If your cat is roaming free, it could be killing the local wildlife. Here's what you can do to prevent that
No cat owner sets out to disturb local wildlife.
But when domestic cats – and in Australia, there are around 3.7 million of them – roam free, unfortunately they can wreak havoc upon the natural environment.
It's an area of research that Sarah Legge, wildlife expert and deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, has focused on.
While domestic cats hunt less frequently than feral cats because they're fed by humans, they still have a huge impact on native wildlife around towns and cities, Professor Legge says.
High-density living means domestic cats' "predation toll" is higher than that of feral cats, she tells ABC RN's Life Matters.
"It's actually 30 times higher … Our pet cats are killing things per square kilometer 30 times more than feral cats in the bush."
That might surprise some cat owners but judging what your cat's been up to while they're out of your sight is difficult.
"About 80 per cent of cats that roam, hunt. And when they hunt, they only bring back on average about 15 per cent of what they kill," Professor Legge says.
"So for every bird, for example, that a cat deposits on your doormat, you need to imagine that, on average, there's five or six more birds lying somewhere under the bushes in your garden or in your neighbour's garden."
So what can be done about it?
Curfews for cats?
In Victoria's Wodonga City Council, where Mark Verbaken is manager of environment and community protection, there's been a cat curfew in place for nearly 20 years.
There, cats aren't allowed to roam between 7pm and 7am (though being outside contained to a property is permitted) and the move to a 24-hour curfew is on the cards.
Mr Verbaken says the current curfew was implemented after "numerous complaints about cats spraying on the neighbours' properties, jumping on parked cars [and] annoying the neighbouring dogs in the middle of the night".
It's worked well and there's been minimal push-back against the rules.
"We actually surveyed our community two years ago, and [over] 79 per cent of people said they were quite happy with the 12-hour curfew," Mr Verbaken says.
Getting the community on board
Before instituting the curfew, the council put in plenty of work to bring the community on board, and to educate them about responsible pet ownership and the issues associated with roaming domestic cats.
That included letting people know about the new legal requirements, but also about how to pick the right pet, make time to look after it, prevent it from escaping and reduce any impact on the environment.
Professor Legge thinks the Wodonga council's level of community consultation has been key to its success.
"It's a conversation that [Wodonga] had with their community for many years about how can we manage cats better, and people have come along with them because of that."
"You need to bring in changes like this sensitively," she says.
Wodonga council adopted other measures to help its cat problem too.
There's a trapping program allowing neighbours to capture a cat "after repeated visitations". It is then impounded and returned home, after further owner education.
There's also a gently worded notice, which is available for residents to anonymously alert their neighbours to any problems with their cat's behaviour. This has helped "enable compliance", Mr Verbaken says.
12-hour vs 24-hour curfew
While Professor Legge praises Wodonga council's approach, she says a 24-hour curfew is better.
"If the main objective is reducing the nuisance value, then the nighttime curfews go a long way towards doing that," she says.
"But if one of your objectives is to reduce impact on wildlife, then you really need to go to 24-hour containment.
"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 killed during the day, which is birds and reptiles," she argues.
Cats also benefit from the 24-hour curfew. Professor Legge says those allowed to freely roam outside are more likely to be exposed to stress and injury, to pick up diseases and consequently have significantly shorter lifespans.
Mr Verbaken believes that owners who have outdoor pet enclosures, allowing a cat some safe outside time, are "the way of the future".
Professor Legge says cats don't have an innate need to be outside. She recommends that cats in need of interaction are kept indoors in pairs.
Sydney cat owner Barbara says, when she moved into a terraced house with her young cat, she had someone enclose the terrace to give her cat an opportunity to get fresh air, while staying safe and not being able to hurt anything else.
"She loves it and [has] plenty of fun," she says.
But Barbara also takes her cat for walks outside. She trained her cat with a harness, inside at first, and she says now she loves it. "She leads me now. She knows we're heading to the park. She thinks it's fabulous.
"So what I'm saying [is] I completely agree with the curfew; I think it's very important that the wildlife is protected. But there are alternatives for the cat."
Linda from Melbourne has a cat who also loves fresh air. She's an indoor cats mostly but, on a warm day, Linda lets her into the small backyard to wander around and sleep under a tree.
But she has "never learned how to sneak over the fence", Linda says. "I made sure that she doesn't. And if she does [learn], I'm out there over the fence myself to get her back."
For other cat owners who want their pet to get some sun and fresh air, it might be wise to start looking for alternatives to free roaming like those that Linda and Barbara have utilised.
Because even if your council doesn't impose any restrictions now, it may soon.
Professor Legge recently surveyed about half of Australia's 500 LGAs and found 14 had partial curfews, 16 had 24-hour curfews and 24 had areas of cat prohibition, meaning cats were not allowed in specific areas.
"So it's more common that people think and it's increasing in frequency," she says.
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