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Keeping cats and local wildlife safe in your community

Cats make wonderful companions, and it’s no wonder that so many Australians find joy in their company, with 33% of households in Australia including a feline family member. However, unfortunately not all domestic cats enjoy safe and comfortable homes.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Cats make wonderful companions, and it’s no wonder that so many Australians find joy in their company, with 33% of households in Australia including a feline family member.

However, unfortunately not all domestic cats enjoy safe and comfortable homes.

Some are semi-owned or unowned, who are free-roaming and rely on humans to varying degrees for their survival. Then there are non-domestic feral cats, who are completely unsocialised and live independently in the wild.

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about how best to manage Australia’s cat population and the impact cats can have on vulnerable wildlife species. Cats do have an innate instinct to hunt, although each individual cat differs and their impact is influenced by many factors such as where they live, their age, reproductive status, and how they’re managed. Cats who are allowed to roam will have more opportunities to hunt native and non-native wildlife.

So, what do all these labels mean – and why does it matter? Here we break down the jargon and explore what cat caregivers and the community can do to keep cats safe and happy, while also protecting local wildlife.

Defining felines.

Labels can often be confusing, especially when they can change and overlap at various points in a cat’s lifetime depending on their situation. So understanding these definitions is the first step in understanding these cats’ behaviour, needs, relationship with humans, and how best to manage them.

Domestic cats generally fall into three categories:

Owned: domestic cats who live with and are cared for by a person (or people). They are directly dependant on people for their care, shelter, and overall wellbeing. They are usually sociable, although this may vary between individual cats. They may be completely contained to their home property or allowed to roam some or all of the time.

Semi-owned: domestic cats who are fed and/or provided with other care by people who don’t consider or claim that they ‘own’ the cat. These cats are of varying sociability and may be associated with one or more households. The reasons for caregivers not perceiving that they own semi-owned cats vary but can include being socially isolated or struggling financially and feeling unable to afford to take on all of the cat’s needs, having other animals at home, and other lifestyle factors. In recent studies, up to 9% of Australians said they feed semi-owned cats in their neighbourhood.

Unowned: domestic cats who are indirectly reliant on humans, with some having casual and temporary interactions with humans. They can be found in and around urban and semi-rural communities and have no identifiable caregiver, though they may have been previously owned and become lost or abandoned. They are of varying sociability, including some who are unsocialised to humans, and they may live in colonies. A percentage of unowned cats may have originated as unwanted kittens of owned or semi-owned cats.

Whether owned, semi-owned, or unowned, most domestic cats are provided with some form of support (direct or indirect) by someone, often multiple people. These caregivers have meaningful relationships with the cats they care for and are strongly opposed to lethal or inhumane approaches to cat management. That being said, domestic cats also predate our wildlife, who also deserve protection. So, what can be done to ensure the wellbeing of both?

The reality is that cat management is a complex problem with no single solution. It requires a comprehensive approach that engages stakeholders from all areas of the community and encourages positive approaches to cat care where possible and tailoring management to the cat populations and people involved.

Resources are limited, and so they need to be used in ways that are most likely to achieve the desired outcomes. This requires stakeholder and community engagement and support, especially where the cats being managed are living closely alongside humans. In other words, as these cats often rely on people, people are key to protecting their welfare and helping to reduce their impacts.

Keeping your cat safe and happy at home.

Keeping owned cats contained at home keeps them and wildlife safe and is one part of effective cat management. Contained means completely preventing the cats from roaming from their home property at any time and can be achieved by using an escape-proof contained outdoor area on the caregiver’s property (e.g., via cat proof fencing or using netting or rigid wire to form a fully enclosed area) or by keeping the cat contained indoors.

Cat containment must be implemented in a way that safeguards the cat’s welfare. Contained cats must be provided with an environment that is optimised to meet the cat’s physical and mental needs, allows and encourages the expression of normal feline behaviours, minimises stress, and promotes good health and welfare (see our Safe and Happy Cats guide for more information!).

Cats should have choice and control in their lives, this includes choice about how or if to interact with the environment, people, animals, and objects in it.

Keeping owned cat contained at home protects them from encounters with other animals, accidents or injury and reduces the risk of them becoming lost.  And in addition to risks to their health and safety, cats allowed to roam will have more opportunity to hunt wildlife.

While containment is one part of the solution to managing domestic cats, it is only relevant to owned cats as semi-owned and unowned cats have no one to contain them.

Responsible guardianship.

Alongside cat containment, responsible guardianship includes prepubertal desexing of cats (prior to reaching sexual maturity at 4 months of age), ensuring cats are vaccinated and keeping their identification up to date on their microchip and collar so they can easily be reunited with their caregivers if lost.

Desexing cats is a very important part of responsible guardianship and key to effective cat management. Research has shown that increased desexing of owned cats influences not only the owned cat population but also semi-owned and unowned cat populations, especially when it is done before puberty.

A proportion of semi-owned and unowned cats once had guardians but remained undesexed; others were born to parents with human guardians who were un-desexed and allowed to roam. Many semi-owned and unowned cats are not desexed and may have multiple litters over a lifetime.

So, by ensuring their cats are desexed, vaccinated, identified, and appropriately contained, guardians can do their part to reduce semi-owned and unowned cat populations, keep their feline companions safe and healthy, and protect our wildlife.

Other ways to help.

Many semi-owned and unowned (“stray”) cats are able to live as companion cats in a home, if given the chance. If you are currently providing care for a semi-owned cat or know of an unowned cat in your neighbourhood, and your circumstances allow, check to see they don’t already have an owner, and, if they don’t, consider adopting them into your home and heart, or help them to find a new home with someone looking for a furry companion. A number of local councils and rescue organisations including the RSPCA also run discounted or free desexing and vaccination programs in some areas to assist cat caregivers.

Knowing how to be a responsible caregiver and the resources available for assistance can make a meaningful impact to cat management and protection of local wildlife in the community, with positive benefits for both cats and the wild animals we share our environment with.

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