By Emily Friedel
We Aussies love our pets. A 2021 survey found that almost 69% of Australian households are home to at least one pet. The survey also found that pet cats now total around 4.9 million across the continent, a quarter of which were obtained during the pandemic. With these record high numbers of feline fur-babies living with us, now seems like the perfect time to talk about the benefits of keeping cats at home. Containing your cat within the bounds of your property is not only better for them, but also better for native wildlife. That’s why RSPCA representative Mhairi Roberts and ecologist Professor John Woinarski both describe cat containment as “win-win”.
Benefits for cats
For cat lovers, one of the best reasons to keep kitty at home is to ensure their wellbeing. In fact, a Victorian study published last year found that cat owners reported their pet’s safety as the main motivator for keeping them contained. Despite this, research suggests that around 71% of Australia’s pet cats are allowed to roam. So, what are the potential consequences for these cats that are exploring the great outdoors unsupervised?
According to Ms Roberts, who is RSPCA Victoria’s Policy and Advocacy Manager and an animal scientist, being out and about on their own is perilous for pet cats.
“If cats are allowed out to roam any time of day or night, there are a lot of risks for them. They can get into fights with other animals, they can contract diseases, they can get hit by cars, they also then have an impact on wildlife too, and that can also cause them injuries. We know that they live longer if they stay at home, and they’re less likely to be injured or contract diseases.”
In terms of longevity, the Australian Veterinary Association has stated that the lifespan of cats who stay at home can be four times longer than those allowed to roam. That’s potentially a lot more time for owners to enjoy with their cats.
Ms Roberts also points out that keeping cats at home provides more opportunities for owners to develop a deeper connection with their feline companion, which is good for both parties.
“It strengthens that bond between the cat and the owner, and we know that has benefits for people from a mental health perspective. That human-animal bond is really important, it helps people de-stress and have that companionship and interaction with their cats – it’s good for the owner and the cat.”
Benefits for wildlife
Pet cats are considered a semi-domesticated species, and sequencing their genome revealed they still have a lot in common with their wild counterparts. Among other things, pet cats have retained their abilities as excellent hunters. Unfortunately, these hunting abilities make them a serious and pervasive threat to wildlife. Research suggests that each pet cat in Australia that is allowed to roam kills around 115 native critters per year. Pre-pandemic estimates put that total at 241 million native vertebrates killed by pet cats annually, but the marked increase in cat ownership since then means their impact is even greater.
Professor Woinarski from Charles Darwin University explains that Australia has suffered more profound biodiversity loss due to predation by cats compared to other continents.
“The reason Australian animals seem so susceptible to cats is largely that there hasn’t been a long period of co-adaptation between Australian native animals and any feline-type predators. Cats hunt somewhat differently to any predators that Australian animals are used to, and Australian animals just haven’t seemed to be able to cope rapidly with evolving to meet that predation pressure,” he says.
“But as well as all that, largely because Australia’s got relatively low-nutrient soils and is relatively infertile compared to most other continents, many Australian animals have got relatively low reproduction rates compared to the animals in most other continents. So whereas birds in Europe or mammals in Europe could respond to a given predation pressure by cats and still out-breed that predation pressure, that’s not so much the case in Australia.”
Aside from hunting, Professor Woinarski says free-roaming pet cats threaten native wildlife through the spread of diseases, particularly Toxoplasmosis gondii.
“This parasite must go through cats to complete its life cycle, and then the eggs are shed in cat faeces. Animals other than cats pick up the parasite, which works its way through the host’s nervous system, often ending up in the brain and changing its behaviour. But the Toxoplasmosis can also affect pregnancy and stillborn young or young with major deformities.”
While Professor Woinarski acknowledges that the damage done by feral cats outweighs that done by pet cats, he emphasises that the latter is easier to prevent.
“Feral cats are killing more animals in Australia per year than pet cats, so in that sense they’re a more serious problem. But controlling feral cats across the vast extent of Australia is almost impossible at the moment, whereas it’s much more straightforward to curb the impacts of pet cats. There are simple solutions, particularly containment of pet cats.”
Keeping cats happy at home
If you have decided to keep your cat at home, there are many simple and cost-effective ways to ensure their contentment. According to Ms Roberts, providing an enriched environment at home is central to their welfare.
“Having lots of places for cats to look out windows, having scratching posts, having toys for cats to play with, having plenty of horizontal and vertical climbing spaces, and access to sunny spots to lie in on windowsills. In terms of toileting, having plenty of litter trays for them to use. Some cats might actually like to have a cat friend, so that’s also an option. Those types of things can really help make sure they have a great life at home.”
She adds that there are also easy options for letting pet cats explore outdoors safely.
“You can also let your cats go outside on your property if you can introduce a cat enclosure or cat runs or cat-proof fencing or take your cat out on a leash.”
One potential challenge for cat owners is transitioning their beloved feline from a free-roaming lifestyle to a contained one. However, it’s definitely doable, and the Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife website (a joint initiative by the RSPCA and Zoos Victoria) has practical expert advice for making the change as smooth as possible. Among other things, scheduling regular playtime with your cat is recommended to make the great indoors more enticing. Ms Roberts also explains that playtime can be used to satisfy their desire to perform certain behaviours they’d normally do when adventuring outside.
“You can mimic any of the behaviours they do when they go out and roam at home. You can do what I call predatory play with your cat, so using certain toys for them to be able to pounce and grab onto those toys. It’s also a win for you because you’ll be more interactive with your cat – you can enjoy that time with them as well.”
This extra bonding time is also a chance for owners to reap more of the mental health benefits of cat ownership. Given these benefits, perhaps keeping pet cats contained at home is better described as a win-win-win situation: cats, wildlife, and those who love their cats all stand to gain.
For more information on keeping cats at home and ‘cat hacks’ for enriching their environment, go to the Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife website: safecat.org.au