By ALEC SMART
From 1 July all cat owners in NSW have up to two months to desex their cat or pay for a permit. All cats over 4 months old must be neutered (rendered permanently incapable of reproduction) or otherwise registered as non-desexed, which requires an $80 annual permit. This is in addition to the pet registration fee for all cats (desexed cats need only be registered and micro-chipped once for life).
In a revision to the NSW Companion Animals Act 1998, a cat owner not complying with the new ruling is guilty of an offence and liable to a maximum penalty of 50 penalty units.
The revision brings NSW into line with ACT, South Australia and Western Australia. The law was reformed to create a stronger incentive to desex cats, although there are exemptions for old, frail or sick animals with a veterinary certification.
Cat shelters and rehoming centres can apply for a section 88B exemption that allows up to 12 months to desex cats of any age that come into their care.
The laws came about after the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) undertook a major review of animal welfare policy and legislation. (This resulted in the release of an issues paper in February 2020 that invited public comment and remained open until 21 June before the changes were implemented.)
The reformation of cat ownership laws also coincided with new permits issued for ownership of restricted or dangerous dogs, which include the following breeds: American pit bull terrier, pit bull terrier, dogo Argentino, Brazilian mastiff (fila Brasileiro), Canary mastiff (perro de Presa Canario) and the Japanese mastiff (tosa).
Cats (Felis catus – the only domesticated species in the Felidae family including lions and tigers) can become sexually mature at 4 months of age, although queen cats usually reach sexual maturity between 5–10 months, and tomcats between 5–7 months.
Cats produce a maximum of three litters per year, with litter sizes ranging from 1-5 kittens, and live an average lifespan of 15 years. (The oldest known cat, ‘Creme Puff’, reached a verified age of 38, reportedly due to a diet supplemented with coffee, cream and red wine.)
The National Desexing Network (NDN), a nationwide referral system for affordable pet neutering provided to pet owners with limited finances, recommends desexing cats for a number of reasons. Every year in July NDN organises National Desexing Month. As well as helping to stop overpopulation and lengthening their lives, NDN list other benefits associated with desexing cats:
“Health: Reduced risk of getting cancer or other diseases of the reproductive organs, such as testicular cancer, prostate cancer/disorders in males, and cystic ovaries, ovarian tumors, acute uterine infections and breast cancer in females.
“Behavioural: Male cats are less prone to wander and fight, and less likely to get lost or injured. Neutering reduces territorial behaviour such as spraying indoors and cats become more affectionate. Also eliminates ‘heat’ cycles in female cats and their efforts to get outside in search for a mate.
“Cost: Reduces the cost to the community of having to care for unwanted cats in pounds and shelters. Without additional kittens, there’s no need to find homes for unwanted or unexpected litters. Also, cats that aren’t are wandering and getting into fights are less vulnerable to injuries, this reducing vet bills…”
Neutering increases a cat’s life expectancy: a study found neutered male cats live twice as long as sexually active males, mainly due to the massive reduction in vicious fights during mating seasons, while neutered female cats live 62% longer than non-neutered females.
Multilingual Cat Educational, an organisation that provides information on cat registration and welfare in several languages, also encourages neutering.
“Every year, thousands of unwanted kittens and cats are surrendered to council pounds and shelters throughout Australia. Sadly, many of them are euthanased. Many homeless kittens and cats are also persecuted on the streets by people who dislike cats. Cats on the street can also be seriously injured or killed by cars. Unfortunately, this is also sometimes deliberately caused by people who see them as pests and do not value their lives.
“Every cat deserves to have a good loving home and to be respected and protected. The best thing you can do to help end the suffering of cats on the streets and to help reduce the euthanasia of homeless cats is to have your own cat desexed.”
According to the RSPCA: “A microchip is a permanent method of electronic identification. The chip itself is very small – about the size of a grain of rice – and is implanted just under the skin, between the shoulder blades at the back of your pet’s neck.
“Each chip has a unique number that is detected using a microchip scanner. The microchip number is recorded on a database registry with details about the animal and owner. Should your pet stray or become lost, vets, animal shelters and local councils can scan your pet for a microchip and contact you via the database.”
Once your cat’s microchip is registered, your contact information remains accessible at the National Pet Microchip Registration Database, making it easy to find and retrieve if your pet is lost and found by others.
Until the new law came into effect on 1 July, it was relatively easy for a thief to steal a cat that wasn’t micro-chipped and claim it as their own.
City Hub learned of an incident in early mid-2019 of a cat in the inner-west that was stolen from its home by a neighbour, who then registered and micro-chipped it in his name. The original owner tried to regain ownership, but was told that by NSW Police because the cat was now micro-chipped and registered to the new owner, it effectively belonged to them.
As the original owner had no proof of ownership in the form of photos or film footage, nor vaccination certificates, medical records or reliable witness testimonies, there was no law that could force the thief to return the cat.
City Hub spoke to the RSPCA about the matter and they confirmed that although this form of theft was not unusual, there was nothing that could be done legally to reverse the situation. The new laws make cat theft difficult because a microchipped cat is like a car or electronic device, with its own unique identity number.
Street and stray cats needing homes
If you find a stray cat you should first check to see whether there are posters in the vicinity or on lost pet websites advertising a missing cat. Sometimes the cat has recently moved into the area and has become disoriented, so it might belong to new neighbours. The cat may be microchipped, but because you can’t feel the chip it will need to be scanned to reveal its identity.
According the Cat Protection Society, an independent registered charity that only operates in NSW: “If the cat is friendly and will let you pick them up, you should try to contain them. Put the cat in the bathroom or laundry and give them a bowl of food and water. Call your local pound, shelter, or vet to see whether you can take the cat to them to be scanned for a microchip as the cat might be lost. If you’re not sure where to take the cat, ring your local council and ask for the companion animal officer who should be able to advise you.
