Like most New Zealanders, we love cats: we just want to minimise their impact on native biodiversity.
Around 44% of New Zealand households have at least one cat – one of the highest rates of cat ownership in the world. Cats are opportunistic, generalist and efficient feeders. Almost every cat owner has seen moggy proudly returning with a lizard hanging from its mouth, and one US study found that cats only brought home one in five of their kills.
A year-long investigation of 208 cats in urban Dunedin showed that they kill more birds, skinks, geckos, and wētā than rats and mice. Forest & Bird estimate that New Zealand’s domestic cats kill around 19 million animals a year, including over a million native birds. This behaviour has directly led to the extinction of at least five endemic species including, famously, the Stephens Island Wren.
Domestic, stray and feral
From a conservation point of view, cats are classified into three groups:
- Domestic Your ordinary moggy, well-fed, looked after and hopefully de-sexed.
- Stray Homeless but often fed by well-meaning individuals. They sometimes form colonies around shelter and a good food source. Any offspring are likely to become feral.
- Feral Essentially wild and not relying on humans for food or shelter.
Being a responsible cat owner
In some parts of the world, leaving your cat to roam freely is frowned upon, if not illegal. Microchipping is compulsory in the Australian state of Victoria, where cats can be impounded if found wandering off their property. Having an outdoor cat is considered irresponsible in much of Canada.
Here are six simple tips to help your cat and wildlife:
- Bring your cat in at bedtime This keeps your cat safe from passing cars: a Wellington study found that cats crossed an average of 4 roads per day. Keeping cats in after dark also saves native birds which are particularly vulnerable at dawn and dusk. Try a catnip jungle gym to keep them entertained. For more suggestions visit the SPCA’s Enrichment tips for cats page.
- Feed cats well Go for a complete and balanced diet, and ensure your cat is appropriately fed while you are away on holiday (either at home or in a cattery).
- Add a bell to your cat’s collar Give native wildlife a fighting chance. Ensure your cat is wearing a collar and bell to stop silent hunting. There is some evidence that Birdsbesafe collars are more effective than bells because birds are visual creatures.
- Entertain kitty with moving toys Keep your cat entertained and amused with moving toys, to stop them using real wildlife as toys.
- Microchip your cat Websites like lostpet.co.nz and neighbourly.co.nz are full of listings from anxious owners desperate to find their missing cats. The chances of being reunited with your furry family member are much higher if people know how to find you. Microchipping puts a tiny chip (smaller than a grain of rice) with a unique ID number under the skin of your cat. It is painless and fairly cheap ($50–80). If the cat is found, a vet or the SPCA can read the chip and you’ll be reunited. After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, 85% of microchipped animals were reunited with their owners, compared with just 15% for those without microchips.
- De-sex your cat Both males and females should be de-sexed. A female can have up to 300 kittens in her lifetime. Kittens without homes become feral cats, which kill native wildlife.
Dealing with strays
Many cat welfare advocates promote trap-neuter-return (TNR), a method of reducing cat suffering while gradually reducing the size of the feral population. Feral cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated against disease, and (if no adoptive home can be found) returned to their communities. The fixed cats no longer reproduce, and the population of feral cats declines over time. Cat suffering is also reduced because many kittens that would have died before reaching adulthood are never born in the first place. Local practitioners of TNR include the Community Cat Coalition.