Prime Minister John Key went in to bat for his cat Moonbeam after Conservation Minister Maggie Barry's call to put down stray cats and limit pet cats to one or two per household.
Ms Barry proposed the limit while launching a $11.2 million fund for kiwi conservation at the Zealandia bird sanctuary. She said the SPCA policy of neutering and releasing stray cats was "one of the most foolish and counterproductive techniques and practices I have ever heard".
"I would like the SPCA to stop ... because if you capture a cat, spay it and release it, often what happens is they find a little supermarket for cats, which are the bird sanctuaries."
She said that instead, strays should be put down or rehomed as pets.
Mr Key was quick to knock back her proposals, saying they were her personal views, rather than the Government's.
"Some people are going to have lots of cats and some people are going to have few. The Government isn't going to limit the number of cats people can own."
He said he would nonetheless advise Moonbeam to steer clear of the SPCA if it did decide to go ahead with Ms Barry's instructions. Mr Key said he and wife Bronagh had adopted a cat from the SPCA in the past although Moonbeam was from a pet shop.
Ms Barry's comments drew the ire of SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge, who accused her of channelling Gareth Morgan for his controversial call for stray and feral cats to be killed. He said the SPCA's policy was to neuter cats and return them to the area they came from. They were then cared for and fed which reduced their need to hunt.
"Maggie Barry is using Gareth Morgan language by talking about 'release'. That is totally wrong."
He said it would be irresponsible to ignore stray cats altogether. "Or you can go out there as she wants us to do and kill them all. That's totally contrary to our ethos and I can't see the SPCA ever agreeing to killing."
He said the proposal to limit cat numbers had some merit and was used overseas. "As a measure to stop people hoarding cats and having far too many for their own good and the good of the cats, it is not a silly thing." However, he said, it should be set at three or four and enforced only in cases where there was a problem.
The SPCA did not have a limit on the number of cats a person could adopt but it did ask what other pets were in the household as part of the process.
Ms Barry's milder tips to help stop bird deaths included locking a cat inside at night and a collar with a bell. She used Moonbeam as an example, saying she had discussed the issue with Mr Key and was told his cat was locked in at night.
Mr Kerridge said most pet cats were well fed which reduced their urge to hunt. He said birds were well down the menu, compared with rats and mice. People who lived near "sensitive areas", such as bird sanctuaries, should consider whether to have a cat at all.