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As outdoor kitties continue to exact a horrific toll on our wildlife, veterinarians are being urged to help educate cat owners about responsible cat ownership. By Dr Phil Tucak and Tida Nou
As trusted advocates for the health and welfare of animals, veterinarians have an important role in promoting responsible cat ownership to minimise the impact of cats on Australia’s wildlife, while highlighting the concurrent benefits to cat welfare.
To assist veterinarians in educating pet owners about responsible cat ownership, the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, in collaboration with the Australian Veterinary Association’s Conservation Biology special interest group, has developed a range of resources about cat impacts in Australia which outline responsible cat ownership.
Cats are valued companion animals to many people in Australia, with cat ownership now estimated at 4.9 million cats, a big jump from 3.8 million cats in 2019, which is thought to be thanks in part to the surge in pet ownership due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a shared love of animals, conservation scientists are seeking the support of veterinarians to help increase the uptake of responsible pet ownership practices in Australia, to better protect our urban native wildlife, species such as our bandicoots, possums, blue-tongue lizards, fairy-wrens and rosellas.
“Our societal norms on free roaming cats are strong. Free roaming cats have been described as one of the ‘blind spots’ of society; the ‘not my cat’ and ‘it’s just a cat’ attitudes are strong and deep-rooted worldwide,” says Professor Sarah Legge from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. “However, Australia pays a heavier price for the presence of cats than other countries—because as highly efficient predators, cats have already contributed to most of our native mammal extinctions, and our extinction list continues to grow.”
Professor Legge led a recent study focused on the impacts of pet cats on native wildlife, which found that 71 per cent of pet cats in Australia are allowed to roam—with each roaming pet cat killing an estimated 115 native animals per year.
“When considering the impacts of cats per square kilometre, the impact of pet cats is substantially higher than for feral cats in the bush. Although individual pet cats don’t hunt as frequently as feral cats, our pets are living at much higher densities. This means our pet cats are killing many more native animals per square kilometre in towns, than feral cats kill in the bush.
“On average, pet cats only bring back about 15 per cent of what they kill. So, for every bird that a cat deposits on your doormat, you need to imagine that there’s five or six more birds lying somewhere under the bushes in your garden or in your neighbour’s garden,” explains Professor Legge.
Every day, veterinarians across Australia provide veterinary health care services to thousands of pet cats, and Professor Legge believes that as the most trusted source of information for pet owners, veterinarians can help reduce the impact that pet cats have on urban native wildlife, by encouraging pet owners to confine their cat to their property at all times.
“This action has three important benefits,” she says. “Firstly, it helps protect cats from road accident trauma, poisoning, fighting and injury; secondly, it will reduce the level of predation to our unique native urban wildlife and thirdly, it will help reduce the level of transmission of cat-dependent diseases that can affect people, wildlife and livestock, particularly toxoplasmosis.”
The requirement to contain cats is becoming more common in Australia, particularly in the ACT, Victoria and South Australia. These requirements are set at the local government level, and the levels of compliance and enforcement are highly variable.
“Many cat owners think keeping cats inside at night is sufficient for reducing their predation on native wildlife, but this is incorrect,” says Professor Legge.
“If you contain the cats at night, but let them out during the day, all you’re actually doing is shifting the predation burden from animals that cats kill at night, which is mostly mammals, to animals that cats kill during the day, which is birds and reptiles.”
For veterinarians like Dr Gary Beilby of Animal Happiness Vet hospital in Perth, educating pet owners about responsible cat ownership is already a central focus of his work. “Small animal vets are uniquely positioned to be a powerful voice of reason to cat owners. A combination of the generally high level of trust vets enjoy and our ability to communicate complex scientific concepts at a level the audience can understand, all mean there simply is no better person to tell this story,” he says.
“Any vet seeing a cat presenting with a cat bite abscess, vehicular trauma, snake bite, dog attack and many other outdoor afflictions, has a real opportunity to get one more cat out of harm’s way and lower the pressure on our urban wildlife. I would encourage all vets talking to cat owners to simply be forthright about the health and welfare benefits of cat runs and indoor cat housing.”
Dr Beilby has pet cats of his own, and he has enjoyed setting up a range of indoor enrichment for them which he shares stories about with his clients.
“Every time a companion animal vet sees a feline patient there is an opportunity to promote responsible cat ownership practices. There are many cat owners out there who can be quite intense and emotional about their husbandry choices, but if you are simply advocating for their cat’s welfare you are beyond reproach, and the message will be heard,” he says.
Educational resources about responsible cat ownership can be found at tinyurl.com/a9978nak.