Is it time to keep our cats at home?

Cats, both wild and domestic, kill our native fauna. We have to narrow it down, writes Anna Yeoman.

A few weeks ago, a pile of 28 dead native lizards was found on the outskirts of Alexandra town in Central Otago. They were vomited by a cat who caught and ate all 28 in a matter of hours.

As a science communicator who lives in Alexandra, I took on the task of creating a short video and an article for Stuff about the find and the reaction of the scientists. The topic of domestic cats came up very quickly. Dr. Grant Norbury, an ecologist at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research who has spent 38 years researching predator-prey dynamics, said although it was unclear whether the culprit in this case was a feral cat or a domestic cat, he had a clear message for Cat owner.

“A lot of people think that their house cats are not a problem. They think feral cats do this damage, and their domestic cats don’t. But they do. They have the same instincts, they are hunters, ”said Norbury.

Professor Yolanda van Heezik, an urban ecologist from the University of Otago, said it wasn’t unlikely that this cat was someone’s pet. “It’s only 400 meters from the housing,” she explained. Cat tracking studies she has conducted show that domestic cats can roam up to 28 acres, much to the surprise of their owners.

“We’re not saying you don’t have a cat. But it’s about how you treat your cat to reduce the harm to endangered wildlife, ”said van Heezik. “Ideally, people should lock their cats up around the clock.”

Dr. James Reardon, a herpetologist and scientific advisor to the Department of Conservation, was also consulted in response to the find. “New Zealand is unusual in that we let our cats run around.” He explained that in Australia and much of the Americas, keeping cats indoors is much more the norm than having them hunted.

And van Heezik: “It’s like we’re a decade or two behind these other parts of the world when it comes to our cat regulations. So we have to move in that direction. “

So is it time for New Zealand to change the way we keep our cats and start keeping them indoors? And why, if it’s the norm in North America, Japan, and Australia, aren’t we already?

In 2013, Gareth Morgan brought the cat problem into the spotlight. The stated goal of his campaign was to ensure cats were registered and kept indoors, but he called his campaign “Cats to Go,” a move that is guaranteed to get more media attention than diplomacy. And it definitely attracted attention.

Cats are beloved companions for many people. Every third New Zealand household has at least one cat. Hence, it is difficult to speak of our moggies as problematic predators or to question their right to wander. But maybe the solution isn’t as difficult as it seems. We are already keeping our most precious cats in custody in New Zealand. Pedigree cats are not allowed to roam freely in the event that they are injured, lost, or become pregnant by a tom without a pedigree. They are very well cared for and kept in excellent health. Couldn’t we make this the norm for all cats?

A major barrier to containment of cats on their home lot is that it would be a hassle and probably a cost for cat owners. If an owner didn’t want to keep their cat indoors around the clock, they had to build an outdoor cat enclosure. This is what the term “catio” means – a terrace for cats.

In this scenario, all cats would also be microchipped and registered so that they can be returned home if they are lost. So to justify this effort, there would have to be a serious good reason.

Reardon sees our native lizards as one of the main reasons for this. We have one of the most diverse and fascinating lizard faunas in the world. “We have over 120 native species of lizards. There are more species of lizards for our country than Australia. ”But most of them are in serious conservation problems.

Reardon explains why cat predation is such a problem for New Zealand lizards. “Our lizards evolved in a mammalian land where birds were the main predators. Birds generally hunt by sight, not smell, so our lizards protect themselves by being difficult to see. “

It was people who brought rodents, cats, and other predatory mammals to New Zealand, all of whom hunted for scent. So when these mammals hunt our native lizards, birds, and invertebrates, it is not a natural part of a food chain. And it explains why they are decimating our native population so quickly.

Small mammals like mice and rats that evolved alongside cats reproduce incredibly quickly and can easily keep up with the big cat. But our native lizards can’t, and most of our birds can’t. While mice can give birth to up to ten babies every six weeks, our skinks have two to six young once a year. Our geckos have even fewer, only one or two cubs after a pregnancy that can last up to 14 months.

