Laws could place Canberra cats under 24 hour house arrest

“Who’s a pretty birdy…”


Residents of Canberra could soon be fortifying their backyard fences to their stop cats from escaping and could even have to take the family moggy out for a walk in a harness if strict new legislation to confine felines within household boundaries for literally 24 hours a day are passed.

A new background report prepared for the ACT Government’s Responsible Cat Ownership Steering Committee recommends extending existing domestic cat containment rules now in forces for seven newer suburbs be extended to not only rope in all new suburbs in the national capital but also 51 of Canberra’s existing suburbs.

At the moment just seven of Canberra’s suburbs presently fall under the round-the-clock moggy containment regime: Bonner, Coombs, Crace, Forde, Lawson, North Watson and Wright.

Canberrans, if the available data is to be believed, don’t seem to have much of a soft spot for cats. A 2011 community survey found strong and widespread community support for containing cats, with 91 per cent of ACT residents agreeing that there were some community benefits if the movements of felines were restricted.

Part of the issue is Canberra’s proud status as the so-called ‘bush capital’. Its 51 existing suburbs are labelled ‘high priority’ because they adjoin important wildlife habitats. In fact, half of Canberra’s suburbs are within 500m of a threatened fauna habitat, and cats — which are natural predators — have been hunting down woodland birds, lizards and flightless insects, as well as annoying neighbours with their territorial spraying, digging, fighting and yowling.

Under the rules governing current cat containment areas, rangers can trap roaming cats and fine their owners.

But policing the new cat containment areas won’t be easy, especially if residents simply choose to ignore the rules.

The background paper provided to the cat committe itself notes that: “Implementation of cat containment is reliant almost entirely on the voluntary compliance of residents within the declared containment suburbs.”

The paper, which was written by ANU academic Kathy Eyles and government environmental planner Michael Mulvaney, also makes other recommendations, including: a government-supervised trapping program targeting stray and roaming cats; banning cats from nature reserves; compulsory paid cat registration; better public education about cat owner responsibilities; greater compliance and enforcement and banning cat owners who do not de-sex or microchip their cats from reclaiming them from an animal shelter if they have strayed.

Cat containment around the clock is an approach animal behaviour specialist Dr Robert Holmes – a self-confessed cat enthusiast – is fully in favour of and one that he feels will need to be supported by a shift in Australians’ cultural values about cats.

Dr Holmes, a veternarian who runs animal behaviour clinics in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, argues that 24-hour cat containment is a ‘lay down misere’ and reckons that confined cats lived three times longer than domestic cats allowed to roam.

“It’s fraught with emotion but logic says that the cats live so much longer. They’re not doing what they do so effectively, which is be predators, and it’s nice to have the cats around when you wish to interact with them,” Dr Holmes said.

He said a similar attitude shift was needed among cat owners to one that had occurred towards dogs roaming the streets in previous decades.

“Twenty to 30 years ago, dogs ran in the street and it was acceptable. It caused a huge number of road traffic accidents and vets worked most days doing orthopaedic surgery but we have changed our cultural attitudes over time and now to see a dog roaming would be remarkable and dobbed in.”

Dr Holmes said he could feel a similar attitude shift beginning to occur around the confinement of cats.

“The scientific evidence is that it’s not cruel. The frustration of confinement of an animal having been used to freedom is normally temporary and can be helped,” he added.

He said it was obviously easier to curtail kittens than to restrain older cats who were used to roaming, brawling and hunting in the outside world.

It’s one thing to dismantle cultural beliefs about cat confinement being cruel; but it’s quite another to successfully foil your cat’s escape attempts in your own house, balcony or backyard.

The Victorian vet has made improvised cat shelters and devised ways (not always foolproof, he admits) of keeping his cats inside and he said it did not need to be expensive or complicated.

Renters or apartment dwellers subject to strata laws could consider portable cat shelters, of the type sold by Cat Max. Or you could adapt your environs with some handy DIY.

“In your own backyard you can do some incredible things with a bit of timber, some chicken wire and a staple gun,” Dr Holmes said.

For people who consider DIY as a form of purgatory, it might be best to have an experienced installer visit, preferably somebody who has cat proofed properties in the past. There’s already a small industry catering for the demand of eco-conscious owners. Companies like Oscillot produce fences with revolving paddles at the top to defeat the climbing ambitions of cats which can successfully sink their claws in to make good an escape.

The confinement trend is by no means restricted to the Capital. The Victorian Department of Primary Industries has produced a guide on how to build cat proof fencing and enclosures which ACT residents would do well to get their mitts on before legislation comes in.

Once ACT residents have worked out how to contain their cats, it’s important to keep a cat challenged, stimulated and relaxed.

Dr Holmes has written a paper, “Practical Advice for Cat Confinement”, which includes advice on scratching posts, cubby houses, walking a cat on a harness, litter trays, cat nip and toys.

It can be as cheap and easy as cutting a hole in a cardboard box and lining it with an old jumper to make a cat cubby house or letting your pet play with a paper bag.

Small spaces can also be made cat-friendly by thinking in three-dimensional terms: cat scratching posts going up to the ceiling, walkways made into enclosures, homemade cat cubbies and grooming, training and playing with your cat.

As for keeping them off the lounge or bed . . . well that could be a whole new academic study in itself.

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3 thoughts on “Laws could place Canberra cats under 24 hour house arrest

  1. I agree with this article. Four years ago my 10 year old Ragdoll male cat that was desexed and microchipped, was killed by a tiger snake in his own fully fenced back yard which he only used to go to the toilet. My new Ragdoll has never been outside and does not know life any other way. We play with him daily, he interacts with us and is very much part of our family. Because he stays inside, his fur is very clean and he is allowed to sleep on our bed. He also has his own cat beds to sleep in when he wishes. When we are going out, he looks forward to watching his cat dvd! He also loves watching Dr Harry and David Attenborough. I do not need to stress out about his whereabouts, whether he is in danger. He knows our routine and rounds us up to go to bed at the same time each night. He us a real character and he is very loved. We live in Sydney.

  2. Ragdolls are pretty placid cats though!! no way would all cats be so happy with that life, plus they need sunshine like most living creatures. That’s not a life for a cat, sorry. At least give it some supervised sunshine.

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