A hidden toll: Australia’s cats kill almost 650 million reptiles a year



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A feral cat snapped by a remote camera in the wild.
NT government, Author provided

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Cats take a hefty toll on Australia’s reptiles – killing an estimated 649 million of them every year, including threatened species – according to our new research published in the journal Wildlife Research.

This follows the earlier discovery that cats take a similarly huge chunk out of Australian bird populations. As we reported last year, more than a million Australian birds are killed by cats every day. Since their introduction to Australia, cats have also driven many native mammal species extinct.




Read more:
For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day


We collated information from about 100 previous local studies of cats’ diets across Australia. These studies involved teasing apart the contents of more than 10,000 samples of faeces or stomachs from cats collected as part of management programs.

We tallied the number of reptiles found in these samples, and then scaled it up to Australia’s estimated cat population of between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. We also collated information from museums and wildlife shelters on the various animals that had been brought in after being killed or injured by cats.

We calculate that an average feral cat kills 225 reptiles per year, so the total feral cat population kills 596 million reptiles per year. This tally will vary significantly from year to year, because the cat population in inland Australia fluctuates widely between drought and rainy years.

On the hunt.
NT government, Author provided

We also estimated that the average pet cat kills 14 reptiles per year. That means that Australia’s 3.9 million pet cats kill 53 million reptiles in total each year. However, there is much less firm evidence to quantify the impact of pet cats, mainly because it is much more straightforward to catch and autopsy feral cats to see what they have been eating, compared with pet cats.

Binge eaters

According to our study, cats have been known to kill 258 different Australian reptiles (snakes, lizards and turtles – but not crocodiles!), including 11 threatened species.

The cat autopsies revealed that some cats binge on reptiles, with many cases of individual cats having killed and consumed more than 20 individual lizards within the previous 24 hours. One cat’s stomach was found to contain no less than 40 lizards.

Cat stomach contents, including several reptile parts.
Arid Recovery, Author provided

Such intensive predation probably puts severe pressure on local populations of some reptile species. There is now substantial evidence that cats are a primary cause of the ongoing decline of some threatened Australian reptile species, such as the Great Desert Skink.

By our estimate, the average Australian feral cat kills four times more lizards than the average free-roaming cat in the United States (which kills 59 individuals per year). But there are many more such cats in the US (between 30 million and 80 million), so the total toll on reptiles is likely similar.




Read more:
The war on feral cats will need many different weapons


The conservation of the Australian reptile fauna has been accorded lower public profile than that of many other groups. However, a recent international program has nearly completed an assessment of the conservation status of every one of Australia’s roughly 1,000 lizard and snake species.

Our research provides yet more evidence of the harm that cats are wreaking on Australia’s native wildlife. It underlines the need for more effective and strategic control of Australia’s feral cats, and for more responsible ownership of pet cats.

Pet cats that are allowed to roam will kill reptiles, birds and other small animals. Preventing pet cats from roaming will help the cats live longer and healthier lives – not to mention saving the lives of wildlife.


The ConversationThe authors acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer, Glenn Edwards, Alex Nankivell, John Read and Dani Stokeld to this research.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Cat plague is back after nearly 40 years in hiding – here’s what you need to know


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No cases of feline parvovirus were reported from the 1980s until 2015.
Simone Dalmeri

Mark Westman, University of Sydney and Richard Malik, University of Sydney

A deadly feline disease is now spreading between cats after hiding in nature for nearly 40 years. Multiple cases of feline parvovirus, also known as cat plague, or panleukopenia, have been reported in stay kittens in the greater Melbourne area this week.

Feline parvovirus was a common disease in the 1960s and 1970s. Australia was one of the first countries to develop an effective vaccine. Once widespread vaccination became routine, the disease was pushed back into nature.

Most cases of parvovirus are in kittens and young cats.
Raphael Schaller

In the 1970s, cases were typically seen in unvaccinated kittens purchased from markets or pet stores, and in shelters where vaccination protocols were lax.

Between the early 1980s and 2015, cases were unreported, but no doubt feral and semi-owned cats were still sporadically infected.

The re-emergence first occurred in animal shelters in Mildura and Melbourne in 2016 and south-western Sydney in 2016. Many cats died. Even survivors suffered greatly. In all these outbreaks, affected cats had one thing in common – they had not been vaccinated.

What is feline parvovirus and how does it kill?

Feline parvovirus has a predilection for infecting rapidly dividing tissues. Cells lining the small intestine of infected cats are killed, resulting in vomiting, diarrhoea (often bloody), fever, lethargy, anorexia and sometimes sudden death.

The bone marrow is transiently wiped out by the virus, resulting in a depletion of white blood cells. As a result, infected cats are unable to fight the invasion by secondary bacteria that attack the leaky gut wall.




