Dr Phil Tucak, Wildlife Outreach Vet
Cats make great pets, and in veterinary practice we care for cats every day. According to the recent Animal Medicines Australia report Pets and the Pandemic, which incorporated statistics about pet ownership in 2021, there are 4.9 million pet cats in Australia.1
Cat impacts on wildlife
We know that cats are naturally predatory hunters, and there has been a lot of research into the impact of cats in Australia led by the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. One of the key findings from this research has been that on average each roaming pet cat kills 186 reptiles, birds and mammals every year, most of these being native species.2
Adding to this, across Australia feral cats collectively kill more than 3 billion animals per year. These are huge numbers, and demonstrate the impact of cats on Australia’s precious wildlife.
Pet cats can travel vast distances away from their homes and on average, cats bring home only 15% of their prey.2 In one study, researchers from the Central Tablelands Local Land Services in New South Wales used GPS trackers to monitor cat movements to demonstrate the extent to which pet cats can wander away from their homes.3
As a result of the extensive research into the impacts of cats in Australia undertaken by the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, researchers have been able to produce various resources including a factsheet that provides further detail and quick facts about Australia’s cat population that will help veterinarians educate pet owners about responsible cat ownership.4
Being a responsible cat owner
Keeping cats securely contained twenty-four hours a day is the only way to prevent cats from killing wildlife. Keeping cats indoors also protects them from fighting and injury, illness spread by bites such as the diseases FeLV and FIV, involvement in motor vehicle accidents, and it also avoids nuisance behaviour and prevents unwanted breeding.
To minimise the impacts of cats on wildlife, veterinarians can encourage cat owners to keep pet cats indoors, or in enclosed outdoor enclosures, all of the time, not just at night. Veterinarians can also encourage that pet cats be sterilised, and vets can also discourage community feeding of stray cats.
The Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife website, a joint initiative between Zoos Victoria and RSPCA Victoria outlines the ways to keep cats happy and healthy indoors, to help protect wildlife. There are cat hacks to aid behavioural enrichment of indoor cats, along with expert advice on creating a safe and healthy indoor lifestyle for pet cats.
The RSPCA has also produced the Safe and Happy Cats website, reinforcing the message that the old idea that all cats need to roam outdoors has changed. There is valuable information about cat containment, and what pet owners can provide to ensure their pet cat remains happy and healthy indoors.
Keeping a cat indoors
Educating pet owners about keeping their cats indoors, all of the time, involves explaining how to keep an indoor pet cat healthy and happy. It’s important to provide resting and hiding places, quality nutrition, fresh water, toileting areas and places to scratch.
When keeping a cat indoors, it’s worthwhile to provide two litter trays, or one more tray than the number of pet cats in the household. A similar approach to the provision of food and water is required, such as by providing two feeding stations and two water bowls. It’s also important to provide different scratching surfaces, and different resting or hiding places.5
Enclosed outdoor areas and enclosures are a fantastic way of providing a secure outdoor area to expand the pet cat’s environment. Indoor cats require behavioural enrichment, which can include the use of food games, puzzle feeders, toys and encouraging playing. There are resources available which provide practical tips for pet owners about providing for their cat’s environmental needs.6
Veterinarians are well placed to provide cat nutrition advice, as well as cat behavioural advice, and can also recommend cat pheromone products which can benefit indoor cats. With feeding indoor cats, as an example, Hill’s Pet Nutrition have useful resources and products available for indoor cats.7
Educating pet owners
There are multiple ways in which veterinarians and veterinary nurses can help educate pet owners about responsible cat ownership. This can include displaying posters like this or this in the veterinary clinic, and having hand-outs available in the waiting room.
During consultations with pet owners, vets can incorporate into their discussion education about the impacts of cats on wildlife, and explain how to keep pet cats indoors. There are also opportunities to spread awareness about responsible cat ownership through the veterinary practice’s social media, website, blog articles and client newsletters.
The Threatened Species Recovery Hub in collaboration with BirdLife Australia and the Australian Veterinary Conservation Biology special interest group of the AVA, has developed a range of resources about cat impacts in Australia incorporating responsible cat ownership, to assist veterinarians in educating pet owners about responsible cat ownership.
These educational resources can be found on the Threatened Species Recovery Hub website, and include posters to print out and display in veterinary clinics, fact-sheets and videos.
In addition, there are many other useful resources available to help educate pet owners about how to keep cats and wildlife safe:
- Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife https://www.safecat.org.au/
- Cats Safe & Happy at Home www.southwestgroup.com.au/happyathome
- Safe and Happy Cats www.safeandhappycats.com.au
- Indoor Pet Initiative https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats