By Emma Mitchell
The label of “killer cat” is often given to the much-loved pets of more than a quarter of Australian households. And it is an accusation often denied by many well-intentioned cat owners. Not my cat, they say. The feral cats are the real problem.
But even when cat owners don’t see their moggy hunting, or bringing home an offering, it doesn’t mean their cat isn’t part of the problem. The findings of a large review of Australian cat predation studies published earlier this year show that, on average, domestic cats in urban areas kill over 70 animals annually, yet their owners are aware of less than half of those kills.
Animal ecologist and zoologist Nicole Galea’s soon-to-be-published study on the movement and hunting behaviour of domestic cats investigates how cats move when hunting. It also looks at what impact the Cat Bib, a prey protector device, has on those movements. Ms Galea says her research shows how cats are perfectly designed for hunting and highlights their tendency to roam.
“Cats are brilliant hunters, it’s not because their hungry, it’s just their kill instinct,” she says. “It’s the way a cat hunts. They leap and with their claw mechanism…they grab above their head and they pull down. Then they are able to do a fatal bite. And because of their structure, cats are brilliant at…how high they can leap.
“People need to realise that even if (their) cat never leaves (their) backyard or it never leaves the porch – it does. I’ve looked at so many cats and I’ve got proof they do they do wander.”
Ms Galea is not alone with her findings. A cat tracking study from South Australia shows that even when owners think their cats are inside at night, almost half of those them are out roaming. The study also highlights that all cats hunt no matter how well-fed they are, or if they are wanderers or homebodies. And while the majority of cat owners feel night-time containment is important, only 1 in 5 owners believe it is important to contain their cats during daylight hours.
Hinterland resident Sharon Schofield says she allows her two cats, Jack and Blackie, limited time outside most days and while she says they don’t hunt, she admits she can’t be certain.
“We never let them out before 8am…we call them back in the afternoon,” Ms Schofield says. “I like to live in belief that my kitty cats don’t kill much, but I guess I don’t know, really. When the cat’s not in your sight, God knows. Our closest neighbours… have a very old shed, which I think probably smells of all sorts of old rats and mice and they like to go and hide in there.”
Sunshine Coast Council education officer Hannah Maloney says Sunshine Coast residents are required to meet the Council’s Responsible Cat Ownership laws and regulations.
“All cats must be registered and microchipped from 12 weeks of age and they must be contained to your property at all times…day and night,” Ms Maloney says. “You may need to adjust your fencing or build a cat enclosure if you would like to exercise your cat outdoors.”
Casual curfews and easily silenced bells don’t deter cats from roaming or hunting. For cat owners who want to let their cats outside, prey protector devices and cat-proof fence kits help to minimise cat hunting and roaming behaviours.
Ms Galea is also looking at the effectiveness of prey protector devices that attach to the cat’s collar. She says the results are astounding because the device prevents cats from hunting.
“Activities that cats were displaying without the [Cat] Bib – the hunting and the running – when they were free roaming was evident,” she says. “When they had the Bib on…they could still do all those things, but they didn’t. Cats don’t adjust to the bib like they do with bells.”
According to the CSIRO, restricting a cat’s access to the great outdoors protects the wildlife and improves its quality of life. Owners can keep cats indoors, build enclosures attached to the home, or buy moveable enclosures for the backyard. They can teach their cats to walk on a lead and even train their cats to go to the toilet in the human’s toilet. And training a cat to use the toilet overcomes a big pitfall of keeping a cat indoors – smelly kitty litter trays.
Many people believe cats can’t be trained. But according to veterinary surgeon Dr Kirsten Dance this is a myth.
“They are just as easily trainable as dogs, they are just a little bit more independent,” she says. “The biggest thing that needs to be provided for in a home…is that there is enough enrichment for them, [like] teaching them to sit and turn around and stay.”
Retired principal Trevor Rickerrt and his wife Bev caravan up and down the east coast of Australia with Tanzie, a 4-year old Bengal, and her best friend Buddy, a 4-year old Cairn terrier. “They’ve been in the van every time we go somewhere. We’ve done around about 50,000kms and they’ve done that much travelling as well,” Mr Rickerrt says.
Tanzie is trained to walk, in harness, on a lead. And when they’re not on the road, Tanzie enjoys outside time in her Catio and running on her exercise wheel.
Maleny resident Terri Bates’ 4-year old Burmese cat, Anna, is also trained to walk on the lead, to follow commands and to use the human toilet. Terri says with a little bit Google know-how and the right products, not only can cats learn, they also enjoy the process of learning.
“It’s totally a myth that cats can’t be trained,” she says. “I think people undertrain their cats because they assume that you can’t. It gives her (Anna) stimulation. She’s an indoor cat so it’s important I spend time with her.”
Cat enclosures are a great way to enrich the life of an indoor cat and they don’t have to be expensive. Or permanent. Maleny resident Becca Clark has been making enclosures for her cats ever since a dog attack left her rescue cat Jack with three legs. Before the attack, Becca felt it was wrong to keep cats indoors, but Jack’s injuries changed her mind and led her to build Jack and his two siblings their first enclosure.
“I didn’t approve of indoor cats at all, I thought it was totally unnatural,” she says. “When he lost his leg…it was like, I don’t want to let them out there, it’s too dangerous for them.
“When we moved to Maleny, I had to build one at the rental property where we were…one that wasn’t permanent…(for) their safety. And it also helps the wildlife.” She jokes “it kills two birds with one stone”.