Last updated: 28 May, 2021
Published on: 11 Nov, 2019
Community Cat Program FAQs
Across Australia, cities and towns are faced with an overpopulation of free-living cats, also known as urban strays. When inadequately managed, the cats may be associated with a number of concerning issues, including high intake and euthanasia rates at local pounds and shelters, psychological harm to pound and shelter workers who must kill large numbers of healthy and treatable cats and kittens, nuisance complaints, ratepayer costs and predation on wildlife.
Currently, the prevalent method for trying to address urban stray cat overpopulation is trap-and-kill. In response to complaints, cats are captured and, if deemed unadoptable, they are killed. Despite decades of attempts, lethal control has failed to solve the many cat issues our communities face. This four-year research project will study what we believe is a more humane and effective approach – a Community Cat Program or CCP. A CCP relies primarily on desexing but also includes adoption, responsible pet cat ownership and community education.
To learn more, please explore our FAQs by category.
What is the Community Cat Program?
A Community Cat Program (CCP) has a number of elements. Foremost is desexing of urban stray cats. Stray cats in a targeted area are desexed and provided with other veterinary care such as vaccinations and microchipping. Following treatment, if they are healthy and have been thriving outdoors, the cats are left where they live in their home territories. A CCP will also desex pet cats if their owners cannot afford to do so themselves. Other parts of the program include adopting out friendly cats and kittens, supporting semi-owners to become owners, and mediating resident conflicts involving outdoor cats.
How does the Community Cat Program solve cat issues?
When a high percentage of urban stray cats in a target area are desexed and can no longer reproduce, their numbers can begin to decline through natural attrition. If friendly cats and kittens are removed from outdoors and adopted, population decline becomes more likely. Fewer cats living outdoors means less predation on wildlife, lower intake and euthanasia at pounds and shelters and less cost for effective cat management. Less killing can also result in improved mental health for pound and shelter staff. With respect to nuisance complaints, desexing has an immediate positive impact. No more mating means much less roaming, yowling and fighting. Desexed male cats no longer mark territory with a noxious odour. And, of course, there are no more litters of kittens.
Why is the Community Cat Program needed?
The welfare and management of urban stray cats is a concern in most Australian communities. On average, approximately 50% of cats entering pounds and shelters are euthanased or killed. This comes at a huge cost to communities across Australia - both financially and, for those performing the killing, psychologically. However, this constant trapping and killing of urban stray cats has little to show for all the harm and costs incurred. Despite many years of killing and millions of dollars spent, our cities and towns still face an overpopulation of urban stray cats. It is time for an approach that is more humane and more effective.
What basis is there for believing the Community Cat Program will succeed?
Desexing and leaving cats where they live, has resulted in significant reductions in stray cat intake and euthanasia in pounds and shelters overseas. In Australia, a reduction in urban stray cat numbers through desexing has been demonstrated on a small scale. Recent research of existing cat colonies showed that colony sizes decreased by a median of 31% over 2 years, and by 50% over 5 years.
Who is behind the research?
The project is being led by the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation. Collaborative partners include five major Australian universities (Queensland, New South Wales, Sydney, Adelaide and La Trobe), five local governments (Melbourne, Banyule, Greater Shepparton, Ipswich, Port Lincoln), ten Australian welfare and rescue groups (PetRescue, RSPCA Qld, RSPCA NSW, RSPCA SA, AWL Australia, AWL Queensland, Maneki Neko Cat Rescue, Cheltenham Cat Rescue, Sydney Dogs’ and Cats’ Home, Australian Pet Welfare Foundation), three veterinary care, diagnostics and pharmaceutical companies, (Greencross, IDEXX, MSD Animal Health) and an international partner, Neighborhood Cats (USA).
Where will the project occur?
Community Cat Programs will occur in selected communities in four states – Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.
When will the project take place?
The first Community Cat Program (CCP) is expected to begin in early 2020 and will roll out in the remaining states soon thereafter. Each CCP will continue for four to five years.
What are the expected outcomes of the Community Cat Program?
Community cat programs have been implemented in many Western countries, including the USA, UK, Canada, France, Italy and South Africa. They have significantly reduced intake and euthanasia of stray cats in shelters and pounds.
