About this pest
Distinctive features: Relatively long, straight-backed, and furry body, with long legs and a long furry tail. Round face, pointed ears and long whiskers.
Size: Male average 2.5 to 3.5 kg and females from 1.7 to 2.7 kg. Male head-body length 470mm to 520mm on average, and female from 430mm to 470mm.
Droppings: Often the only sign of a cat, due to their secretive behaviour. Droppings are buried close to home, but left exposed further afield. If exposed, they are often left in a conspicuous place. Three to six round to elongated segments and dark in colour.
Footprints: ‘Heart-shaped’ central pad with three parts and four separate toe pads. Retractable claws.
Kill signs: Attacks back of neck. Bits of chest feather, tail, wing-tips, feet and beak often left uneaten. Brain eaten. Rabbit skin turned inside out over the skull. Lizards and invertebrates eaten in entirety.
Vegetation damage: Mainly carnivorous, but will scratch bark.
Eye shine: Bright green (usually) or red.
Distribution: All three main NZ islands plus some 20 offshore islands.
WHY ARE CATS PESTS?
The degree of impact described below differs between feral and domestic cats (including strays). A national cat management strategy is being developed, which recognises these differences in its recommendations and the values people associate with cats.
The most preferred cat food item is rabbit, then small rodents. Cats also hunt and kill native birds and skinks, including threatened species. Cats are known predators of many ground-feeding or ground-dwelling indigenous species including the threatened NZ dotterel, NZ pigeon, kakariki, black stilt, and kakapo. The decline of brown teal on Stewart Island coincided with an increase in cat numbers, and cats are considered to be the main predator of brown teal on Great Barrier Island. Cats contribute to heavy predation (up to 88.5% annually) of yellow-eyed penguin chicks.
On offshore islands, cats have been known to hunt indigenous species to extinction. The most famous example is the Stephen’s Island wren which was both discovered and exterminated by the lighthouse keeper’s cat. Extinction of saddlebacks from several islands occurred soon after cats were introduced. Cats, in combination with rats, are thought to have accelerated the extinction of the Little Barrier snipe, and caused declines in populations of many other native species, including kakapo on Stewart Island. Upon removal of cats from Little Barrier Island, stitchbird numbers increased six-fold and there were also increases in kakariki and robin numbers.
Cats are known to prey upon a variety of seabirds including Caspian tern, Cook’s petrel, black petrel, diving petrel, prions, grey-faced petrel, penguins, and black-winged petrels. Much larger populations of bird species occur on adjacent cat-free islands compared to islands with cats. Cats will also kill kiwi chicks, but not as often as stoats do.
Both long-tailed and short-tailed bat populations can be adversely affected by cats. Lizard populations declined rapidly after the introduction of cats, and removal of cats from offshore or mainland islands can result in increased lizard numbers. Many reptile species including the rare Otago, grand and scree skinks are eaten by cats, and mammalian predators such as cats are probably the major cause of massive range contraction of these species. Eradication of cats alone may not result in increased native fauna; rats also need to be controlled.
Cats are the primary hosts of toxoplasmosis, estimated to infect almost 30 percent of all humans worldwide. Toxoplasmosis produces lifelong parasitic cysts in the brain, and though it is generally asymptomatic it has been linked to neurological impairments, depression, blindness and birth defects. Most feral cats have fleas. Various worm species including tapeworm and arrow-headed worm can be carried and spread by cats. Cats can also carry bovine TB and cat leprosy.
Read more about cats.
Cats are often secretive and therefore droppings (called scats) are usually the most obvious sign of a cat in the neighbourhood. Droppings are buried close to home, but left exposed further afield, often in a conspicuous place such as on tracks, or on clumps of grass. Droppings are made up of three to six round to elongated segments that are up to 100-150mm long and 30mm wide. They can be twisted within themselves and have pointed ends. Droppings are dark in colour, not white and chalky. They will contain matted fur, feathers and/or bones. Seeds are sometimes found as part of the stomach or crop contents of ingested prey.
Can be confused with:
Dog droppings can look similar, but will age to a white and chalky colour whereas a cat’s droppings will not. Mustelid (stoats, weasels, ferrets) droppings are also twisted with pointed ends, but don’t usually have separate segments and are considerably thinner.
