from the Conservation blog

With two important environmental holidays coming up, World Migratory Bird Day on 13 May and International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, it’s as good a time as any to consider how our pets affect New Zealand’s wildlife.  

Wandering dogs can cause a great deal of harm to birds and other animals, as can cats – and knowing how to stop a cat from wandering (especially at night) can be quite a conundrum. 

Estimates from conservation group Forest and Bird suggest that New Zealand’s 1.4 million domestic cats kill 1.12 million native birds a year. Off-leash and wandering dogs also continue to be a problem, especially in restricted areas. It’s clear that we have a responsibility to help. 

We already have our Lead the Way Programme which empowers dog owners to be responsible on beaches and project our precious native wildlife.  

We also support responsible cat ownership – there is a place for domestic cats with responsible owners in Predator Free New Zealand. So, what does this “responsible ownership” actually look like? 

Our Lead the Way programme partner PD Insurance spoke to Dr. Imogen Bassett, Principal Advisor for Biosecurity at the Auckland Council, about how you and your pet can play your part … 

Dog on beach
A dog on a beach at sunset. Image: Sheila Sund CC-BY-2.0

How to stop a cat from wandering 

As you well know, your cat is a curious creature and their natural instinct is to explore their surroundings. 

They’re also territorial animals and may wander to mark and defend their stake of land. Like wandering dogs, they may do so in search of food, mates, or simply to satisfy their curiosity. 

Unfortunately, this can result in your furball getting their claws into plenty of wild birds and other animals. Local feathered friends like kiwi, bellbirds, fantails, and tui are especially vulnerable, as are native reptiles such as geckos and skinks. Cats have also been observed hunting and killing native insects such as wētā (of which many species are threatened or endangered), as well as native small mammals. 

More recently, we confirmed that feral and domestic cats are repeatedly hunting and eating New Zealand’s native bats. 

Further, cats can transmit the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii (toxoplasmosis), which is a known cause of mortality in both Hector’s dolphins and the critically endangered Māui dolphins. 

Here’s what you can do to help… 

Indoor cat
An indoor cat rests on a windowsill. Image: Mr Thinktank CC-BY-2.0

Make yours an indoor cat 

“There are no rules requiring you to keep your cat on your property,” says Dr. Bassett, “However, keeping them at home is definitely an important part of choosing to be a responsible pet owner.” 

When done right, making yours an indoor cat can protect both them and other animals from harm. Indoor cats statistically live longer than outdoor cats, and they’re less likely to pick up diseases like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Being an indoor cat doesn’t mean they should never go outside. Indoor cats still need outdoor exposure and play. You can take them out on a leash for a walk (read PD’s article: How to Train a Cat to Walk on a Leash ) or let them out in an enclosed area or catio. 

Fence them in 

If you’re hesitant to make yours an indoor cat, another way to stop your cat from wandering is to properly fence off your property. 

“It’s common knowledge that an important part of being a responsible dog owner is to ensure your wandering dog is kept on your property when it’s not out and about with you. Many people are unaware that similar solutions are also available for cats,” Dr Bassett tell us. 

A quick Google search will reveal a wealth of innovative cat containment solutions for Kiwis. Check out this one, for instance. 

Dr. Basset mentions spinning toppers for fences, which prevent cats from jumping over, saying, “it’ll also stop the neighbours’ cats from getting in and bullying your cat!”  

Cat in catio
A cat rests in their outdoor catio. Image: Michael Allen Smith CC-BY-SA 2.0

Curtail with a catio 

A third solution to the question of how to stop your cat from wandering is to contain them in a smaller outdoor section – perhaps your deck or a ‘catio’. 

Catio designs can vary widely, from small window boxes or balcony enclosures to large, elaborate structures with multiple levels and features like scratching posts, toys, and climbing walls. Some people attach catios to their house, while others construct freestanding structures. 

Best of all, you can make it yourself! Check out this DYI catio video below: 

Two words: neuter and spay! 

As mentioned, cats (especially tomcats), will often wander in search of an opportunity to mate or to defend their territory from other encroaching cats. Research has proven that neutering them lessens this roaming behaviour.  

On top of that, research shows cats live longer and healthier lives once they’re spayed. Male cats can live twice as long as their unneutered counterparts and females live 62% longer. 

While you’re here, take this quiz to find out how conservation friendly your cat is and then read tips for improving your score. 

Keep them stimulated and well-fed 

Scientists have proven that cats who have adequate nutrition and entertainment hunt less. Always ensure your cat is getting proper nutrition and enough water. 