Based on overseas research, we expect the following outcomes:
- 30% decrease in cat intake into pounds and shelters from target areas within 3 years
- 50% decrease in cat euthanasia from target areas after Year 1
- 30% decrease in stray cats in target areas by Year 3
- Continuing improvements in subsequent years of all metrics
- Less damage to the mental health of pound and shelter staff tasked with killing healthy and treatable cats and kittens
- Greater proportion of cats admitted to pounds and shelters adopted
- Reduced costs to councils for cat management
What exactly is an 'urban stray cat'?
Urban stray cats are unowned or semi-owned cats living in urban and peri-urban areas of Australia, or may be wandering or lost owned cats. Semi-owned and unowned cats live either on their own or in groups (known as “colonies”). They rely directly or indirectly on humans for food and shelter to survive. Unowned or semi-owned cats may, for example, live on the grounds of a shopping centre, community housing complex, university or private property. Semi-owned cats are directly fed and often provided other care by specific people, but those individuals do not perceive themselves as official 'owners' of the cats, but rather as caregivers.
Are feral cats included in this trial?
No. Feral cats are very different from urban stray cats. Ferals, unlike urban strays, have no reliance on humans directly or indirectly for food or shelter, but rather hunt and survive on their own. They are typically found in the wild at least two to three kilometers from the nearest human habitation or building.
What if people want the cats gone?
Recent Australian research found that approximately 80% of people would support a Community Cat Program in their area to manage stray cats. If someone does not want cats to come onto their property, we will work with them to develop a mutually acceptable resolution. This may include providing humane deterrents to stop cats from entering the property. These can be very effective when used properly. We will also provide information and encouragement to owners of wandering cats to help them keep their cats safely and happily at home, including desexing support.
Isn’t this just trap, neuter and return (TNR)?
Our research is much more extensive than simply trap, neuter and return. In community cat programs, healthy urban stray cats captured by local government and those unidentified or unclaimed stray cats brought by the general public to local pounds and shelters and not readily adoptable, will also be desexed and returned to their home. We will also desex owned cats whose owners cannot afford the surgery. In addition to desexing, we are also looking to increase responsible pet cat ownership behaviours, decrease abandonment, resolve disputes involving outdoor cats and generally address most of the community’s cat issues.
Isn’t trapping, desexing and leaving cats outdoors currently illegal in Australia?
In all states, desexing urban strays and leaving them where they live may be considered abandonment, and in some states, it is also considered release of 'restricted matter', both of which are illegal under various government legislation. However, before beginning the research at each location, we will obtain all the necessary exemptions and permits from relevant state and local governments. Our aim is to demonstrate that this approach to cat management works, so we can get changes in state legislation to make it legal in all states in the future.
If this trial is successful, state governments may be persuaded to change existing legislation so that all Australian Councils can use Community Cat Programs to reduce urban stray cat numbers and associated concerns. This would represent the most important change in domestic cat management laws in Australia in our lifetime.
Why are cats being prioritised over dogs?
The number of cats being euthanased in pounds and shelters is much greater than the number of dogs. For example, the proportion of animals euthanased in shelters and pounds in Australia is estimated to be 52% for cats, while for dogs it is 12%. However, there is a big range in outcomes for cats, with some councils euthanasing only 7% of cats and others 98%. The goal is to only be euthanasing animals on humane grounds - those animals where treatment would not be expected to restore them to a reasonable quality of life. This is approximately 5% or less of intake. Depending on the community, stray cats make up 60 to 90% of the intake of shelter and pound animals. Reducing cat intake will reduce costs for animal welfare organisations and councils, reduce the number of healthy and treatable animals killed, and mean there are more resources available to help dogs.
Why are we focusing on stray cats instead of other basic animal welfare issues?
Some may feel it’s a luxury to devote resources to desexing stray cats when other pressing human, animal welfare and environmental concerns exist. Desexing cats in a smart and strategic way can help prevent nuisance issues for people, death and suffering of cats who are killed or get stressed and sick in pounds and shelters, and native wildlife predation. For example, an estimated 80% of kittens entering shelters and pounds are born to stray cats, both unowned and semi-owned. If kittens are a major source of overcrowding in your local shelter, desexing your community’s stray cats could be the most effective way to resolve this. As another example, if enough stray cats were desexed, nuisance complaints would go down and animal management officers might be able to focus on more positive support roles. In the end, desexing urban stray cats is what will make the problems associated with their unchecked reproduction go away.
We are bound by old legislation and old thinking.
Won’t cats left outdoors predate on local and native wildlife?
