Feral cats

Feral cats threaten the survival of over 100 native species in Australia. They have caused the extinction of some ground-dwelling birds and small to medium-sized mammals. They are a major cause of decline for many land-based endangered animals such as the bilby, bandicoot, bettong and numbat. Many native animals are struggling to survive so reducing the number killed by this introduced predator will allow their populations to grow.

Map showing location of feral cats in Australia

Map showing locations of feral cats in Australia
From Assessing Invasive Animals in Australia (2008) National Land & Water Resources Audit, Canberra
Download the map as a PDf file (PDF - 771.49 KB)

Feral cats can carry infectious diseases which can be transmitted to native animals, domestic livestock and humans.

Feral cats are the same species as domestic cats, however they live and reproduce in the wild and survive by hunting or scavenging. They are found all over Australia in all habitats, including forests, woodlands, grasslands, wetlands and arid areas. The map illustrates the estimated abundance of feral cats across the country.

Feral cats are predominantly solitary and nocturnal, spending most of the day in the safety of a shelter such as a rabbit burrow, log or rock pile.  They are carnivores, generally eating small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects depending on their availability.

More general information on feral cats is in the fact sheet The Feral Cat.

Key threatening process under the EPBC Act

Predation by feral cats is listed as a key threatening process under section 188 of Australia’s national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

A threatening process threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community. If it leads to the further endangerment of a listed native species or ecological community, or if it adversely affects two or more listed threatened species or ecological communities, the threatening process is eligible to be treated as a key threatening process. Once a key threatening process is listed under the EPBC Act a threat abatement plan can be put into place if it is shown to be 'a feasible, effective and efficient way' to abate the threatening process.

The first feral cat threat abatement plan was prepared in 1999 and updated in 2008.

Threat Abatement Plan

The Threat abatement plan for predation by feral cats (2008) sets out a national framework to guide and coordinate Australia’s response to the impacts of feral cats on biodiversity. It identifies the research, management and other actions needed to ensure the long-term survival of native species and ecological communities affected by predation by feral cats.

Review of the Threat Abatement Plan

In 2014, a five yearly review of the Threat abatement plan for predation by feral cats found some significant advances in feral cat research and control since 2008. The use of remote sensing cameras and GPS tracking collars have improved ease of monitoring and in the near future, the availability of two new baits will add to the tools available to control feral cats. The eradication of feral cats from two Australian islands is complete and on a further two islands, eradication is in progress. The residents of Christmas Island are addressing the threat through a long-term programme to eradicate feral cats and phase out domestic cat ownership on their island.

A 2008 report on a project to test systems to monitor feral cat abundance is available: Evaluation of camera trap sampling designs used to determine change in occupancy rate and abundance of feral cats

The Minister for the Environment noted the review of the Threat abatement plan for predation by feral cats in November 2014. He agreed to the drafting of a variation of the threat abatement plan. The draft variation will be available for public comment in March 2015.

Domestic cat eating a crimson rosella Copyright C Potter

Cat eating a crimson rosella
Copyright C Potter

Challenges in controlling feral cats

Control of feral cats is challenging as they are found in very low densities over large home ranges and are shy, making them difficult to locate.

The current control methods of shooting and trapping feral cats are quite difficult, expensive and time consuming and require skilled staff. The most effective form of feral cat control over large areas is poison baiting.

Baiting

Poison baits intended for feral cats must be laid on the ground (as cats, unlike other feral species such as foxes, will not dig up a buried bait).

The Western Australian Government has developed the Eradicat® bait for feral cats for use in Western Australia. This bait comprises a small kangaroo and chicken sausage injected with a synthetic toxin known as 1080 which replicates a naturally-occurring poison found in some plant species in Western Australia. Many native animals in the region have developed resistance to this toxin.

In the northern and eastern states of Australia, poison baits lying on the ground can present a significant hazard to wildlife species. The Department of the Environment has developed a new bait for feral cats called Curiosity® that is designed to minimise or remove this hazard.

Curiosity® bait for feral cats

The Curiosity® bait for feral cats is a long-term $4.1 million project to develop a humane, broad-scale toxic bait to control feral cats in conservation areas.

Cat bait

Interior of a Curiosity bait showing a toxic pellet
Copyright Michael Johnston

What makes the Curiosity® cat bait different?

The Curiosity® bait for feral cats comprises a small meat-based sausage containing a small hard plastic pellet encapsulating a humane toxin. Cats do not have molar teeth and do not chew their food so they will reliably swallow portions of the sausage including the pellet. Most of our native animals nibble and chew their food so will reject the pellet. The pellet is designed to dissolve in the cat’s stomach and deliver a rapid dose of the toxin.

The Curiosity® bait for feral cats uses a new humane toxin called para-aminopropiophenone, or PAPP, which is considered best-practice world-wide and is analogous to the animal going into a sleep from which they do not wake up. The RSPCA have indicated they believe the cats die a humane death. The mode of action means there can be no secondary poisoning of any other animals from consuming a carcass of a cat that ate a Curiosity® bait containing PAPP.

Development and potential distribution of Curiosity®

The Australian Government has invested in the research and development of the Curiosity® bait for feral cats in partnership with the Victorian Government Department of Environment and Primary Industries and Western Australian Government Department of Parks and Wildlife, with assistance from Scientec Research Pty Ltd—an Australian biotechnology company.

Detail of PAPP/RhB pellets

Detail of toxic pellets
Copyright Michael Johnston

The Curiosity® bait for feral cats has undergone laboratory testing, cage trials and nine field efficacy trials in different parts of Australia. Links to detailed information on these field efficacy trials can be found below.

The Government is now in the process of getting the Curiosity® cat bait rigorously assessed so that it can be registered and supplied to the market. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) registration is required. The assessment is expected to be completed in 2016—paving the way for the planned commercial manufacture and supply of Curiosity®.

Curiosity® baits will be available for use in national parks and reserves; reserves such as those owned by Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy; and other key areas of conservation value identified by local or regional groups. Curiosity® baits will be available to large land-holders controlling feral cats. However, baiting around urban areas and any other area with domestic cats will be restricted. Users of Curiosity® will require a permit similar to those issued for other vertebrate pesticides.

The Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre has developed the PestSmart Toolkit to provide information and guidance on best-practice invasive animal management. It includes a specific toolkit for feral cats.

Field efficacy trial reports

Other trials using Curiosity® bait for feral cats

  • Use in the eradication of feral cats from Tasman Island, Tasmania in 2010
    The Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service has produced a video on the eradication of feral cats from Tasman Island - Tasman Island Natural Values Restoration Project - removing feral cats
  • Field efficacy testing Curiosity® bait for feral cats French Island, Victoria 2008
    There is no stand-alone report of this field efficacy study. In summary, a 60 km2 component of French Island National park was baited in Autumn 2008. 75 per cent of the feral cats fitted with transmitter collars died as a result of bait consumption.