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Most cases of feline parvovirus are in unvaccinated kittens or young cats. The welfare of cats is hugely impacted by this terrible disease – it makes cats miserable for many days, if they survive.

Treatment involves intensive therapy in hospital: intravenous fluids by infusion pump, medication to reduce vomiting, expensive anti-viral treatment (omega-interferon), opioids for pain relief, antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, and occasionally blood or plasma transfusions and nutritional support (feeding tubes).

This eight-week-old kitten, Cola, wasn’t vaccinated and contracted feline parvovirus. She needed a transfusion and recovered from the infection.
David Hughes

Treatment can costs thousands of dollars, and many owners just can’t afford it. But even with treatment, the fatality rate remains high.

Feline parvovirus is spread by faeco-oral contamination: from infected cats shedding virus in their faeces. Litter trays and natural latrines (such as sandboxes) are prime sources of infection.

This may occur where infected cats are kept close to uninfected cats (in shelters and pounds), and in homes where cats have outdoor access. But you can track feline parvovirus into your house on your shoes or clothing, so even 100% indoor cats are not safe.

Feline parvovirus can usually be quickly diagnosed by veterinarians using rapid point-of-care test kits and then confirmed in a lab.

There is no risk of this virus spreading to human patients.

How did it re-emerge?

Feline parvovirus was never completely eliminated from the Australian cat population and instead has been maintained at low levels in the unowned and feral cat population for the past 40 years. Remember, there are perhaps six times as many unowned cats than owned cats in Australia!

This adaptable virus also has the potential to infect foxes and wild dogs, only later to be passed back to cats, providing a variety of potential environmental reservoirs.




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Perhaps with an increased effort to rehabilitate and rehome “fringe dwelling cats”, it was inevitable that the virus would spill back from these unvaccinated cats into the general pet cat population, given waning herd immunity.

Consistent with this hypothesis is the first outbreak occurring in rural Mildura, a somewhat underprivileged socioeconomic area (government figures show the median household income is A$878 per week), and subject to incursions by feral cats, foxes and wild dogs – including dogs used for hunting.

Unvaccinated pet cats permitted the re-emergence of the virus.
David Vázquez

It is our suspicion that the cost of vaccinating the family cat (currently more than A$200 for a kitten requiring a course of two to three vaccines) exceeds the budget for many pet owners.

The best protection for any cat (and every cat) is widespread vaccination of as many cats as possible in the community at large. This “herd immunity” is the best protection against this highly contagious, persistent, resistant virus. When vaccination rates fall below 70%, cat populations are in trouble.

How do we protect pet cats?

Vaccination against feline parvovirus is highly effective (more than 99%) and is given by veterinarians as part of an F3 or F4 vaccine at the same time as a routine health check.

The Australian Veterinary Association recently recommended all cats be vaccinated annually. But with the modern range of vaccines, there is good evidence that in kittens older than 16 weeks, a single vaccination produces immunity which last several years

If a kitten has received two or three kitten vaccinations (the last one at 16-18 weeks of age), and a booster one year later, it likely has excellent protection against the virus, probably for several years, and possibly for life.

Is it time to vaccinate?
Krista Mangulsone

If your adult cat has received an annual vaccination in the past three years, it likely has excellent protection.

If your cat is more than three years overdue for its vaccination, it is sensible to visit your local veterinarian soon. Your cat will develop or maintain excellent protection within a few days of vaccination.

But what about unowned and feral cats?

We need to support efforts to vaccinate cats that have never been vaccinated against feline parvovirus – cats owned by people who are unable to afford vaccinations, and cats that have been dumped and are now unowned and free-roaming.

New South Wales is making some progress in this area. The NSW Cat Protection Society responded to a 2017 outbreak by subsidising free vaccinations for cat owners in Sydney. RSPCA NSW has ongoing targeted low-cost vaccination programs for cat owners, particularly in regional and remote areas of NSW.

Trap-neuter and return programs, while controversial, usually involve administering a F3/F4 vaccination to unowned and feral cats, thereby boosting herd immunity against feline parvovirus and also possibly reducing cat numbers.




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Finally, for people who cannot afford veterinary care because of their life circumstances, Pets in the Park and similar charities can provide another option for vaccination.

The ConversationRemember, the larger the proportion of the cat population that is vaccinated, the less chance any cat and every cat has of becoming infected. Stated another way, it’s far more effective to maximise the proportion of the cat population that is vaccinated, rather than over-vaccinating only a limited proportion of cats.

Mark Westman, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sydney and Richard Malik, Veterinary Internist (Specialist), University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day



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On the prowl in the outback.
Hugh McGregor/Arid Recovery, Author provided

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Cats kill more than a million birds every day across Australia, according to our new estimate – the first robust attempt to quantify the problem on a nationwide scale.

