Canberra’s feral cats taking catastrophic toll on native animal population, research says

Lachlan Roberts 15 July 2019 53
Bengal cat

Cats might be great companions but they are prolific killers, according to new research. Photo: Glynis Quinlan.

Researchers are encouraging the ACT Government to implement its cat plan after their study found that feral and domestic cats kill more than a million animals in the ACT every year.

The research, published in the new book, Cats in Australia: Companion and Killer, said cats, both pets and feral, kill many native animals and the toll could be catastrophic.

One of the book’s authors, ANU Professor Sarah Legge, said feral cats are incredibly dangerous to wildlife, with a single feral cat killing an average of 155 reptiles, 65 birds and 26 native mammals in the ACT every year.

“Cats are great pets but they are also incredible invasive predators so wherever they have gone around the world they have wreaked havoc and Australia is no exception,” she told Region Media.

“We think the population of feral cats in the ACT is at a minimum 3,000 and is probably a lot higher than that. That number is a combination of feral cats living out in the bush and also feral cats or strays that live around the city.

“Every year, they are killing huge amounts of wildlife. They are killing 200,000 birds, 500,000 reptiles and 250,000 mammals every year.

“That is just feral cats. Pet cats kill wildlife at a lower rate but they still kill a lot of wildlife. On average each pet cat kills about 75 animals per year, but many of these kills are never witnessed by their owners.”

Professor Legge said Canberrans have conflicting opinions about cats, but there was no denying they were a cataclysmic problem for wildlife. She believes many of Australia’s native species will become at risk of extinction unless Australia’s cat problem is solved.

“Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in modern times,” she said. “There are about 30-40 species extinct since European settlement which is by far the world’s record holder.

“Around two-thirds of those cases, cats were the primary contributors to that extinction. They have already reeked a lot of damage and they are still causing population decline today. These mammal populations can be driven to extinction very quickly due to cats.”

Professor Legge, who studied key findings from hundreds of cat management studies, said the ACT needs to continue leading the way in responsible cat management.

“The population of feral cats probably won’t grow but they are already having a severe impact on Canberra wildlife,” she said. “Given that Canberra is the bush capital, Canberra needs to lead the way with responsible cat management.

“I think the ACT is a leader in responsible cat management, with their draft ACT Cat Plan. Cat containment suburbs is also a wonderful initiative and it’s a way for people to keep having cats as pets while minimising their impact on the environment.

“I think the ACT Government are thinking really broadly about cats and what to do about it but what happens over the next few years in terms of how they implement their plan will be very important.”

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53 Responses to Canberra’s feral cats taking catastrophic toll on native animal population, research says
Sarah Blackledge Sarah Blackledge 10:30 pm 19 Jul 19

Foxes and rabbits way out of control here too, doing massive amounts of damage to wildlife and habitats for native animals.

Megan van der Velde Megan van der Velde 9:01 pm 18 Jul 19

Josie, I can assure you dogs also kill wildlife. Lots of it. Don’ t mistake this. I lived the everyday proof. Just different wildlife and I will agree, less of it but still significant.

Megan van der Velde Megan van der Velde 8:57 pm 18 Jul 19

This is so frustrating. I worked as a wildlife carer for many years. Cats kill. So do dogs. The solution is so easy. I also own two companion cats. They are indoor animals and have never killed any wildlife in 7 years of their lives. Thank you The cat did it. I work in invasive species and there are a lot of questions that need addressing regarding feral cats (which mine clearly are not). The situation is always more complex and until we get a surveillance baseline and understand the details it is difficult to solve the problem. Should I even mention the brumbies….?