Reducing predation by reducing the urban stray cat population is one of the goals of the Community Cat Program. Fewer cats will mean less predation. This will be achieved by desexing stray and pet cats, encouraging cat owners to keep their pets confined indoors or in outdoor enclosures and promoting responsible cat stewardship. Although there are community concerns about cats remaining in their outdoor homes, research shows that cats’ main prey in urban areas is mice, rats and small lizards like skinks or geckos. Except for some individual cats, birds comprise a small proportion of prey animals, and most are common birds such as noisy miners. Providing sufficient food to meet each cat’s nutritional needs is an important way to minimize predation.
Won’t euthanasing stray cats reduce their numbers and predation faster than desexing and leaving them in place?
For decades, we have tried to eliminate urban stray cats by trapping and killing them, currently at the rate of approximately 80,000 per year. The fact we are still facing cat overpopulation today, after all the resources spent on lethal control, speaks loudly to the failure of that approach.
There are many reasons why trap-and-kill does not work to reduce cat numbers on anything more than a very short-term basis. Cats are good breeders – when they are captured and removed from their environment, they are soon replaced by new cats, a phenomenon known as the vacuum effect. Removing enough cats fast enough to prevent this would require a vast amount of resources far beyond the means of our councils. Citizens who care for the cats are also unlikely to cooperate with authorities when the likely outcome will be the death of the animals. There is also the constant flow into the free-roaming cat population of abandoned and often unaltered pet cats. All these factors combined, point to the futility of trying to permanently lower the number of cats by simply removing and killing them.
Desexing cats, when done in a targeted manner which results in a high percentage (>50%) of strays in a given area being desexed, can lead to lower populations in the long-term. This will protect wildlife much more effectively than continuing to use a method which has failed over and over again.
Why should I support the Community Cat Program when many conservationists want cats eradicated?
This research project on the Community Cat Program shares a common goal with conservationists – fewer cats on the landscape. Where we disagree is on how to get there. Many wildlife advocates seek the complete removal of all outdoor cats from our communities. We believe this is highly impractical and unlikely to ever even be attempted, let alone succeed. Eradication of cats on a large scale has only been achieved at great expense on remote, uninhabited islands using a variety of techniques that are not safe or acceptable in urban settings, including the introduction of feline disease, wide-spread poisoning and hunting. Based on published calculations for removal of cats from islands, it would cost more than 2-3% of our GDP every year for 10 years to substantially reduce the numbers of feral and urban stray cats across Australia.
By contrast, research has found that in cities and towns, desexing stray cats and leaving them in their home territories is less costly than trying to kill them, more aligned with public opinion, and much more effective at lowering cat numbers. NSW’s Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES) has lent its support to our research because it knows that current methods based on trapping and killing cats that are not adopted is not working. This is because there are simply too many cats and too many kittens being born for trap and kill programs to have any medium to long term effect in reducing cat numbers. For example, to get a similar decrease in cat numbers to high-intensity desexing programs, 50% of the stray cat population has to be killed every 6 months. The cost to the government is too high and this level of killing would not be acceptable to the community.
Why can’t urban stray cats be trapped, removed and euthanased to reduce their numbers?
We have been trying to remove stray cats from our cities and towns for decades. It hasn’t worked because the amount of resources needed to successfully reduce the stray cat population is staggering. For cat numbers to go down using lethal control, we would need to trap and kill 30 to 50% of all stray cats and kittens every six months for ten years. For example, in Sydney or Melbourne, 150,000 to 200,000 cats would need to be killed in the first year at a cost of $100 million. The community will not support this and councils can’t afford it.
Trapping and killing urban stray cats does not work even when all the cats in a colony (a group of cats that share a common territory) are removed. Soon after their removal, cats from surrounding colonies usually move in to take advantage of the vacated habitat and its newly available food and shelter. They breed and before long, there are just as many cats present as before. A similar dynamic occurs when not all the cats in a colony are able to be removed, and one or more entire females remain. Kittens born to the ones left behind now have less competition for resources, making them likely more will survive. Again, it is not long before the same number of cats occupies the area. Abandonment of undesexed cats can also lead to rapid repopulation of vacant territory.
To our knowledge, no research studies have shown any sustained community-wide reduction in urban stray cat numbers from trap and kill programs.
One of the best-funded trap and kill programs of stray cats in urban areas of Australia is operated by the Brisbane City Council at a cost of approximately $250,000/year. They employ two full-time trappers with KPIs to trap 1000 cats annually, of which 90% are killed. However, there are 40,000 to 60,000 unowned cats in Brisbane, of which half are females each producing an average of 5 kittens per year (100,000 to 150,000 kittens), and each of those kittens can produce kittens by 6 months of age. Clearly, these local government trap and kill programs are ineffective in reducing the population of unowned cats.