By combining data on the cat population, hunting rates and spatial distribution, we calculate that they kill 377 million birds a year. Rates are highest in Australia’s dry interior, suggesting that feral cats pose a serious and largely unseen threat to native bird species.


Read more: Ferals, strays, pets: how to control the cats that are eating our wildlife


This has been a contentious issue for more than 100 years, since the spread of feral cats encompassed the entire Australian mainland. In 1906 the ornithologist A.J. Campbell noted that the arrival of feral cats in a location often immediately preceded the decline of many native bird species, and he campaigned vigorously for action:

Undoubtedly, if many of our highly interesting and beautiful birds, especially ground-loving species, are to be preserved from total extinction, we must as a bird-lovers’ union, at no distant date face squarely a wildcat destruction scheme.

His call produced little response, and there has been no successful and enduring reduction in cat numbers since. Nor, until now, has there been a concerted effort to find out exactly how many birds are being killed by cats.

Counting the cost

To provide a first national assessment of the toll taken by cats on Australian birds, we have compiled almost 100 studies detailing the diets of Australia’s feral cats. The results show that the average feral cat eats about two birds every five days.

We then combined these statistics with information about the population density of feral cats, to create a map of the estimated rates of birds killed by cats throughout Australia.

Number of birds eaten per square kilometre.
Brett Murphy, Author provided

We conclude that, on average, feral cats in Australia’s largely natural landscapes kill 272 million birds per year. Bird-kill rates are highest in arid Australia (up to 330 birds per square km per year) and on islands, where rates can vary greatly depending on size.

We also estimate (albeit with fewer data) that feral cats in human-modified landscapes, such as the areas surrounding cities, kill a further 44 million birds each year. Pet cats, meanwhile, kill about 61 million birds per year.

Overall, this amounts to more than 377 million birds killed by cats per year in Australia – more than a million every day.

Which species are suffering?

In a related study, we also compiled records of the bird species being killed by cats in Australia. We found records of cats killing more than 330 native bird species – about half of all Australia’s resident bird species. In natural and remote landscapes, 99% of the cat-killed birds are native species. Our results also show that cats are known to kill 71 of Australia’s 117 threatened bird species.

Birds that feed or nest on the ground, live on islands, and are medium-sized (60-300g) are most likely to be killed by cats.

Galahs are among the many native species being killed by feral cats.
Mark Marathon, Author provided

It is difficult to put a million-plus daily bird deaths in context without a reliable estimate of the total number of birds in Australia. But our coarse assessment from many published estimates of local bird density suggests that there are about 11 billion land birds in Australia,
suggesting that cats kill about 3-4% of Australia’s birds each year.

However, particular species are hit much harder than others, and the population viability of some species (such as quail-thrushes, button-quails and ground-feeding pigeons and doves) is likely to be especially threatened.

Our tally of bird deaths is comparable to similar estimates for other countries. Our figure is lower than a recent estimate for the United States, and slightly higher than in Canada. Overall, bird killings by cats seem to greatly outnumber those caused by humans.

In Australia, cats are likely to significantly increase the extinction risk faced by some bird species. In many locations, birds face a range of interacting threats, with cat abundance and hunting success shown to increase in fragmented bushland, in areas with high stocking rates, and in places with poorly managed fire regimes, so cat impacts compound these other threats.

Belling the cat

What can be done to reduce the impact? The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy recognises the threat posed by feral cats, albeit mainly on the basis of their role in mammal extinctions.

The threatened species strategy also prioritised efforts to control feral cats more intensively, eradicate them from islands with important biodiversity values, and to expand a national network of fenced areas that excludes feral cats and foxes.

But while fences can create important havens for many threatened mammals, they are much less effective for protecting birds. To save birds, cats will need to be controlled on a much broader scale.


Read more: The war on feral cats will need many different weapons


We should also remember that this is not just a remote bush problem. Roughly half of Australia’s cats are pets, and they also take a considerable toll on wildlife.

While recognising the many benefits of pet ownership, we should also work to reduce the detrimental impacts. Fortunately, there is increasing public awareness of the benefits of not letting pet cats roam freely. With such measures, cat owners can help to look after the birds in their own backyards, and hence contribute to conserving Australia’s unique wildlife.


The ConversationWe acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer (WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), David Paton (University of Adelaide), Alex Nankivell (Nature Foundation SA Inc.), Mike Lawes (University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Glenn Edwards (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to this article.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Killing cats, rats and foxes is no silver bullet for saving wildlife


Tim Doherty, Edith Cowan University; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Dale Nimmo, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Cats, rats and foxes have wrought havoc on Australian wildlife and ecosystems. Known as “invasive mammalian predators”, these are species that have established populations outside their native range.