The cat did it The cat did it 6:37 pm 18 Jul 19

I hope their book is more rigorous than suggested by this article. Once again, we get the same concoction of selective statistics and pea-and-thimble logic to attribute feral cat levels of predation to domestic cats.
Feral cats are a serious threat to wildlife in arid areas, no question. But they are already well established in those regions, and that’s where the issue needs to be addressed. Measures taken against Tiddles in Ainslie won’t impact on feral cat management west of Alice Springs.
When the authors claim breathlessly that pet cats kill 75 animals per year, they should be honest enough to tell us what those animals were. How many were rodents, or reptiles, ie mostly brown skinks?
The draft ACT Cat Management Plan cites research that almost three quarters of household cat predation involves introduced species, ie rats and mice. Some interesting public health implications there. At least the draft Plan separates out the issues of feral and urban cat management.
While the predation figures referred to in the article may seem large, they are meaningless unless presented alongside other data, to give them context. What proportion of Canberra’s total native bird population do they represent? What are the other significant causes of death among Canberra’s native birds? How much are bird populations diminished as a result of habitat destruction when a new suburb is developed?
Perhaps Canberrans would accept a certain level of bird predation within urban areas, just as they already accept the all-too-visible ‘predation’ of vehicles on marsupial populations.
Of course, all this begs the question of the conservation value of established urban landscapes, but I suspect that this is a can of worms that governments would be most reluctant to open.

    Maya123 Maya123 10:40 pm 19 Jul 19

    Good reply, but won’t make a difference to the zealots.

Karla O'Brien Karla O'Brien 10:16 pm 17 Jul 19

The government needs to deal with the feral cat population to begin with. They are the ones killing all the wildlife!!

Grimm Grimm 3:17 pm 17 Jul 19

Cats should absolutely be contained to their owners property. Nobody wants your cat using their garden as a toilet. I don’t want to hear cats fighting all night either. That’s apart from the amount of wildlife they kill. Pretending otherwise is delusional and irresponsible.

People can’t just let their dogs roam the streets. It should be the case for cats too.

    Maya123 Maya123 10:45 pm 19 Jul 19

    Grimm wrote, “Nobody wants your cat using their garden as a toilet.”

    I have had cats visiting me. They dig a whole in the garden. So what! Never worried me…which puts a lie to what you wrote. Just say what you mean; that YOU don’t want a cat using your garden as a toilet. Don’t include the whole population in what worries you.

James Daniels James Daniels 2:05 pm 17 Jul 19

There should be no blanket cat containment. Instead, fines for failing to register, microchip & desex pet cats. Overnight curfew and small predator traps in reserves from time to time with pet cats caught subjected to containment orders in the first instance and then escalating fines. There should also be nuisance provisions similar to those for barking dogs, but I suspect desexing and overnight curfews would take care of most nuisance cat behaviour. Pet cats that establish territories discourage other cats from entering the area. My parents have cats and there is only one other cat that is rarely seen on their property. I don't have cats and there are at least 4 that frequent my place on a regular basis. Keeping well fed pet cats inside all the time opens up more space for feral or stray cats, and as they have to kill or scrounge to live, there is every possibility that loss of native wildlife, as much as it still exists in suburban yards, would increase. Anyone who's watched nature documentaries knows that wild animal numbers are determined by available habitat, food, competition and threats, so I have a real concern that containment may make the feral cat problem worse.

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:55 am 17 Jul 19

The latest round of witch hunting.

maxblues maxblues 2:33 am 17 Jul 19

Feral cats originate from pet cats. Some people talk as though they are native animals!

Joanne Gardner Joanne Gardner 9:50 pm 16 Jul 19

We have one cat who is only allowed indoors...dogs are small and don’t kill any wildlife. I don’t want my cat outside for the reasons as suggested - he gets fed, he doesn’t need to hunt and I don’t want him getting into fights with other cats. It’s just about looking after your pets well.

    Kerryn Price Kerryn Price 9:33 pm 19 Jul 19

    Josie Gardner my little fluff ball dog is a master mouser.

Jessica Grace Jessica Grace 9:31 pm 16 Jul 19

Keep humans indoors. Humans kill billions of animals each year.

Gay McGuire Gay McGuire 7:26 pm 16 Jul 19

I have read some of the comments there are responsible dog owners as I’m a responsible cat owner of a desexed female cat that is strictly an indoor cat.


I would like there to be fair rules for both vicious dogs & feral cats.

People being attacked & killed by dogs is far more of an issue than wild life. I’m not saying I like any animal being killed but let’s get out priorities right!

