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Roaming pet cats on borrowed time, as councils consider curfews to protect native animals

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They are playful and gentle companions. Clean, independent and intelligent. For many people, cats are the perfect pet.

But they are also known to be killing machines.

Just ask the wildlife vet, Maren Beeston.

Almost every day, she witnesses the devastating fallout from free-roaming cats.

One of his recent patients was a majestic owl.

An arm holds a boobook owl attached to a tube on a dark surface.
This owl had to be euthanized by a Perth vet after being attacked by a cat. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

He had to be euthanized after being brought in by a cat owner who discovered the injured bird in his pet’s mouth.

The owl was treated with antibiotics to counteract the bacteria from the bite.

But an x-ray of his wing showed a shard fracture to his elbow joint.

A vet wearing a stethoscope examines a small marsupial that she cradles in a towel.
Veterinarian Maren Beeston says native animals attacked by cats are immediately put on antibiotics because of the bacteria in the cats’ mouths. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Even after the treatment, he could never fly properly again due to the severity of the injury.

β€œWe couldn’t release him because he wouldn’t be able to hunt effectively and unfortunately he would starve in the wild,” Dr Beeston said.

“I’m a huge cat lover. I have two at home… but I’m definitely in favor of keeping them indoors.”

Native birds, changes in cat prey

About 450 native animals, mostly small birds and quendas (a type of bandicoot) are brought to WA Wildlife Hospital in south Perth each year after an encounter with a cat.

These are just the attacks that staff can conclusively prove the cats were responsible for.

In reality, the number is certainly much higher, with many more of the 5,000 animals admitted to the facility each year suffering from injuries consistent with a cat attack, according to director of operations Dean Huxley.

A quenda held in a piece of cloth by a veterinarian who checks the animal's pulse
Quendas, which are native to southwestern Washington state, are listed as “rare.”(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

β€œThe latest statistics show that each year they [pet cats] predate more than 180 native animals, it’s just a pet cat, ”he said.

β€œCats are evolving and getting to know different wildlife species and they are now improving to hunt these animals.

β€œAnd the more we clean the habitat, which we do at an alarming rate, these animals have fewer places to hide.

Dean Huxley crouching in the bush with a small cage
Dean Huxley prepares to release a quenda into the wild. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

“It will be a losing battle for wildlife if we don’t make some serious changes now.”

Curfews for cats have been introduced

Mr Huxley was encouraged by a movement across Australia to hold owners accountable for their cat’s behavior.

In Canberra for example, owners of new cats will have to confine them to their properties from the middle of next year while in the city of Greater Bendigo, a curfew for cats has just been extended to a 24-hour ban. / 24 and 7 days a week.

In Western Australia, Fremantle is leading the campaign for cat containment, with a proposal to ban cats from all public spaces.

Portrait of Adin Lang with the bush in the background
Fremantle adviser Adin Lang hopes cat-no-cat zones will be further extended to protect native animals. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Councilor Adin Lang says cats are currently banned in bush areas, but under the proposed changes they would also be banned from all properties in the city, including roads, shoulders and trails, unless ‘they are not kept on a leash.

The proposal has yet to be submitted for public comment and must be checked off by a state parliamentary committee.

But Cr Lang believes if approved, it will spark momentum for further changes statewide.

Kitten
Local councils across Australia are passing stricter laws to require owners to confine their cats.(Provided)

β€œI think cats will be indoors soon, like dogs, and our future generations will look back and say, ‘you let cats roam Australia, eating all of our wildlife for all these years?’.

Stray cats a problem

Cat breeder Pamela Lanigan fully supports cat containment.

She is also the spokesperson for Cats United WA, a group representing breeders and owners.

Much of the damage to wildlife, she argues, is caused by stray or “runaway” cats by several households.

She says the councils should focus on encouraging responsible cat ownership rather than passing more laws.

Pamela Lanigan holding her adult British Shorthair cat
Pamela Lanigan maintains cats stay indoors, but doesn’t think more laws are needed in WA. (Provided: Pamela Lanigan)

This could include encouraging more pens for pets and access to low-cost deexing programs for low-income people.

Ms Lanigan suggested that trap-neutral-release (TNR) programs could be deployed to limit stray cat colonies in the bush around Perth.

“What can be done is that they can be trapped, they can be deexed and then released into this environment so that they cannot reproduce again, but they will prevent other cats from entering this environment, and it’s something that is done a lot in America, ”she said.

View of the cat pen outside the house with a white cat sitting in the background and a model bird in the foreground
An increasing number of cat owners are building “catios” or cat courses for their pets. (ABC News: Julian Robins)

Ms Lanigan says cat ownership evolved from the old-fashioned indoor-outdoor model, which existed when more people lived in large suburban blocks, to cats living in enclosed spaces in small homes and apartments.

Desexing, cat pens could help

She suggests that the local government could use cat registration fees to support low-cost deexting programs.

Adin Lang agrees that it is worth considering.

“If we can introduce the laws as a measure, but also introduce other incentives to try to help people with instructions on how to build a catio [enclosure] or funding those other suggestions, then I think that will absolutely help the cause, ”he said.

An outdoor cat enclosure with a sleeping white cat on a patio.
Homeowners are encouraged to build cat enclosures or cat enclosures if they wish to provide an outdoor life for their pets. (ABC News: Julian Robins)

One of the challenges is convincing owners that it’s not cruel to keep your cat content, according to Dean Huxley.

β€œOnce people see that their cats are happier and healthier, they will start to make this change,” he said.

β€œCats adapt very well to captivity.

“You will find that the cats in the house are much softer, they are much calmer because they do not argue with other cats.

“One of my cats was a captured wild cat and is now the sweetest, sweetest house cat you can find.”

A small gray cat in a fabric tunnel.
Breeder and Cats United WA spokesperson Pamela Lanigan recommends that her British Shorthairs be kept indoors. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

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