Report recommends actions to save Australian wildlife from cats

February 24, 2021
Phil Tucak, BSc, BVMS

Dr Phil Tucak is an Australian veterinarian, communications manager and veterinary journalist. As the Wildlife Outreach Vet, he works to share the conversation about conservation. Phil is DVM360’s freelance Australian correspondent.

dvm360, dvm360 April 2021, Volume 54,

With cats wreaking havoc on the country’s wildlife, the Australian government has proposed recommendations intended to ensure the continued survival of native species and ecological communities.

There are about 6 million domestic and feral cats in Australia, and collectively they kill an incredible 1.7 billion native animals each year. Cats have played a major role in most of Australia’s mammal extinctions—34 species have become extinct since Europeans arrived in Australia with their cats more than 200 years ago—and they continue to pose an extinction threat to at least another 120 species.

These startling figures are a sobering reminder that Australia has the worst mammal extinction record of any country in the world. To mitigate the problem, the Australian Government recently released a parliamentary report titled, “Tackling the Feral Cat Pandemic: A Plan to Save Australian Wildlife,” which contains a raft of recommendations to counter the effect of cats on Australia’s unique wildlife.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy launched its inquiry into the problem of feral and domestic cats in Australia in 2020. The committee took submissions from over 200 individuals and organizations and published a list of 6 key recommendations.

Key government guidance

The report’s recommendations include a call to prioritize the problem of feral cats in Australia as a matter of national environmental significance that must be addressed effectively to ensure the continued survival of Australia’s native wildlife and ecological communities.

The report also recommends further research to improve our understanding of the impact of feral, stray, and domestic cats in Australia, along with development of a clear strategy to inform its resourcing of and response to the problem of feral cats, including through a “reset” of its current policy and planning.

A new national conservation mission was recommended to expand Australia’s network of predator-free safe-haven enclosures and feral cat–free islands. The final 2 recommendations in the report related to development of a clear strategy for the management of stray and domestic cats, as well as development of an effective governance framework to best enable the new strategies and programs outlined in the report’s other recommendations.

Are the recommendations enough?

“The recommendations are welcome, although in some areas [they do] not go far enough, and there has not been any formal commitment to resourcing the recommendations,” says Sarah Legge, PhD, a professor in the College of Science at Australian National University and deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of Australia’s National Environmental Science Program. “The report emphasizes the need to improve alignment of legislation and management across national, state, and local governments, to support coordinated and consistent approaches to managing both feral cats and pet cats.”

Among the actions proposed, the report calls for night-time curfews for Australia’s 3.8 million pet cats. Although this would alleviate some hunting of Australia’s mammals, which are largely nocturnal, it would not prevent hunting of birds and reptiles, of which over 160 million are killed by pet cats each year. There are 2.1 million feral cats in Australia in an average year, with the number fluctuating in response to rainfall and prey. Each feral cat in the bush kills an average of 790 animals per year.

“The recommendation calling for the expansion of Australia’s network of cat- and fox-free islands and fenced reserves will be important to prevent extinctions. Many Australian mammals cannot survive with even very low numbers of cats in the landscape and need the protection of one of these cat-free havens,” says Legge.

A multitude of research studies from different parts of Australia have demonstrated that areas with better habitats, particularly thicker ground and shrub vegetation, reduce cat numbers and cat hunting, resulting in an increase in native wildlife numbers.

“Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires that will have significant consequences for Australian wildlife. Cats gravitate to burnt landscapes due to the ease of hunting, so more fire will bring more challenges. It would have been good to see some commitment to improving habitat in conservation areas through better fire management and feral herbivore control, such as culling rabbits and feral cattle. In many areas this would be a more efficient and effective way to reduce the impact of cats on wildlife than just directly trying to cull cats,” Legge says.

Australia is not alone

As an ecologist who has been closely involved in research into the effects of cats on Australian wildlife for more than 20 years, Legge is keen to impart a recommendation of her own to veterinarians and the more than 25% of Australian households that include a pet cat.

“Cats have been particularly devastating in Australia, but they impose a heavy predation toll on wildlife in many other countries, and are likely causing population declines in some places. As the human and pet cat population grows, these pressures increase,” she says.

“Cats make fantastic pets, and we can keep enjoying their company whilst limiting their impacts on the natural world. Veterinarians can assist by encouraging cat owners to de-sex their cats and to keep them securely contained 24/7. This also has health benefits for cats as they are less likely to be involved in car accidents or cat fights, or to pick up diseases,” Legge concludes.

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