Just say...,,,.,,,

    Frances Jane Frances Jane 9:45 pm 16 Jul 19

    There is now a kind of task force targeting dog owners for various reasons to promote greater responsibility amongst dog owners. Both dog and cat owners need to be responsible.

Maya123 Maya123 6:08 pm 16 Jul 19

When all the domestic cats are locked up, the feral cats will be able to take over their territories. And they eat more wildlife.

    Mike Smith Mike Smith 3:23 pm 17 Jul 19

    No domestic cat is going to last a minute in a fight with a feral cat, so territories? No.

    Maya123 Maya123 10:51 pm 19 Jul 19

    You sure about that. Not all domestic cats are wimps. My last domestic cat, (about 15 years or so ago), weighed 6.7kg (average cat weight 4kg) and he wasn’t fat. He could stand up and look in my the side window of my car. Fortunately birds weren’t on his menu, and he would allow birds to hop near him and make no attempt to attack them. He was a fighter, not a hunter.

Nicole McGuire Nicole McGuire 5:58 pm 16 Jul 19

Keep dogs in yards. They maim people including small children

    Louise Flood Louise Flood 6:42 pm 16 Jul 19

    Nicole McGuire rubbish. An incredibly small number of dogs mail humans and the more they are locked up and not socialised the worse it gets. Owners who do not train and socialise their dogs are the problem and those of us who do have to be overly vigilant with people who do not socialise and train their dogs. My dogs suffer because of this and also from people who do not have experience with dog behaviour and who get scared of dogs who are just friendly and well controlled

    Nicole McGuire Nicole McGuire 6:49 pm 16 Jul 19

    Louise Flood can’t you see the bias? Why aren’t all pets treated the same. This is BS! Sick of hearing about evil cats versus saintly dogs.

Kerryn Price Kerryn Price 4:50 pm 16 Jul 19

I have 3 cats who can't even catch Autumn leaves.

Boweavil Kat Boweavil Kat 4:06 pm 16 Jul 19

The biggest killer of wildlife are humans. Might be time to reign the destruction of the environment by urban sprawl and road kill

Yvette Polonyi Yvette Polonyi 3:47 pm 16 Jul 19

Responsible cat ownership: Spaying your cats unless a registered breeder, cat pens or indoors, and looking after them well. That's what we need and need to encourage.

I don't think there was anything in this report we didn't already know, except I still think I've met some lazy/dumb cats who couldn't be arsed to hunt!

Fred Pilcher Fred Pilcher 3:24 pm 16 Jul 19

Keep your cat indoors.

    Caitlin Kennedy Caitlin Kennedy 5:00 pm 16 Jul 19

    Fred Pilcher I do. I also work with stray cats to prevent them from hunting in a humane manner.

Elle Mac Elle Mac 1:59 pm 16 Jul 19

Essential reading at this link ... Great critique.. "When an academic article comes out, or a book is published by researchers, the Australian media and many of the public take the figures quoted by researchers as somehow being "fact". It makes for great headlines. X number of cats kill X number of birds every year...shock horror!"

Elle Mac Elle Mac 1:53 pm 16 Jul 19

There are many more birds in Canberra now than when I grew up here in the 70s.. Recently moved back and it is so noticeable. Magpies, sulphur crested cockatoos, crows, galahs, wattle birds, rosellas, parrots etc appear much more abundant than they used to be. The worst toll on native populations seems to be the kangaroo cull. So much road kill too that you never saw before. Am appalled by the rubbish being propagated about cats. You say you are circulating quality news! So why are you recycling this 'research' with its absurd and unsubstantiable 'stats'? 😕

    Kerry Jackson Kerry Jackson 7:54 pm 16 Jul 19

    Why are you so resistant to this research? Where do you think all our small mammals went? Cats contributed to that. I love cats but would never let one roam. I love our wildlife more.

    Peter Mackay Peter Mackay 8:35 am 17 Jul 19

    The problem is feral cats more than cats who are neutered, fed well, and cared for, wouldn’t you say?

    I’m seeing a lot of people who can’t acknowledge the difference.

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