How to Prevent Your Domestic Pet Destroying Local Wildlife

Australians are privileged to be guardians of a country with some amazingly diverse species of wildlife. Unfortunately through introduced predators and domestic pets, many species are already extinct. The reality is that both domestic cats and dogs really can decimate local populations of birds and small mammals. All cats hunt, some more than others, but they will rarely bring things home. Dogs will often also kill animals and neglect to tell us of their handiwork.

What is the Impact of Domestic Pets?
Owners who assume their cat just sleeps all day would be surprised to find that even a domesticated cat will regularly kill birds, small mammals and lizards. Making sure your cat is well-fed has been proven to make absolutely no difference to hunting behaviour. Dogs too will chase and kill given the slightest bit of chance, again this instinct is unrelated to whether they are well-fed.

The conservative estimate is that domestic cats kill 10-20 birds per year, with 20-27% of native birds depredated each year1. In Australia many of our small mammals and birds are endangered and at risk of extinction simply through predation by cats, particularly as cats tend to prey upon young animals and species less than 100g in size.

The ideal solution is to keep cats indoors and dogs on a lead at all times, but this may not work for everyone. So how do we protect everyone concerned?

Cat Scrunch to save wildlifeScrunchies for Cats
Scrunchies for a cat you might ask! However a recent study from Murdoch University found that the old eighties fashion accessory, the ‘scrunchie’ reduces the number of kills made by cats by half. The bright colours made cats more visible to wildlife. What a simple solution.

Bells and Bibs
Bells on the collar work for both dogs and cats and give wildlife more warning of an impending attack, many cats need multiple bells or they learn to move even more stealthily and keep the bell silent. Similar to the scrunchie idea, is the cat bib, which can reduce predatory behaviour by 80%. For dogs at night, using reflective collars can also help. There is however no substitute for supervision of your pet at all times and keeping cats indoors or contained.

Keep Cats Indoors
Keeping your cat indoors also saves you money and heartache from premature death and injuries. Outdoor cats are vulnerable to dog attacks, trauma from cars and of course injuries from fights with other cats. An indoor cat will live longer and spend less time injured and sick at the vet. A comprehensive study of cats in UK cites the number one risk of death in cats is due to trauma, with 60% of these cats dying due to being hit by cars2. This figure is expected to be similar to that experienced with Australian cats. Although there is no hard data on the topic, it is generally accepted that an indoor cat will live an average of 15 years, while an outdoor cat’s average lifespan is closer to 5 years of age.

Cat owners often assume that cats need to be outdoors, however this is simply not the case. Cats are content being indoors, so long as they are well-fed and have a human or another cat to play with. The next best thing to keeping your cat indoors, is to provide a cat containment system.

Cat Containment Systems
If you have a fully fenced yard or courtyard in an urban area, consider putting Oscillot rollers on the top of the fence or utilising a barrier like Cat Fence to reduce roaming. For homes that don’t have continuous fencing, enclosures are simple structures attached to the side of a house or building and are made of wire or mesh or netting. These can be easily and cheaply rigged up at home, or put together by a professional company. The small investment in an enclosure is easily recouped with the savings in vet bills from avoiding illnesses and accidents from that dangerous life outdoors. A typical vet bill for a cat fight abscess would be $800, so your cat containment system has paid for itself should it even save you from one trip to the vet for surgery.

Play with your cat
Cats have a natural need to express their hunting behaviours. So allow them to play with you instead of the local birds. Cats have many different play styles, depending on whether they like to pounce, leap, wrestle or chase. Fishing line toys are excellent for pouncing. You don’t need to fear that you are helping to make your cat a more efficient hunter, they will hunt no matter what, you are just giving them an appropriate outlet. Remember when playing with your cat to make use of those active times of day. Cats prefer short bursts of exercise and lots of rest in between. If possible play with your cat at roughly the same time each evening, this allows for increased routine and predictability, which makes for a happy cat overall.

Training
Dogs can also be trained to not give chase to wildlife. Your dog is never too old to learn, but it will be easier to teach if your dog hasn’t already gotten into bad habits. First you will need to work on recall. This is best done somewhere with no distraction and very high value treats (and a hungry dog). Train your dog to come to his name no matter the distraction. When out on walks your dog should not be allowed to roam out of your watchful gaze, particularly in areas with wildlife. Unless your dog’s recall and behaviour off leash is 100% reliable he should not be allowed off-leash except in dedicated off-leash dog parks. Australian wildlife is protected by law and dog owners will receive a hefty fine should they be caught with an unleashed dog in an undesignated area.

Key points:
●      Utilise bright colours and reflective trim on collars.
●      Train your dog to come reliably when called.
●      Play with your cat.
●      Keep pets on a lead or indoors if they can’t be trusted.
●      Erect suitable enclosures and fencing

It is irresponsible to ignore your animal’s natural instinct to hunt when it comes to the safety of the local wildlife, but with a little bit of owner vigilance and some good training both pets and the wildlife should be able to live in harmony.

Eloise is a Sydney vet working for the online pet care company Love That Pet. She has a particular passion for helping pets with anxiety and itchy dogs. She currently enjoys the quiet life in Sydney with her young boys, Jimmy the cat and a constant procession of stray cats and birds. Contact Eloise or further info at Love That Pet, or check out their blog.

References:
1.     Dickman, C.R. (1996) Overview of the impacts of feral cats on Australian native fauna, prepared for the Australian Nature Conservation Agency. Available at: http://secure.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive/publications/pubs/impacts-feral-cats.pdf
2.     Neill, D. et al. (2015) Longevity and mortality of cats attending primary care veterinary practices in Englad. J.Fel.Med.Surg. 17 (2) 125-133.

Submitted by Anna O’Toole
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