When it comes to fur friends, cats are New Zealanders' favourite companions, nestled into nearly half the country's homes.

In a survey by the New Zealand Companion Animal Council, cats came out top, 48 per cent of households having at least one cat. For canine companions, the figure was much lower, 29 per cent of household owning at least one.

Pet ownership in general was higher than any other comparable country - almost 70 per cent of Kiwi households have at least one pet.

Auckland Cat Club president Jennie Paul said she understood why cats were the pet of choice.

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"I like the way that they are very affectionate, but can be independent and self-entertaining as well," she said. "You don't have to constantly dote on them all the time, but they're always there when you need them.

"I love the feel of them, the coat and the textures, and they really are quite devoted to you. They love being in a family situation."

New Zealand's cat ownership compares with 33 per cent of United States households, 23 per cent in Australia and 19 per cent in Britain.

Mrs Paul, who breeds cats for a hobby and owns up to 20 cats, said they made perfect companions.

"They can be very dedicated and loyal to families. They're also very intuitive and instinctive. They know when you're sick and calm you."

Bob Kerridge, the SPCA's executive director and patron of the Companion Animal Council, agreed, saying cats were often misunderstood creatures.

"We obviously are a cat-loving nation and I like that. Cats are wonderful companions. A lot of people perhaps don't read cats as they are - they see dogs as being loyal and doing anything you want them to do.

"People think [cats] are creatures of their own habits who make their own decisions, yet they are wonderful companions."

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The nation's canine population is 700,000.

And around 6 per cent of households have five resident birds.

Mr Kerridge said cats were often the most abused animals because people viewed them as disposable and easily replaced.

The survey found 43 per cent of New Zealanders thought animal welfare and protection should receive more attention.

"I think that's a very telling figure. I can understand why people feel there should be more attention on animals in the political circle because, as the survey points out, pets are very much a part of the family.

"People feel very strongly about protecting animals and they feel very strongly when animals are abused."

The survey also revealed New Zealanders spent more than $1.58 billion a year on pets, $766 million of that on food.

The survey was conducted online with a representative sample of 1570 adults from across New Zealand in April, and drew on information from a range of sources, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

The first of its kind, the survey was done in part to understand why New Zealanders have pets and how much is spent on them.