Why can’t urban stray cats be adopted instead?
Many urban stray cats are not well socialised to people. When kittens reach a certain age, typically around 8 weeks old, it can take an intensive amount of time, effort and resources to tame them to the point where they can become pets. Shelters and rescue organisations, stretched thin with the work they are already doing with tens of thousands of cats, cannot realistically be expected to socialise and find homes for most urban stray cats.
What if the feeding of stray cats is banned?
Some may believe if feeding strays is banned and no food is purposely made available, stray cats will go away. This is not true. Cats are highly territorial and will not merely pick up and move away if deprived of food. Instead, they are more likely to locate new food sources within their territory or encroach closer into human habitations as they grow hungrier and more desperate. When sufficient food is not provided by humans to meet the cat’s nutritional needs, the cat will hunt to prevent death from starvation. If they do not find adequate replacements and become malnourished, they become more susceptible to parasites like fleas which they then spread as they explore homes, workplaces, garages, etc. This process can last for weeks. They continue to reproduce as well. As a result, feeding bans – if enforced – tend to make the situation worse, not better.
A second reason why feeding bans are rarely effective is because they are almost impossible to enforce. People who care about the cats are bonded to them as strongly as owners are to their pets. They will go to great lengths to feed their cats rather than let them starve, risking their homes, jobs and even their liberty. Moreover, unless colony sites are kept under constant surveillance, someone determined to feed the cats will usually succeed without being detected. Australian research shows that 3-9% of adults feed daily one or more cats they do not own. In a city of 1 million residents, this translates to 30,000 to 90,000 cat feeders and cats. It is simply not possible to use feeding bans to control cat numbers because there are insufficient government officers to police it and the costs are too high.
Will the health and well-being of the cats suffer if they are left outdoors?
Many overseas studies have found that urban stray cats enjoy good health and welfare similar to pet cats. Their health will be further improved through desexing, vaccination and any needed parasite treatment. In our study, cats will also be microchipped to an owner, caregiver or to the participating organisation, such as an animal welfare organisation or local government. That way, if a cat should become ill or injured, we will know who to contact.
Will any cats be killed?
Based on overseas studies, we expect approximately 0.5% of cats - that’s 5 in every 1,000 cats - may be euthanased due to poor health conditions that are untreatable and will cause suffering that cannot be resolved with treatment. This will be a last resort and will only be done if a medical management plan is not an option.
What happens if a mum is trapped and separated from her newborn kittens?
We will make every effort to avoid trapping mother cats if her kittens are too young to survive the separation. Much will depend on whether it is known a mum has newborns. If it is, then trapping of the mother will be delayed until the kittens can eat on their own and survive without her while she is being desexed.
It may not be discovered until after a cat has been trapped and transported for surgery that she is lactating and may be nursing young kittens. In that case, she will be prioritised for desexing and returned ASAP. A spayed female can continue to nurse.
If resources allow and it is possible to do, both the mum and her kittens will be captured at the same time so they can be kept together until the kittens are weaned.
What happens with pregnant cats?
Pregnant cats will typically be desexed if, in the opinion of the attending veterinarian, the procedure can be done safely.
What happens if a cat enrolled in the program ends up at a pound or shelter?
All cats participating in the Community Cat Program will be microchipped to their owner, caregiver, or participating animal welfare or local government organisation. They will also be ear-tipped to indicate they are desexed. In most cases, unless there is good cause to do otherwise when a healthy ear-tipped and microchipped cat arrives at a pound or shelter, it will be returned to its home.
Is ear-tipping cruel?
Ear-tipping is the universal sign of a desexed stray cat. One centimetre is removed from the tip of the left ear in a straight line cut while the cat is under anaesthesia. There is little or no bleeding and healing is rapid.
For the protection of the cats and the efficiency of a cat management program, it must be possible to identify quickly and at a distance which cats are desexed. This avoids unnecessary trapping and anaesthesia and allows caregivers and program staff to focus on capturing cats who are not yet desexed. No better or safer alternative has been developed. It is not done for cosmetic reasons, as ear-cropping is with dogs.
