Feral cat, Rangitata River valley

Image: DOC

Introduction

A feral cat lives in the wild, is not stray or owned and has none of its needs provided for by humans.

Highlights

Feral cats have a major impact on native birds, bats, lizards, mice, wētā and other insects.

Description

Feral cats are different to stray cats. Neither are owned, but strays have varying interactions and dependence on humans while feral cats are wild.

Feral cats have the same appearance as some common, short-haired house cats such as tabby, tortoiseshell and black. They can grow to a much larger size than house cats if conditions are favourable, though they don’t live as long. Male feral cats captured in the South Island high country averaged a weight of 3.75 kg and the heaviest male weighed 7 kg.

Feral cats can travel long distances. Scientists tracked a feral cat in the South Island high country that covered almost 6 km in one night.

Where are they found?

Feral cats are widespread in New Zealand. They live in a wide variety of habitats, including coastal areas, farmland, forests, riverbeds, sub-alpine environments and on islands.

Why are they here?

The first cats in New Zealand arrived with early European explorers in 1769. Ships’ cats helped control the large number of unwanted rats aboard voyaging vessels.

More than 50 years after cats were introduced to New Zealand, a feral cat population was observed to be established. It was slowly expanding around the country.

Cats were also introduced to over 30 offshore islands, from Raoul Island in the north to Rakiura/Stewart Island in the south, as well as the Chathams group, and subantarctic islands. They have since died out or been eradicated from nearly half of these islands.

The threat

Feral cats have a major impact on New Zealand’s native and non-native species. The basis of their diet alters with the habitat they live in. They feed on rabbits, birds and bird eggs, rats, hares, bats, lizards, mice, wētā and other insects.

Populations of endangered kakī/black stilt, wrybill and black-fronted terns are greatly impacted by cat predation in braided riverbeds in the central South Island. 

Grand and Otago skink populations are at critically low levels in Central Otago, mainly due to cat predation.

On offshore islands, forest birds and sea birds make up a large part of the feral cat diet. In the 1980s, all kākāpō were removed urgently from Stewart Island/Rakiura to stop predation by cats. Cats swiftly exterminated all tīeke/saddleback from Hauturu/Little Barrier Island and Stephens Island/Takapourewa.

A feral cat preys on a banded dotterel at its nest

DOC’s work

DOC has a legislated mandate to control feral cats on public conservation land.

We control feral cats at numerous sites around New Zealand. Examples include:

  • kiwi protection in Northland
  • shore bird protection at coastal breeding sites
  • Otago and Grand skink protection in the Central Otago drylands.

We usually control feral cats as part of a wider programme targeting other invasive species such as stoats, hedgehogs and rodents. Pests can re-invade controlled areas over time, so operations are either ongoing or pulsed at regular intervals.

DOC has eradicated feral cats from several offshore islands, including Raoul Island and Rangitoto Island. Populations of native species can increase in these places, and species that cannot survive in the presence of cats can be reintroduced.

Control techniques

The control techniques that we currently use to control feral cats are poisoning, trapping and shooting. Where cats are lethally controlled, DOC uses efficient and humane best-practice techniques and adheres to the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

Domestic cats

DOC supports responsible domestic cat ownership and undertakes advocacy work around domestic cats as predators of wildlife.

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