Fat Cat: A guide to keeping your household hunter in check

Along with surviving the impacts of climate change, habitat destruction and car accidents, each night native wildlife has to run the gauntlet of millions of domestic cats on the prowl. Cats are killing 1.5 billion native animals per year and, according to Ben Saunders from Zoos Victoria, giving Mittens a cute bell doesn't cut it. Ben us gives us the lowdown on how to ensure your household hunter doesn’t contribute to the nightly body count.



What impact are domestic cats having on native animals?


Around 66 per cent of Australia’s 3.9 million pet cats are allowed to roam free, putting them at risk of becoming feral or stray. Cats that roam take a hefty toll on wildlife, killing an average of 70 animals each year with around 40–50 per cent of these estimated to be native.


What kind of animals suffer the most?


During the day, birds and reptiles, and at night, native mammals are most vulnerable to predation by cats. Backyard bird species such as the superb fairy-wren, spotted pardalote and willie wagtail are

particularly susceptible.


Are things like bells and bibs (a piece of bright material attached to the collar that restricts a cat's hunting ability) actually effective?


Bells are usually ineffective in deterring pet cats taking prey because cats can learn to walk in a way that stops their bell from ringing. A cat bib, designed by researchers at Murdoch University, has shown to be effective in deterring 81 per cent of cats from catching birds, almost half of cats from catching mammals, and a third of cats from catching reptiles and frogs.


The more time pet cats spend happy and safe at home, the higher the chance of survival for our native wildlife and for pet cats.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions around the impacts of domestic cats?


Many cat owners think that their roaming cat does not kill wildlife because they don’t see any evidence. Recent research shows that an average roaming cat will only bring home approximately 23 per cent of what they catch. They leave half of all prey at the site of capture and eat 28 per cent.


In what ways can we keep our native animals safe from cats?


The more time pet cats spend happy and safe at home, the higher the chance of survival for our native wildlife and for pet cats. By keeping pet cats inside, their owners are protecting them from harm, such as being hit by cars or contracting a disease, and helping our precious native wildlife flourish.


Can you explain some of your indoor enrichment ideas?


There are many ways cat owners can make their home a stimulating space for a cat. Owners should see their home from a cats’ perspective. Are there interesting places to sleep, new smells, places to climb and bask in sunlight, places to hide and toys to play with? There are a variety of ways or ‘hacks’ to keep cats preoccupied: chase hacks (for example, blowing bubbles for them to chase), sensory hacks (put on classical music), food hacks (create a treasure hunt) and even sleep hacks (leave some space on a bookshelf for a sleeping nook).


How does remaining indoors benefit cats?


Cats that enjoy an enriched indoor life can live far longer on average, mostly due to no risk of injury or death from road accidents or fighting and far less chance of contracting diseases commonly found in roaming cats. Surveys of Australian cat owners in 2017 showed that approximately 70 per cent of cat owners had lost a cat to an incident related to an outdoor lifestyle, for example a car accident, injury from wildlife, dog or human attack, or the cat simply never returned home.


Do you think that people are aware that urban areas are hotspots for threatened species?


We hope that the community is becoming more aware of the importance of urban areas for native species of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. As it becomes the norm for pet cats to be kept safe at home, our community will be more likely to see native wildlife return to their backyards.

This story was published in Volume 1 of Sweaty City - buy the magazine now for more great environment writing and design!