There is a crisis in cat management. Shelters and rescue groups are at capacity with cats and kittens awaiting adoption. The RSPCA shelter is so full, it had to close its doors for the first time since it opened in 1979. There is simply no room for more cats.
New regulations were introduced in SA in 2018, making it compulsory to desex and microchip all cats born after that time. Clearly these regulations have had little impact on cat numbers.
So what are the chances that imposing further legal obligations on cat owners will solve the current crisis?
Mandatory cat containment
Some councils have introduced by-laws to force owners to confine cats to their property, either 24/7 or during the night. So what is the evidence that this is an effective cat management strategy?
Compare the actions of 2 councils in Victoria, Yarra Valley and Banyule. Yarra Valley imposed mandatory containment, whereas Banyule did not. However, Banyule began a free desexing program targeted to areas of high shelter intake. The table below shows the results from the two councils in the third year of their respective management strategies.
Table1. Changes following the implementation of contrasting cat management strategies, mandatory containment vs free desexing. (from AWPF report)
The results are obvious: mandated containment does not reduce nuisance complaints to the council, does not reduce shelter/pound admissions, and does not reduce euthanasia of healthy cats and kittens. On the contrary, the numbers increase. Why?
- Most of the roaming cats are strays and therefore will not be affected by confinement laws.
- In the case of owned cats found roaming, there is often a practical reason why owners can’t keep them confined, such as being in a rental property or under financial stress. Fining such people is not going to change their circumstances.
More problems with containment by-laws
- Owners unable to comply with the by-lay may relinquish or abandon their cat rather than facing a fine, thus increasing shelter/pound intakes.
- Potential owners may be less likely to adopt a cat from a shelter/rescue organisation because of the additional financial burden.
- Most importantly, people currently feeding strays are less likely to take on full ownership of the cats once they are desexed and microchipped if ownership comes with the additional burden of containment. Transforming semi-owners into full owners is one of the most important strategies to reduce the stray population, but mandatory containment presents an obstacle to this strategy.
- Stray cats may have been free-roaming all their lives, so they can’t be expected to suddenly become contained.
- Councils can’t enforce containment by-laws. Cats are difficult to trap, and council animal welfare officers do not have the time to chase cats in the council area.
- As a result, Councils have taken to lending traps to the public to catch roaming cats. The cats are then taken to a shelter/pound and quite possibly euthanased. As the RSPCA has noted: “There are also major concerns regarding trapping by untrained members of the public and the impact of this on cat welfare.” (p.58) This point is of particular concern since South Australia does even have any best practice standards for trapping cats.
- Increased trapping, impoundment and euthanasia are costly, but do not succeed in reducing the cat population due to the high reproductive rate of cats. Here’s how the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation (APWF) describes this approach: “… this Trap, adopt or kill approach does not reduce the wandering cat population in the area over time because it results in low-level ad hoc culling, insufficient to override the high cat reproductive rate, immigration of new cats into the area and increased survival of juveniles. The result is a repetitive cycle of trapping, impounding and killing cats, followed by new cats being trapped, impounded and killed over and over again, but without reducing the numbers of wandering cats over time.” (p.2)
What is the solution?
Cat management strategies must be evidenced-based to be effective and humane. This is NOT the case with mandatory containment. As the RSPCA has stated: “Overall, councils with cat containment regulations have not been able to demonstrate any measurable reduction in cat complaints or cats wandering at large following the introduction of the regulations.”(p.57)
Similarly the report on Rehoming of Companion Animals in NSW notes that: “… cat containment is not a solution to the problems that exist for cat impounding and rehoming.” (p.65)
In contrast, councils such as Banyule provide evidence that a targeted, free desexing program achieves measurable improvements in cat management. There were fewer complaints from residents, fewer cats impounded and euthanased, AND the council saved a considerable amount of money by not engaging in the endless cycle of trapping and killing cats.
Mandatory containment does not solve the problems of stray cats, and it creates a suite of further problems. However, education of the benefits of containment and enlisting the cooperation of the community is certainly worthwhile, both for the safety of cats and wildlife. Ultimately the best strategy to protect wildlife is to have fewer cats, and the best way to do that is a targeted, free desexing program.
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