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Footprints and Tracks
Paws and feet
Cats have large, soft pads on the front and hind feet. These cushion each step and make their movements quieter. The central pad of a cat’s foot is ‘heart-shaped’ and has three parts. The four separate toe pads will show in foot prints. The two front toes in a cat track are not aligned right next to each other. The inner toe is also set further forward than the outer toe. The footprints are usually wider than they are long. Sometimes, prints on tracking paper will show fuzzy marks from ink on fur.
The claws are retractable to reduce scratching noises and won’t often show in prints. When walking, the feet are placed either side of the mid-line but the spacing between feet is wider when walking faster. A cat walks in a way that sometimes leaves a hind track on top of a front print. This is a way of moving silently through the landscape. When a front foot is placed down and doesn't snap a twig or otherwise make noise, the cat can move the hind foot to that same spot and know that it will be taking a quiet step. When stalking, the prints will be heel to toe. Cats will claw tree trunks leaving thin parallel scratches.
Can be confused with:
Dog also have paws with heart-shaped central pads but the shape of the whole foot is longer and narrower than that of a cat. A cat footprint is relatively rounded, and wider than it is long.
Trails and Runs
Cats will often make extensive use of tracks or open ‘lanes’ if they are available, rather than push through vegetation.
Dens and nests
Cats make nesting dens. These are not permanent and are regularly changed, unless there is a lack of alternative sites. However, the natal den is used until kittens are 5-6 weeks old (c.500g in weight) before regular shifts commence.
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Cats will claw tree trunks, as part of territorial marking and claw sharpening, leaving thin parallel scratches. They will also scratch the tree trunk as they climb up a tree.
Can be confused with:
Possums also scratch the tree while climbing. The possum scratches are usually wider and angle around the trunk. Cat scratches tend to be more vertical and the claw marks are thinner.
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Fur, feathers or scales (vertebrate)
Small birds are entirely eaten except for some body, wing and tail feathers. More parts of larger birds are left including more body feathers, the tail, wing tips, feet and bill. The pattern of cat predation on freshly killed larger birds can sometimes be distinguished from other predators by the pattern of bite marks. Cats often make the kill by biting into the back of the head. The brain is often eaten first and, sometimes with smaller birds, the whole skull is eaten except for the bill. There may be some crushing of the skull and sternum.
Rodents and young rabbits are usually entirely eaten, except sometimes for the tail and pieces of skin. The remains of older rabbits, or large rats, often include stomach and skin turned inside out over the animal’s head.
Lizards and frogs
Lizards are usually eaten entirely. Domestic cats will play with lizards and may have puncture marks in the abdomen area. Frogs and fish are sometimes caught.
Can be confused with:
Other predators such as stoats, ferrets, weasels, and possums. With bird kill, all these predators will on occasion leave half-eaten carcasses or a scattering of feathers. Remember, too, that animal remains might have been scavenged.
Insects or snails (invertebrate)
Weta, cicadas, beetles, dragonflies and butterflies can be important insect prey for cats, especially juvenile cats. Most invertebrates will be eaten whole, but their remains will be seen in droppings if teased apart.
Can be confused with:
Invertebrates are also common prey of rodents, stoats and weasels. However, most remains will be in droppings and it is usually relatively easy to distinguish between predator droppings.
Cats will eat bird eggs when they encounter them. They are likely to crush the egg with their mouth, before removing the contents.
Can be confused with:
Predation of other egg predators e.g. stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats and possums. Remember, too, that egg remains might have been scavenged.
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Cats' teeth are typical of carnivores, in having a pair of comparatively long, pointed canine teeth positioned well forwad on the upper and lower jaws. The incisors, at the front (six top and six lower) are comparatively small. Also typical of carnivores is the compatively few premolars/molars at the back of the jaws compared to animals that eat plants.
The canine teeth leave pairs of circular puncture marks. The distance between the two teeth in a pair is in the range of 14.5 - 22 mm. The marks and hole diameter may vary according to the individual animal and the depth of the bite. The other teeth do not usually leave any impressions.
Can be confused with
Weasels, stoats and ferrets leave similar pairs of circular canine puncture marks but the teeth in each pair are spaced less widely (4 - 6.5 in weasels, 7 - 9 mm in stoats and 10 - 14 mm in ferrets.)
Feral cats are widely distributed throughout New Zealand in a range of habitats and altitudes but are most common in association with rabbit populations or near human settlements. They are present on all three main islands and occur, or have been on, at least 31 offshore islands. They have died out or been eradicated from at least 14 of these islands. Cats can only co-exist with stoats on islands of 750 ha or greater, perhaps because stoats are better hunters during periods of food shortage. Some cats are fully feral, while others are strays that still visit humans for food and shelter."
