Cat (feral or wild)

Common name: Cat (feral or wild)

Scientific name: Felis catus

Origin: Europe, Africa and Asia

Feral cat baring its teeth

On specified Crown land in Victoria, cats (feral or wild) are a declared established pest species under the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994. This declaration came into effect on 26 July 2018.

The declaration applies to areas of Crown land managed by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), Parks Victoria, Phillip Island Nature Park and the four Alpine Resort Management Boards.

Feral cat control will be implemented by department and agency staff, and their agents, to ensure efforts are targeted and to protect the threatened wildlife most at risk of predation by feral cats.

Feral cats are not declared an established pest on private land, meaning farmers and other private landholders are not required to control feral cat populations on their properties. Importantly, the hunting of pest animals on Crown land does not extend to feral cats, unless it being conducted by accredited volunteer shooters engaged to participate in control programs managed by Parks Victoria or DELWP.

Private landholders can manage cats roaming on their property in accordance with current laws. In essence, on private land, cage trapping as per these procedures is the only control option for cats (feral or otherwise).This is because it is not straightforward to determine if a trapped cat is feral or un/owned without scanning for a microchip. Therefore, any cats trapped on private land must be handed to the local Council so they can be scanned. If a private landowner destroys a cat on their land, they risk liability if it was an owned cat that was roaming and may be subject to POCTA offenses.

Read more about the feral cat declaration.

Read more about the classification of invasive animals in Victoria.

Populations

History of spread

Cats may have arrived in Australia as early at the 17th century, though it is believed that European settlers brought them out as pets during the late 18th century. Cats were also deliberately released into the wild during the 19th century to control rabbits and mice. Today, feral cats exist over much of Australia and have successfully colonised most habitats.

Feral cat standing on tree stump

Distribution in Victoria

Feral cats are widely distributed throughout Victoria. They are found on the mainland and several offshore islands.

Population density in Victoria

It is difficult to accurately estimate feral cat population numbers due to their cryptic behavioural patterns and changing environmental conditions. When prey is abundant, cat populations may increase rapidly, but when food becomes scarce in times of drought, cat populations typically decrease. Feral cats usually reach their highest densities on small islands or in human-modified habitats, such as farms and rubbish tips.

Animal biology

Appearance

Feral cats look like suburban domestic cats. They have agile bodies, acute senses and fine coordination that is well suited for hunting.

Feral cat standing on dirt road

It is common for feral cats to grow to larger sizes than their domestic relatives. Feral cat adult males normally weigh from 3.4 to 6.4kg (average weight 4.5kg) and adult females from 2.4 to 4.4kg (average weight 3.2kg).

The most common coat colour of feral cats is striped tabby, but blotched tabby and black are also common. Other colour variants are also seen in the wild.

Long hair is uncommon in feral cats. Exotic breeds of cat, such as Persian or Siamese, are not found in feral populations.

Behaviour

Feral cats are mostly solitary and although they may be active at any time, they are usually more active at night. Their two greatest periods of activity occur around sunrise and sunset. During the day, feral cats tend to lay up in sheltered areas, including rabbit burrows, hollow logs, or dense thickets of scrub.

Black feral cat hiding under tree trunk

In Victoria, a feral cat’s home range can vary between <1 km2 and 10km2 if food resources are scarce. Males typically having larger home ranges than females.

In rural and bushland environments, feral cats are generally found in low numbers with relatively large home ranges. In urban areas where food is more abundant, their numbers tend to be higher while their home ranges are smaller.

Diet

Feral cats are opportunistic predators that eat a wide range of foods. They prefer to hunt and kill and target the most available prey species, but it has been reported that individuals can become specialist hunters for particular prey species.

Feral cat feeding off native animal

Dietary studies have shown that the European rabbit is the major food item of feral cats in Victoria. However, mice, smaller native mammals, reptiles, birds and invertebrates are also common. When live prey is scarce, feral cats will also scavenge food scraps and carrion.

Preferred habitat

Feral cats live in a diverse range of habitats including deserts, forests, woodlands and grasslands.

Predators

Kittens and juvenile feral cats may be preyed upon by:

  • foxes
  • dingoes
  • reptiles
  • wedge-tailed eagles.

Diseases and parasites

In past surveys, feral cats were found to be healthy and well fed. However, the normal range of parasites found in domestic cats such as tapeworms and roundworms, and diseases such as feline panleukopaenia, sarcosporidiosis and toxoplasmosis also exist in feral cat populations.

Reproduction

Reproduction in feral cats is similar to that of domestic cats. On average, females have two litters per year with the first in spring and the second in late summer or early autumn. However, litters can be born in any month with litter sizes ranging from 2 to 7.

Under favourable conditions, feral cat offspring remain with the mother until approximately 7 months of age. After this time the family group gradually separate and the dispersing individuals tend to live a more solitary existence.

A high reproductive ability in feral cats maintains population growth despite a high natural mortality rate within kittens. Feral cat populations are self-sustaining.