Making sure your cat has plenty of toys to play with and interactive games to keep them entertained at home is sure to lessen their boredom and need to roam. Here’s how to make your home more fun for your cat: 

Get a microchip fitted 

Now, a microchip or ID tag won’t stop a wandering dog or cat, but it could possibly cut short the amount of time they’re out and about. Proper ID will help others identify your cat and get in touch with you to alert you that they’ve escaped. You could even add a short message alongside your phone number on their collar’s tag, something like: “I’m not allowed to roam! Please call my mum.” 

The best idea is to microchip your cat AND add a collar (even better if it’s a GPS collar). 

Reflective collars with an electronic device or bell will help to alert birds and animals of your cat’s presence and give them a better chance to escape. Here are some more cat collar pros and cons. 

Reunited thanks to chips 

Dr. Bassett mentions that New Zealand pet owners are really embracing responsible pet ownership. For example, microchipping of domestic cats increased from 12% in 2011 to 49% in 2020. She adds that after the Christchurch earthquakes, 85% of microchipped pets were reunited with their owners, compared with only 15% of non-chipped pets. 

She says, “I know from personal experience how distressing it is to lose a feline family member to being hit by traffic. If I’d known then what I know now about solutions for keeping my cat at home, I could have been spared that loss as well as the loss of all the native skinks our cat used to bring home.” 

Check out this piece on stopping your cat catching birds for more valuable tips. 

Wild cat
A wild cat hunting. Image: Rod Morris/DOC Crown Copyright.

In case you’re feeling cat-tacked! 

Dr Imogen Bassett acknowledges that cats aren’t the only threat to our wildlife. 

She says, “Cat owners are definitely not being picked on, but they do have an important role to play in helping protect our native wildlife from one of the many threats they face. And in fact the great thing about being a responsible cat owner is that it’s not just good for wildlife, but also good for your cat. Desexing, microchipping and keeping your cat at home all help keep your cat safe, healthy and happy.” 

Dr Bassett mentions that Auckland Council is putting its efforts into protecting threatened species from a whole range of other threats. This includes a programme to control feral animals such as rats, possums and stoats. It also targets weeds, which if left unchecked have the potential to smother the habitat our native wildlife depend on. 

In fact, the biggest threat our wild animals face is climate change. 

“In terms of climate change, one of the most effective things we can do at the moment to help our native wildlife face this challenge is to reduce the pressure they’re under from other threats, particularly introduced species,” says Dr Bassett. 

Wandering dog – what to do? 

And now, onto the pups! Dogs also have a significant impact on New Zealand’s wildlife, especially on ground-nesting birds, bats, and marine mammals. Wandering pups disturb wildlife in several ways, including causing birds to abandon their nests and eggs. 

“Even if your dog doesn’t kill birds, just being chased by a dog can be extremely stressful for wildlife,” says Dr Bassett. “It may stop them from being able to feed or look after their young properly.” 

As they’re natural predators, dogs may hunt and kill native wildlife such as penguins, lizards, and seals. They can carry diseases such as distemper and mange and transmit it to native wildlife. They can also contribute to habitat destruction by trampling vegetation and disturbing soil, impacting the survival of some native species. 

How to curb wandering dogs 

We recently partnered with PD Insurance on our Lead the Way programme, which encourages responsible dog ownership and lead usage: 

This collaboration has led to us creating plenty of resources on keeping your dog from roaming and responsible dog ownership. Be sure to check out some of these here: 

In summary, here are some surefire ways to stop a wandering dog: 

Keep them contained 

It might seem like a no-brainer, but have you properly contained your dog on your property? Plug any gaps or holes in your fence and gate. Make sure there are no opportunities to dig under a wall or scale a fence. 

You can also do “boundary training”, which may help. Find out more about that here: 

Get a collar and/or microchip 

Again, a chip or GPS collar won’t stop your dog from wandering, but it can help with recovering them. Make sure they have a collar, tag, or microchip. Wandering dogs can more easily be returned if they have proper ID. 

Desex them 

Dogs, like cats, tend to try to escape and wander more when they haven’t been desexed. Desexing your pup also has health and social benefits. 

Keep the stimulation up 

Like cats, dogs that are bored or under-stimulated are more likely to wander. Provide your pup with plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. This will keep them engaged and less likely to seek entertainment elsewhere. 

Dog with Lead The Way Leash.
Dog with Green Lead The Way leash. Image: Lead the Way/DOC

Become wildlife wise with Lead the Way  

Take the ‘Share the beach’ quiz (it takes less than 5 minutes) to test your knowledge of wildlife rules. Once you finish you’ll have the opportunity to purchase a colour-coded Lead the Way lead and help promote responsible dog ownership while out enjoying the outdoors.