Silent Predators The Environmental Crisis of Feral Cats

Feral Cat attacking wildlife

Feral Cats in Australia The Invasive Predators Threatening Native Wildlife

Feral cats (Felis catus) are a significant invasive species in Australia, posing a severe threat to native wildlife. Originally introduced to the continent by European settlers, these adaptable predators have spread across the country, thriving in diverse habitats from arid deserts to tropical forests. This article delves into the environmental impact of feral cats, their differences from domestic cats, and the management strategies employed to control their populations.

feral cat in Australia

What is a Feral Cat?

A feral cat is a domestic cat that has returned to a wild state, living independently from human care and sustenance. These cats are born in the wild, as opposed to stray cats which are typically former pets that have been lost or abandoned. Feral cats are usually the offspring of other feral cats or stray cats that have not been spayed or neutered.

Feral cats are often mistaken for stray or domestic cats, but there are some key differences. They tend to be more muscular, especially in the head and shoulders, and may have scars from fighting with other cats or wildlife. Feral cats are also more elusive and wary of humans, rarely approaching people and quickly fleeing when encountered.

Feral cats should not be approached or petted. They are not socialized to human interaction and can be aggressive if cornered. Plus they may carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans or other animals.

Ecological Impact in Australia

Feral cat eating wild bird

Feral cats are incredibly efficient hunters, preying on a wide variety of native Australian animals. They are known to hunt birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even insects. In Australia, where many native species have evolved in isolation from predators like cats, the impact has been devastating.

It’s estimated that feral cats kill over 1 million native birds and 1.7 million reptiles every day in Australia. They have been implicated in the extinction of several native species, including the lesser bilby and the desert bandicoot. Many other species, such as the numbat and the night parrot, are critically endangered due in part to feral cat predation.

One of the reasons feral cats have had such a profound impact in Australia is that many native species lack evolved defenses against them. Small mammals that evolved without cat predation often lack the instincts to avoid or escape these stealthy hunters. Ground-nesting birds are particularly vulnerable, as cats can easily access and predate their eggs and chicks.

Management and Control

Feral cat in trap

Given the severe ecological consequences of feral cats, substantial efforts are underway to manage and control their populations in Australia. Strategies include:

  1. Trapping and removal – Cage traps baited with food are used to capture feral cats, which are then humanely euthanized. This method is labor-intensive and typically only effective on a small scale.
  2. Shooting – In some areas, skilled marksmen are employed to shoot feral cats. Like trapping, this method is limited in scale and can be controversial.
  3. Fencing – Some sensitive wildlife habitats, such as offshore islands or small reserves, are protected with predator-proof fencing that excludes feral cats. This can be highly effective but is costly and not feasible for large areas.
  4. Poison baiting – Poison baits, such as Eradicat® and Curiosity®, are used to control feral cat populations over larger areas. These baits are designed to minimize risk to non-target species, but some collateral damage can still occur.
  5. Grooming traps – A newer innovation, the Felixer® grooming trap, uses sensors to identify and selectively target feral cats with a toxic gel. This method is still being refined and implemented.

In addition to these direct control methods, public education about responsible pet ownership is crucial. Desexing pet cats, keeping them indoors, and not abandoning unwanted cats can help prevent new feral cat populations from establishing.

Diseases and Health Risks

Beyond their ecological impact, feral cats also pose health risks to humans, domestic animals, and other wildlife. They can carry and transmit several diseases, including:

  • Toxoplasmosis – A parasitic disease that can cause severe symptoms in humans, especially pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.
  • Rabies – While Australia is currently rabies-free, feral cats would be a significant vector if the virus were introduced.
  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) – These feline-specific diseases can be transmitted to pet cats through contact with feral cats.
  • Sarcosporidiosis – A parasitic disease that can affect livestock, causing economic losses for farmers.

Feral cats can also suffer from poor health themselves. Without veterinary care, they are prone to injury, malnutrition, and parasitic infestations. This suffering is another reason to control feral cat populations humanely.

Legislation and Policy

Recognizing the threat posed by feral cats, Australian governments at both the national and state levels have enacted legislation and policies to manage the issue. In 2015, feral cats were declared pests by the Australian government, paving the way for more coordinated control efforts.

Each state and territory has its own laws regarding feral cat management. Some, like Western Australia, have more permissive regulations allowing a broader range of control methods. Others, like South Australia, have stricter limits on methods like poison baiting to protect non-target species.

At the national level, the Threat Abatement Plan for predation by feral cats, developed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, guides Australia’s response to the feral cat problem. This plan emphasizes a science-based, adaptive, and humane approach to feral cat management.

What You Can Do

As an individual, there are several ways you can help address the feral cat problem in Australia:

  1. Keep your pet cats indoors and have them desexed. This prevents them from breeding with feral cats or becoming feral themselves.
  2. Do not abandon unwanted pet cats. Instead, rehome them responsibly or take them to a shelter.
  3. Support local feral cat control programs through volunteering or donations.
  4. If you see a feral cat, do not approach it. Instead, report the sighting to your local council or wildlife authority.
  5. Educate others about the impact of feral cats and the importance of responsible pet ownership and share this article.

Feral cats are a serious environmental threat in Australia, responsible for the decline and extinction of multiple native species. Controlling their populations needs a multifaceted approach that includes trapping, shooting, fencing, baiting, and public education.

By understanding the risks posed by feral cats, and by taking action to manage them responsibly, we can help protect Australia’s unique and precious wildlife for generations to come. This is a shared responsibility that requires the involvement of governments, conservation organizations, landowners, and individuals alike.

Remember, feral cats are not pets and should not be treated as such. They are wild animals that can have significant negative impacts on the environment and human health. If you encounter a feral cat, keep your distance and report it to the appropriate authorities. Together, we can work towards a future where Australia’s native species thrive, free from the threat of invasive predators like feral cats.