic cats, a limit on the number of cats per household and the 24-hour containment of domestic cats.
The by-laws will be phased in to give cat-owners time to comply, and subsidised de-sexing, microchipping and rehoming will be offered. As is the case with dogs, people will be able to apply for a licence if they wish to keep more cats, based on meeting management requirements.
Partnerships are being developed to implement the by-laws, including one with the Hobart Cat Centre to fund a mobile cat-holding facility for the Island and guidance on humane and best-practice cat management; with the Bruny Island Environment Network, Community Association and Primary Industry groups to actively engage and educate the local community; and with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service(PWS), for the development of a Community Ranger partner program to undertake community liaison, education and enforcement of the cat by-laws.
Research to inform on-ground management
Trapping by PWS and anecdotal reports indicate that stray and feral cats are widespread on Bruny, especially in the south, near townships. However, their abundance and impact on native animals and the sheep industry is not known. A University of Tasmania Honours project has recorded the distribution and abundance of stray and feral cats across the Island and investigated the ecological interactions between cats, rabbits, quolls and habitat. The data is currently being analysed and the information will help quantify the problem, plan where to focus cat-control activities and identify other approaches that will aid feral cat management, such as improvements in habitat for at-risk species.
Preliminary analysis of the diet (stomach and intestinal) contents of 30 stray and feral cats captured on Bruny Island (in 2008-2009) was undertaken by Dr David Obendorf with input from Nick Mooney, Dr Barbara Triggs and Michael Driessen. The aim was to begin to identify the range of species consumed by stray and feral cats on the Island. Native species were commonly identified, along with introduced species such as rabbits. Groups of animals identified in order of frequency, were: native birds (mostly honeyeaters and other woodland and heathland birds, along with little penguins and a wetland bird); mice and rats (mostly swamp rats, along with swamp antechinus and a house mouse); rabbits; other marsupials (common brushtail possum); skinks and a frog. In addition, food scraps were identified in four cats, likely indicating that food is provided by people or that cats are accessing domestic food waste.
The findings confirm that free-ranging cats on Bruny Island are opportunistic feeders, consuming live vertebrates (mammals, birds and reptiles) and domestic scraps (Obendorf 2015). A broad range of birds and mammals, even if not ground-dwelling or nesting, are vulnerable to cat predation.
McDonald, J.L., et al. 2015. Reconciling actual and perceived rates of predation by domestic cats. Ecology and Evolution, doi: 10.1002/ece3.1553.
MacDonald, E., et al. 2015. What drives cat-owner behaviour? First steps towards limiting domestic-cat impacts on native wildlife. Wildlife Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR14164
McLeod, L.J., et al. (in press). Born to roam? Surveying cat owners in Tasmania, Australia, to identify the drivers and barriers to cat containment. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.prevetmed.2015.11.007