By Claire Greenwell
The endearing and alluring charm of the domestic cat makes them the most revered and widespread pet in the world. Whether it’s snuggling up on the lounge, hearing them purr contently whilst enjoying a scratch or entertaining us through play, the pleasure and companionship that cats offer as pets is undeniable.
So why do the perceptions of cats differ so widely within the community?
Maybe it stems from seeing the neighbour’s cat in the act of raiding a bird’s nest or stalking the recently fledged magpie as it waits patiently, on the ground, for its parents to return with a tasty meal. Or the irritating cat that utilises your vegetable patch or garden as a toilet – leaving behind a source of parasites and disease (e.g. toxoplasmosis, which can cause serious health conditions in pregnant women and children). Perhaps it’s the persistent barking from the dog next door, invoked by the cat wandering along the fence line.
Whatever the gripe, it’s the free-roaming cats that fuel the cat-loathing fire.
Cats are thought to have been domesticated from the wildcats of Africa over 10,000 years ago. Yet despite their close association with humans for thousands of years, their genes have changed very little from their wildcat ancestors. Like African wildcats, domestic cats are highly effective hunters that will prey on a range of animals, including insects, mammals, reptiles and birds. You only need to watch a cat play to understand their instinctive and exceptional hunting abilities. And despite being well-fed, many pet cats will hunt when given the opportunity – it’s all about the thrill of the chase.
In 2018, I witnessed the destruction of a colony of 220 threatened seabirds in Mandurah, Western Australia, by a single, desexed free-roaming cat. We found 6 adult Fairy Terns with their breasts opened and heads removed, over 40 chicks and, ultimately, the abandonment of the entire colony. In addition to direct predation, the presence of the cat appeared to incite fear and fundamentally change the bird’s behaviour, which resulted in a reduction in parental care.
It was important to share this story and highlight how a single cat can impact a wildlife population. However, it is important note that this is not an isolated incident. The killing of native wildlife by free-roaming cats is happening every single day. The difference in this case is that I was able to systematically document the birds’ decline.
Our awareness of free-roaming pet cats and their impact on native wildlife has increased significantly in recent years. Consequently, there has been a shift in the attitudes and behaviours among cat-owners, with many choosing to adopt an indoor lifestyle for their feline friends. Although, unfortunately, there are still many cat owners that continue to permit their cats to roam.
Switching to an indoor lifestyle has numerous welfare benefits for pet cats. A cat safe at home is at less risk of injury or death from road accidents, fighting and the spread of disease from other neighbourhood cats. The Australian Veterinary Association suggests that a cat confined to their owner’s property can live up to four times longer than a free-roaming cat. This means fewer visits to the vet and less money spent on medical expenses.
There are now numerous options available for people wanting outdoor enclosure options for their cats including rollers that attach to existing fencing, cat runs and cat patios. A Facebook page Cat enclosure ideas – Western Australia has some great DIY options on cat containment projects and ideas, and supports and encourages cat owners to find ways to keep their cats safe.
With a little training and adequate opportunities to play, your cat can adapt well to an indoor lifestyle. Safe cat, safe wildlife has an excellent website with advice, tips and tools to help owners transition their cats to a safer and happier home environment.
Cats are wonderful pets, but owning one comes with responsibility. Providing your cat with a safe environment that protects them from harm and reduces their impact on wildlife is essential. We all need to work together and do our bit to protect the wildlife that remains within our fragile environment.
Claire Greenwell is a marine ecologist and a PhD Candidate at Murdoch University and the Convenor of the WA Fairy Tern Conservation Network (Conservation Council of WA).
- Read, J.L. 2019. Among the pigeons: why our cats belong indoors. Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia.
- Department of Health, Victoria. 2014. Toxoplasmosis.
- Department of Health, Western Australia. 2019. Pregnancy care guidelines: 43 toxoplasmosis.
- Ottoni, C., Van Neer, W., De Cupere, B., Daligault, J., et al. 2017. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1(7), 0139.
- Smith, C. 2017. Cats domesticated themselves, ancient DNA shows. National Geographic.
- BBC Earth. 2014. 7 of Africa’s forgotten wild cats.
- Adelman, B. 2019. Cat play the right way: 7 Mistakes to Avoid. Fear free happy homes.
- Greenwell, C.N, Calver, M.C., Loneragan, N.R. 2019. Cat gets its tern: a case study of predation on a threatened coastal seabird. Animals, 9(7), 445.
- Safe cat, safe wildlife, 2018. Zoos Victoria. Available at: http://www.safecat.org.au/
- Cat enclosure ideas – Western Australia [Facebook]. 2019. https://www.facebook.com/groups/279644759164166/about/