Responsible for numerous extinctions across the globe, this group of species also includes American mink in Europe, stoats and ferrets in New Zealand, and mongooses on many islands.

One common solution is to kill these predators. However, research published this week in the journal Biological Conservation shows it’s much more complicated than that. Killing invasive predators often doesn’t work and is sometimes actually worse for native wildlife.

Killing for conservation

Management of the threats to biodiversity posed by invasive predators has focused on reducing their populations using lethal control. This includes poison baiting, trapping and shooting.

These programs have at times been successful at local scales and on islands. However, they are extremely costly and they often fail to stop declines of native fauna at larger scales.

Such management programs often occur with little regard for how they might interact with other threats that are impacting ecosystems. This has led to unpredictable outcomes of invasive predator control. Sometimes it doesn’t work or, worse, it results in a negative outcome for wildlife.

Key disturbances

We identified six disturbances with strong potential to increase the impacts of invasive predators: fire, grazing by large herbivores, land clearing, altered prey populations, the decline of top predators and resource subsidies from humans (such as increased food or shelter availability).

Six key disturbances that interact with invasive predators, clockwise from top left: fire, altered prey populations, top-predator declines, resource subsidies, land clearing, and grazing by large herbivores.
Clockwise from top left: CSIRO (CC BY 3.0); CSIRO (CC BY 3.0), T Doherty; T Doherty; endymion120 (Flickr, CC BY 2.0); USDA (public domain).

These disturbances interact with invasive predators in three main ways.

First, disturbances such as fire, grazing and land clearing result in a loss of vegetation cover, which makes prey more vulnerable to predation.

For example, small mammals in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia experienced more predation by feral cats in an intensely burnt area, compared with patchily burnt and unburnt areas. Grazing by livestock similarly removes protective cover. Research shows that feral cats prefer to hunt in these areas because of the improved hunting success.

Second, increases in food or declines of competing top predators can allow populations of invasive predators to increase, thereby increasing their impact on native species.

For example, introduced prey species, such as rabbits in Australia, can support larger predator populations. This can lead to increased predation pressure on native species – a process termed “hyperpredation”.

The extinction of the Macquarie Island parakeet was attributed to this process. The parakeet co-existed with feral cats for more than 60 years, but declined rapidly to extinction following the introduction of rabbits to the island in 1879. Resource subsidies, such as garbage or hunters’ carcass dumps, can also support larger predator populations, leading to greater predation pressure.

Third, many of these disturbances also have a direct impact on native species, which is exacerbated by invasive predators. For example, habitat fragmentation reduces population sizes of many native species due to habitat loss. Increased predation by invasive predators can therefore make a bad situation much worse.

Getting it right

Our synthesis shows that management of invasive predators is likely to benefit from employing more integrated approaches.

Maintaining habitat complexity and refuges for prey species is one way that invasive predator impacts can be reduced. This includes improved management of fire and grazing. Lower-intensity fires that retain patchiness could reduce the predation-related impacts of fire on native species. Such approaches may be the best option where no effective predator control method exists, such as for cats in northern Australia.

Native top predators such as wolves in Europe and North America or dingoes in Australia can have suppressive effects on invasive predators. “Rewilding” is an option in some places where these species have declined. Where native predators conflict with livestock producers, guardian animals can often protect livestock from predation instead of lethal control.

Reducing resource subsidies is a simple way of reducing food resources for invasive predator populations.

If lethal control is used, it should be applied with caution. Selectively removing individual pest species from ecosystems can do more harm than good. Multi-species approaches are the best way to avoid such surprises and the order in which species are removed is an important consideration.

Rather than focusing on single processes, conservation managers should consider the multiple disturbances operating in stressed ecosystems and use management actions that address these threats in unison. Such integrated approaches are essential if further extinctions are to be avoided.

The paper is free to download until July 30 2015.

The Conversation

Tim Doherty is PhD Candidate at Edith Cowan University.
Chris Dickman is Professor in Terrestrial Ecology at University of Sydney.
Dale Nimmo is Lecturer in Ecology at Charles Sturt University.
Euan Ritchie is Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Australia has been invaded by giant feral cats


Grist

Man, the Australian ecosystem doesn’t do anything by halves. Everything is either the weirdest, most poisonous, or straight-up biggest version of itself. Right now they’re battling feral cats, but of course they can’t just be normal feral cats — they have to be 45-pound feral cats that can only be eradicated by specially trained dogs.

The director of terrestrial ecosystems for the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management apparently told Vice that the cats weren’t that much bigger than regular domestic cats, but I dunno, look at this shit:

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