“Remember that when you transport the cat, you will need to have the cat in a secure carrier or box. Never transport a cat in the boot of your car or leave a cat alone in the car. If you have no transport, ask the council whether they have a pick-up service for the pound.
“If your council doesn’t have a pick-up service, you may need to call an animal welfare agency to see whether they can pick up the cat for you. This should be your last option, as these organisations are charities with limited resources and they might not have the staff to assist you. You will need to pay a fee for this service.
“If the cat is friendly and you would like to keep them, you still need to make certain that the cat is not lost so ask your local vet to scan the cat for a microchip before having the cat desexed, vaccinated, and microchipped.
“If the cat is not friendly but you like having the cat around, try gaining their trust by feeding them. Then you can take the cat to your local vet to be scanned for a microchip to make sure the cat is not lost.
“If you need assistance with discount desexing, please contact Cat Protection. You will need to register your new cat and you will also need to start regular parasite treatments.”
Sydney Street Cats is a registered charity and also provide a rescue and rehoming service for street cats – many of which were once domesticated and left human company, or were born in urban neighbourhoods and co-exist alongside people.
“Sydney Street Cats rescues cats and kittens from the streets and cares for them until they are ready to find a new forever home. Most of our cats and kittens come from rough beginnings and we nurture them to the point that they become beautiful family companions.
“All cats and kittens come desexed, microchipped, vaccinated, wormed and flead and their adoption fee is $220 each, which just covers the cost of all of their veterinary treatment and care.”
Cat Protection Society: https://catprotection.org.au
RSPCA cat adoption: https://www.rspca.org.au/adopt-pet/adopting-catkitten
Sydney Street Cats: https://sydneystreetcats.org.au/
National Desexing Network (directory of where to find low-cost desexing): https://ndn.org.au
Multilingual Cat Educational (cat welfare information in several languages): https://multilingualcateducational.weebly.com
Feral cat menace
The compulsory desexing of cats will reduce the annual upsurge in feral cats from urban areas, while other programs are in place to counter the feral problem.
In a December 1912 article in the Sunday Times titled The Cat Problem in Australia, zoologist Albert Sherbourne Le Souef (the first director of Sydney Taronga Zoo from 1916 – 1939), wrote “The wild cats in Australia are in for a very cosy time. They have practically no enemies… Their agility in climbing would keep them clear of dingoes.
“The results of their degradations are already noticeable. Ground game and small marsupials are, in certain districts, being greatly diminished in numbers, and it seems that in the future we can count on a partial extermination of some species…”
Le Souef’s words were prescient. Just a century later there are literally millions of feral cats wreaking havoc across the whole of Australia.
Historical records reveal that domestic cats were imported to Australia in 1804 to control the rabbit, rat and mice populations that were already prevalent and problematic around the first British settlement of Sydney – less than 20 years after their arrival.
Rabbits were brought with the First Fleet in April 1788 for food and later released by hunters for sport shooting; rats and mice followed on ships and disembarked alongside human passengers.
Yet by 1820 the first feral cats were being reported around Sydney, preying on species other than rabbits, mice and rats, and have since become one of Australia’s most invasive and destructive species. Like the European red fox, they have been linked to the significant decline and extinction of a range of native animals and birds.
Red foxes were imported between 1833-1845 by English settlers to continue their traditional pursuit of fox hunting on horseback with purpose-bred foxhounds, a sport popular among the aristocracy in Britain. They now range over 80 per cent of Australia – less extensive than cats, although neither have penetrated deeply into dense rainforest and mangroves.
However, in common with feral cats, red foxes have few natural enemies, are better-suited to nocturnal hunting where their prey hasn’t evolved to avoid a fast-moving silent predator, and can climb trees (the fox is obviously much less agile in tree branches than a cat).
In a 2004 report by the NSW Govt Game Council titled Counting the Cost: Impact of Invasive Animals in Australia, the Australian red fox population was then estimated at 7.2 million, the feral cat at 18 million.
Feral cats do the most damage to ground-nesting birds and small native animals, although they can pursue their prey up trees and into dens. They are implicated in the extinction of several native marsupial and bird species, yet, like foxes, are only kept in check by dingoes, although their young are vulnerable to predation by raptors such as eagles and owls.
Feral cats have also inhibited and frustrated attempts to reintroduce threatened species back into areas where cats have caused their decline, because they resume killing the newly-released animals too.
Besides hunting native species, feral cats also carry infectious diseases that can be transmitted to native animals, including sarcosporidiosis and toxoplasmosis.
Sarcosporidiosis is an intracellular parasite that is absorbed through either close contact or eating contaminated meat, and targets the body in one of two ways. If it enters the muscles, it causes painful swellings accompanied by erythema, tenderness, generalized muscle weakness, and fevers. If absorbed into the bloodstream it causes acute lesions (edema, hemorrhages and necrosis).
The former leads to weakness and spasms, the latter causes severe diarrhea and vomiting, and death can occur due to malnourishment through loss of fluids and electrolytes.
Toxoplasmosis, transmitted via exposure to cat feces, causes influenza-like symptoms and can result in blindness, a damaged central nervous system, fatigue or respiratory problems, with pregnant females vulnerable to miscarriage or giving birth to offspring with defects.
Unlike foxes, feral cats seldom ingest baited (poison) meat and avoid traps due to their inherent shyness, so the most successful means of preventing their preying on wildlife is fencing – which is expensive and labour-intensive to both install and maintain. Fencing can only be used in limited terrain.