Talk to the Animals

Zoologist and animal behaviour expert, Sally Hibbard, is interested in the relationship between people and their pets. She’s a fan of frogs, scared of spiders and can be seen spotting stick insects.

Talk to the Animals: How to keep an eco-friendly cat

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Almost half of all NZ households host at least one cat.
Photo / Thinkstock
Almost half of all NZ households host at least one cat. Photo / Thinkstock

When I told a friend I was writing about "environmentally friendly cats" they told me there was no such thing and it was, well, just ridiculous. What I find ridiculous is the notion of anyone ever convincing every cat lover in NZ not to own another feline, regardless of the impact on wildlife.

Kiwis are very attached to cats - almost half of all households host at least one. I say hosting as I don't think you really "own" a cat. This adds up to an impressive number of cats in our collective backyard. Though we may not like to think of our pets as an introduced predator, their combined effects are a significant threat to native wildlife.

We share our outdoors with a myriad of birds and reptiles, and thousands of invertebrates, all making the most of the resources and shelter a garden provides, as well as being a 'stopover' for birds traveling between reserves and bush areas. If your property borders native bush, it will be especially well-utililsed by native birds and other forest species.

The story of The Lighthouse Keeper's Cat is a good reminder of the impact even a single animal can have. New Zealand's wildlife has evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, which makes it particularly vulnerable to cats. In the late 1800s the newly appointed Stephen's Island lighthouse keeper took up his post, taking his pet cat for company. In under a year the Stephen's Island Wren, the world's smallest and only flightless songbird, became extinct as a result of this single cat.

Though you may think your cat is only responsible for sacrificing the odd mouse or sparrow, mild mannered moggies live a secret double life after hours. An adult cat is capable of killing birds ranging in size from the diminutive silvereye right up to kiwi and kereru, and will happily devour all manner of moths, spiders, beetles bugs and reptiles, many of them important native species. Cats travel fairly long distances, increasing their hunting range to well outside the confines of the backyard. Even well fed cats retain their hunting instinct, aided by acute senses of hearing and vision. Research has shown that a single cat can kill up to 1000 animals in a year.

There are things we can do to limit the impact of our pet cats while still ensuring a good quality of life for our feline friends. This ranges from keeping cats inside permanently, through to limiting access to the outdoors both in terms of space and time. An indoor cat is the best option, however, this involves a little more than just keeping the door shut. Kittens generally take to this lifestyle well; however an older cat is less likely to fully embrace this new initiative at first.

The key to a successful transition to indoor living is in making some changes to the indoor environment and to your cat's normal routine:

Offer a choice of scratching surfaces positioned strategically around the house.
Install climbing towers and platforms.
Provide a range of toys, particularly those that move or are interactive.
Alter the feeding regime, particularly if your cat is let outside immediately following mealtime.
Provide dry food in a treat ball which is rolled around to dispense food slowly.

Enclosing an outdoor area works well, from a simple window box through to aviary style runs entered via the cat door. It is also possible to construct 'cat tunnels' leading to a favourite tree or garden area. This is essentially wire mesh around a square frame and can be constructed to meander its way around the entire garden.

Another advantage to indoor living is that your cat will no longer need nine lives. The number of cats injured and killed by cars is staggering, particularly at night. Cat-fight injuries are the result of the constant struggle to retain territory which usually overlaps neigbouring properties containing cats with much the same agenda.

For those that find it impractical to keep cats inside permanently, consider limiting the times your pet goes outdoors. Keeping cats in at night when hunting and wandering instincts are strongest is a smart step. Your pet will also be safe at a time when most car versus cat incidents occur. Also consider keeping them in during spring when many birds are sitting on nests, extend this time through dawn and dusk.

Consider 'cat-proofing' your backyard:

Fit metal possum guards around trees to prevent cats reaching nesting birds.
Locate bird feeders in open spaces so as not to provide a convenient ambush site for cats.
Don't throw bread on the lawn for birds - this is cat berley.
Bird-proofing your cat with a bell on the collar is also advised, and desexing all cats goes without saying as the majority of feral cat populations originate as unwanted pets.

Cats are great to have around, however we also have a responsibility to the other animals we share the environment with. The effects of just one cat does matter, which means the combined effort of all cat owners can have remarkable results.

- www.nzherald.co.nz

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