So if 21 skinks and 7 geckos were found in a vomited heap, this would be a breeding season of at least four years wiped out in a few hours. Slate geckos are extremely long-lived; the adults could have been 40 or 50 years old. “And that’s why we have very few of our rare lizards left,” says Reardon.

But surely most domestic cats don’t kill 28 native lizards for breakfast?

Van Heezik agrees that this will be on the high end of the predation, but explains that many cat owners are unlikely to have a precise idea of ​​what is killing their cat. “Recent studies with miniature cameras, so-called kitty cams, show that cats only bring back on average a quarter or a third of what they actually catch and kill,” says van Heezik. Some cats don’t bring back anything they kill.

There are certainly other records of thirty or more native lizards found in the stomachs of wild cats. And in Ruapehu in 2010, 102 short-tailed bats were killed by a cat within one week. Norbury explains that it is the scale of the problem that is so alarming. “If you multiply a hunting day by 365 and then multiply all the cats in the landscape, you understand why it’s a real problem,” says Norbury.

It can certainly seem strange to consider the tremendous amount of work and expense put into the Predator Free 2050 campaign with cats roaming free in cities and the countryside. The problem is particularly evident in Wellington. The city leads the way in the eradication of rats and ermines, while at the same time kakariki / red-crowned parakeets that spread from the Zealandia sanctuary are being eaten by people’s domestic cats.

While ideas like brightly colored collars, bells, feeding your cat, or storing your cat at night can help reduce predation a bit, Norbury and van Heezik both explain that these things have limited effects, and at best only partially reduce them the problem. Locking cats in around the clock is the only thing that really works.

Van Heezik also brings up the issue of toxoplasmosis, a feline-borne disease. “I’m surprised no more people have freaked out about it!” She says. “Once infected with the Toxoplasma parasite, it essentially stays in your brain forever and it’s associated with an increase in impulsive, aggressive behavior,” she explains. If our cats were contained it would reduce the spread of toxoplasmosis.

So there are some strong conservation and human health reasons for keeping our cats at home. But is that fair for our cats?

It turns out that the major animal welfare organizations are also calling for cats to be registered and contained. In the January 2021 issue of New Zealand Geographic, Hayden Donnell notes that “the most surprising thing about the New Zealand cat management debate is not the division that inspires it, but the consensus”. He quotes the SPCA’s Chief Science Officer, Arnja Dale, as saying, “It’s a very emotional topic, but it’s not a controversial topic.”

A National Cat Management Strategy Group (NCMSG) was founded in 2014 and consists of all major animal welfare groups – the New Zealand Veterinary Association, the Royal New Zealand Society for the Protection of Animals and the Local Government New Zealand with the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation as a technical consultant.

The strategy group calls for new laws on responsible cat ownership to be enshrined in a National Cat Management Act. Your long-term goal is to ensure that there are no feral or stray cats in New Zealand. That all companion cats are microchipped and desexed. And that all companion cats are kept on the owner’s property, either indoors or in an outdoor enclosure.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association’s website already has guidelines on how to keep your cat healthy and happy when they are indoors all the time, stating, “If a cat is locked indoors, an appropriate enrichment should be provided to help out.” To improve the environment, such as B. climbing frames, scratching posts and toys. “

It sounds a long way from the current situation. But van Heezik remembers how far we have come with dogs. When she was a child, her favorite ducks, rabbits, and guinea pigs were all killed by wandering dogs that came onto her property. “We just accepted it as bad luck, whereas nowadays it is of course totally unacceptable. Our attitude towards what dogs should be able to do has changed, and hopefully we can do it with cats too, ”she says.

The Dog Control Act was passed in 1996, but so far we don’t have anything similar for cats. Because of this, the NCMSG calls for a National Cat Management Act. With such a strong consensus among conservation, health and animal welfare groups, something is still missing. Action must be taken on this issue in Parliament. And because the subject is so emotionally charged, it is viewed as too politically risky to be touched by a leader. Despite requests to introduce stricter cat controls, Jacinda Ardern has remained silent on this issue.

Finding 28 dead native lizards is just a reminder that delaying the necessary changes is costing the country’s endangered wildlife. Containment works overseas, and it works for our pedigrees. Is it really too hard to imagine that it could work on all of our cats?

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