Feral cats may live for up to 7 years.

Similar species

Feral cats should not be confused with 2 of our larger native marsupial predators:

  • eastern quolls (previously called 'native cats')
  • tiger quolls, (previously called ‘tiger cats’).

Impact

Impact on ecosystems

Feral cats are skilled hunters and are a threat to the survival of many native species including small mammals, birds and reptiles.

Feral cats have contributed to the extinction of over 20 Australian mammals and have been implicated in the failure of several endangered species reintroduction programs (numbat, bilby, bandicoot).

Feral cat at night with prey in mouth

In Australia, feral cats are a potential threat to 74 mammal species and sub-species, 40 birds, 21 reptiles and 4 amphibians.

Agricultural and economic impacts

Feral cats have no economic value. The cost of feral cat management and research has been estimated at $2 million per year nationally. The economic loss inflicted by feral and domestic cats, based on bird predation alone, has been estimated at $144 million annually.

Feral cats are also potential carriers of disease which may be harmful to stock and native animals.

Impact on social value and health

The diseases toxoplasmosis and sarcosporidiosis, can be transmitted by cats to humans, domestic stock and some native animals.

Toxoplasmosis can cause foetal disease and miscarriage but the role that feral cats play in the transmission of this disease is thought to be small. Feral cats may also spread a variety of exotic diseases including rabies that could seriously threaten livestock, wildlife and human health in the event of an outbreak.

Management

Recommended control measures include:

  • confinement trapping
  • habitat manipulation
  • exclusion fencing and shooting, (shooting is not approved on private land).

The department recommends integrated pest management using all available control measures implemented in a coordinated manner at a landscape scale.

Read more about the management and control of feral or wild cats.

Image credits

Figure 1 courtesy of Andrew Cooke

Figure 2 courtesy of Richard Ali

Figure 4 courtesy of Tony Buckmaster

Figure 5 courtesy of Joe Scanlon

Figure 6 courtesy of Marika Maxwell

References

  • The Bird Observer (1975). Feral cats: A danger to wildlife. Leading article The Bird Observer No. 521.
  • Brunner,H.,Stevens, P.L. and Backholer, J.R. (1980) Introduced mammals in Victoria. Part of the Proceedings of a Symposium held at Rusden C.A.E.,July 1980.
  • Coman, B. J. (1972). A survey of the gastrointestinal parasites of the feral cat in Victoria. Aust. Vet. J. 48 : 133136.
  • Coman, B. J. and Brunner, H. (1972). Food habits of the feral house cat in Victoria. J. Wildl. Manage. 36: 848-853.
  • Coman, B. J., Jones, E.H. and Driesen, M.A. (1981). Helminth parasites and arthropods of feral cats. Aust. Vet J. 57 :324 -7.
  • Coman, B. J., Jones, E.H. and Westbury, H.A. (1981). Protozoan and viral infections of feral cats. Aust. Vet. J. 57 :319-23.
  • Feral Cat Factsheet. 2011. PestSmart, Invasive Animal Cooperative Research Council. Accessed on 15th February 2012.
  • Forsyth, D., Duncan, R., Bomford, M. and Moore, G. (2004). Climatic Suitability, Life-Histroy Traits, Introduction Effort, and the Establishment and Spread of Introduced Mammals in Australia. Cons. Biol. Vol 11 No. 2 :557-569
  • Gregory, G. G. and Munday, B. L. (1976). Internal parasites of feral cats from the Tasmanian midlands and King Island. Aust. Vet J. 52: 317-320.
  • Jones, E. (1977). Ecology of the Feral Cat, Felis catus (L.), (Carnivora: Felidae) on Macquarie Island. Aust. Wildl. Res. 4: 249-262.
  • Jones, E. and Coman, B.J. (1981). Ecology of the feral cat, Felis catus (L.), in south-eastern Australia. I. Diet. Wildl. Res, 8: 537-47.
  • Jones, E. and Coman, B. J. (1982a). Ecology of the feral cat, (L.), in south-eastern Australia. II. Reproduction. Aust Wildl. Res. 9: 111-9.
  • Jones, E. and Coman, B. J. (1982b). Ecology of the feral cat, Felis catus (L.), in south-eastern Australia. III. Home ranges and population ecology in semi arid north-west Victoria. Aust. Wildl. Res. 9: 409-20.
  • Landcare Notes (1994): Pest Animal References - Feral Cats. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
  • Ryan, G. E. (1976). Gastrointestinal parasites of feral cats in New South Wales. Aust. Vet. J. 52: 224-227
  • McLeod R (2004). Counting the cost: impact of invasive animals in Australia, 2004, Cooperative Research Centre for Pest Animal Control, Canberra.
  • Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by Feral Cats (2015). Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed 2 February 2021.
  • Woinarski, J., Burbidge, A. & Harrison, P., (2014). The Action Plan for Australian Mammals 2012. Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing.
Page last updated: 01 Jul 2021