Thousands of unowned cats wander Australian streets every night. Some are feral, existing in self-sustaining populations not reliant on people, while others are semi-feral and are either fed by people or scavenge discarded food.
Those cats hunt native fauna and harbour disease and parasites that can be passed on to humans, pets and wildlife.
Yet depending on where you live in Australia, the rules on desexing and registering your cat can vary wildly. The result? Greater risks to human health, and tens of thousands of kittens and cats needlessly killed in animal shelters every year.
Pets and parasites
Many cats carry the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can be passed to humans through litter trays, soil and undercooked meat.
The risk is greatest for pregnant woman and people with compromised immune systems. An unborn foetus with Toxoplasmosis can suffer permanent neuorological damage or even miscarriage or stillbirth.
Research has shown how we can reduce those risks to humans and unborn babies, including by educating cat owners about the importance of collecting cat faeces in litter boxes, desexing pet cats to reduce overpopulation and reducing the numbers of feral cats.
So there are clear benefits to human health of managing our cat population. But desexing is the kinder thing to do for cats too – not least because it avoids so many cats and kittens being put down.
Life on the streets
Many feral and semi-feral cats experience poor health and animal welfare outcomes because they are not owned or cared for like a pet cat.
Local councils and animal shelters have to euthanase tens of thousands of cats each year because they are in poor health, are behaviourally unsuited to adoption or homes cannot be found for them.
More than 30,000 impounded cats were put down in NSW alone during 2010/11.
A high shelter admission rate of kittens by owners indicates that unwanted litters by pet cats are a significant contributor to the problem.
In Queensland, 6950 kittens were surrendered by owners to animal shelters, with kittens making up one-fifth of cats in the state’s shelters. And 61% of all kittens had to be euthanased because homes could not be found for them.
But we have no way to track how many unwanted kittens are also abandoned to join feral and semi-feral populations, on top of the unowned kittens born to feral or semi-feral cats mating with pet cats.
Desexing prevents unwanted litters
Mandatory desexing of pet cats from an early age would help prevent pet cats having unwanted litters, and the associated problems of surrender to animal shelters, abandonment or interbreeding with feral and semi-feral populations.
While desexing rates for pet cats in Australia are already above 90%, which is high by international standards, many cats are not desexed until later in life so they have opportunities to breed.
Cats may breed from four months old, so desexing of young kittens is needed to prevent breeding altogether. Given veterinary evidence that anaesthetic risks in young cats can be controlled and that adverse outcomes are no higher than for older cats, increasing numbers of cat rescue organisations are endorsing desexing of pre-pubescent kittens.
Australian laws on pet cats
Since 1 November this year, if you’re a West Australian cat owner, it’s become mandatory to desex, microchip and register any cats you have with a local council by the time the cat is six months old.
The only exceptions to mandatory desexing are cats owned by licensed breeders or cats certified by a veterinarian as having poor health risks for surgery. Pet cats must also wear an ID tag.
If the number of owner-admitted unwanted cats can be reduced through mandatory desexing, rehoming of other cats from shelters will increase, which should result in a lower euthanasia rate. The hidden problem of abandonment of unwanted kittens should also be reduced.
While desexing may seem like a logical step in reducing cat populations, WA and the Australian Capital Territory are the only parts of Australia where the practice is mandatory.
Registration and desexing are not mandatory in South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory or Queensland, although it may be a requirement of some local councils.
In contrast to what has happened in WA, the Queensland government has recently repealed state legislation for mandatory cat registration, arguing it’s a win for cat owners and for reducing “red tape”.
But in our opinion, Queensland is taking a backward step by joining with South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory in adopting such a hands-off approach.
In doing so, we are likely to see more unwanted kittens and cats born that will end up being put down in our shelters. And it risks increasing the problems of animal welfare, wildlife management and public health problems associated with large populations of semi-feral and feral cats.
Addressing these issues requires strong leadership from state and territory governments, commitment by local councils to enforce regulations, and responsible cat ownership in the community.
The health risks to humans, as well as the huge number of kittens being born only to be killed, are too high for this issue not to be taken more seriously.
Tim Doherty receives funding from Earthwatch Institute Australia and the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment.
Mike Calver is affiliated with the Cat Haven shelter in Western Australia.