Ear tipping protects the cats when combined with community education so that the community knows that an ear-tipped cat is not lost and does not need to be rescued if it appears healthy. However, if it appears sick or injured, the cat should be taken to the nearest veterinarian or shelter because it has a microchip which will allow the responsible organisation to be contacted to provide care, OR if it cannot be caught, notify the nearest shelter or municipal pound with the exact location and a description of the cat.
Ear-tipping of stray cats is recommended by:
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
- Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)
- Alley Cat Allies
- International Cat Care
- Neighbourhood Cats
- PetSmart Charities
- Best Friends Animal Society
- Cats Protection UK
- San Francisco Animal Care and Control
- San Antonio Humane Society
I am opposed to desexing animals. It’s not natural.
Cats are prolific breeders. A female cat can produce three litters of kittens a year, usually of three to five kittens each. These kittens can then start breeding as young as four months old.
Without desexing, the cats’ numbers quickly increase. When there are too many cats in an area, their own welfare may suffer from disease, predation and malnourishment. They can also become a burden and nuisance to local residents, leading to complaints, acts of cruelty and impoundment.
On average, close to 50% of cats entering pounds and shelters are killed. Some councils currently kill as many as 98% of cats. It is more humane to desex the cats and prevent their overpopulation than allow them to breed unchecked and let them die or be killed when their numbers get too high. Desexing is also more compassionate for shelter and pound staff currently tasked with killing a constant stream of cats and kittens, which harms their mental health and increases their suicide risk.
Is it helpful for stray cat colonies to have a caregiver?
Yes, it is helpful for both the cats and those trying to manage them. A caregiver can make trapping for purposes of desexing easier and faster by establishing a feeding pattern and identifying each colony member. After the cats are desexed, a caregiver provides regular food and makes sure they have adequate shelter, both essential for the cats’ well-being. In addition, the caregiver can monitor the colony for any cats who become ill or injured and need further treatment, and for new cats who enter the colony. The new arrivals can then quickly be trapped and either desexed or adopted. Finally, the caregiver provides local residents with someone to contact and work with should any problems arise.
What health care will cats in the Community Cat Program receive?
All cats participating in the program will be desexed, microchipped, vaccinated, treated for fleas, worms and other parasites, and provided care for any other health issues.
Are you testing cats who will remain outdoors for FIV?
Cats who will be desexed and then continue to live in their outdoor homes will be tested only if they are ill and showing symptoms consistent with an active case of Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus (FIV). As recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners, healthy cats will not be tested for FIV. Reasons for this protocol include:
False-positive test results are substantially higher in healthy cats who demonstrate no clinical signs consistent with infection.
Culling healthy cats who test positive for FIV will not meaningfully lower the prevalence of the disease among outdoor cats, including pets with outdoor access. In other words, the risk of infection to non-FIV cats would remain virtually the same with or without removing FIV positive cats. Because it is so frequent in outdoor cats in Australia, and cats are prolific breeders, the number of healthy FIV positive cats that would need to be killed to lower the prevalence, would not be acceptable to the community or affordable.
FIV is transmitted primarily through pregnancies and deep bite wounds associated with mating behaviours. Desexing, by minimizing these modes of transmission, will reduce the spread of the disease.
FIV prevalence decreases in areas where community cat programs are implemented because there is less fighting.
The strain of FIV found in Australia is relatively mild and many FIV-positive cats remain healthy, do not show symptoms for years and may die of other causes.
Cat carers will not participate in the program once it becomes known that up to 30% of their healthy cats will be killed because they test positive. This will rapidly lead to the failure of the program.
How will the cats be confined while they are being held for desexing?
When they are confined, cats who are unsocialized and fearful of humans feel safest in small, covered spaces where they can “hide.” They do not like to be in large, open spaces. For example, if an unsocialized cat is placed in a large cage with a small carrier inside, it will spend almost all the time in the carrier. Because of this, unsocialized cats - those who will remain in their outdoor homes after desexing - will be confined in their traps, which will be kept covered with a sheet or towel. The traps are big enough to allow adequate movement for the cat to eat and eliminate and be comfortable.
How can veterinarians participate in Community Cat Programs?
Desexing is, of course, the key to a Community Cat Program. Many veterinarians are already participating in desexing programs by working with Councils, animal welfare groups, the National Desexing Network and other desexing organisations. Some contribute by reducing their prices as a community service. In the specific locations where this project is being conducted, many veterinary organisations and clinics are offering their support. If there is a Community Cat Program in your area and you are interested in learning how you can help, please contact us, your Council or the animal welfare agency leading the work locally.