Cats communicate through scent in urine, droppings, and chemicals or pheromones from glands located around the mouth, chin, forehead, cheeks, lower back, tail and paws. Their rubbing and head-bumping behaviors are methods of depositing these scents on substrates, including humans.
Cat urine and tomcat smell are very strong and noticeable to humans. Although cats may mark with both sprayed and non-sprayed urine, the spray is usually more thick and oily than normally deposited urine, and may contain additional secretions from anal sacs that help the sprayer to make a stronger communication. Cat urine, especially that of male cats, contains the putative cat pheromone 3-mercapto-3-methylbutan-1-ol (MMB), a compound that gives cat urine its typical odour, including a strong sulphurous smell. Rats and mice are highly adverse to the odour of a cat's urine, but after infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, they are attracted by it, highly increasing the likelihood of being preyed upon and of infecting the cat.
Cats have a wide range of sounds including:
- sounds produced with the mouth closed – murmurs -, including the purr, the trill and the chirrup,
- sounds produced with the mouth open and gradually closing, comprising a large variety of miaow sounds with similar vowel patterns, and
- sounds produced with the mouth held tensely open in the same position, often uttered in aggressive situations - growls, yowls, snarls, hisses, spits and shrieks.
Most cats have two layers of fur. On top is the hair that is responsible for the colour and pattern. The bottom layer is responsible for the insulation. Individual fibres are often thin and crinkled along the entire length.
Cats with green/yellow eyes: bright green (most common). Cats with orange-brown/blue eyes: red.
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The cat was first domesticated around 4000 years ago, probably from the African wild cat in Egypt. Throughout the world, domestic cats are kept as pets and for rodent control in most human settlements, including on many islands. They were brought to New Zealand from 1769 onwards: all ships had rat infestations and cats were used to control them. During Captain Cook’s first visit, two cats were given to Maori at Tolaga Bay (apparently prized for eating and pelts). In 1773, in Dusky Sound, a cat "regularly took a walk in the woods every morning and made great havoc among the little birds". However, cats may not have become fully feral until 50 years later. They were moved around by settlers and were further spread around the country to try and control large rabbit populations. Cats were introduced to many offshore islands by sealers, whalers, settlers, farmers, muttonbirders and lighthouse keepers. Luckily, cats have died out on a number of islands.
Cats have a relatively long, straight-backed furry body. They have four longish legs, with four toes on each foot and retractable claws. The tail is long and furry but not prehensile. Most of the colour patterns of domestic cats are also found in the feral population. Feral cats are generally short-haired with stripped tabby (the basic type), blotched tabby, black, grey, ginger and tortoiseshell patterns. They can have white patches on the chest, belly and feet.
Size and weight
Feral cats appear to be a similar size to a standard domestic animal. Average weight range in male cats is 2.5 to 3.5 kg and in females 1.7 to 2.7 kg. Maximum weight is approximately 5 kg. Males are typically heavier than females by 25-30%. Cats tend to be larger in the southern parts of New Zealand compared to the northern parts. Average range of head-body length in male cats is 470 mm to 520 mm and in females 430 mm to 470 mm.
Cats can be active during the day and night and are excellent hunters. Domestic cats hunt less as they grow older. Providing extra food does not seem to affect hunting behaviour. Night curfews for domestic cats have been suggested as a way of reducing predation in native species but, in Canberra, 70% of birds and 90% of reptiles were caught during the day.
Cats are usually solitary but have a complex social organisation. Female cats have overlapping home ranges while male ranges tend to be larger and more exclusive of other cats. The size of the home range varies according to habitat type and the features within the area; home ranges can be as small as 0.2 ha in urban areas to 3317 ha in parts of Stewart Island. Densities can be as high as 1.18 per ha on islands with abundant bird life or rodents but is usually much lower than this (0.04 to 0.14 / ha).
The mating period is prolonged, with most kittens born between spring and autumn. Up to three litters can be borne by a single female in one year. Gestation is 65 days and litters can be born any time prey is suitably abundant. Average litter size is 2-4 but can vary between 1 and 10. Kitten mortality is high, with only one or two usually surviving per litter.
Cats have sensitive hearing and can hear tones up to 65kHz (humans hear up to 20kHz), including the ultrasonic calls of rodents. They have excellent night vision and need only 1/6th the illumination of a human to see objects in the dark. However, they do not readily distinguish colour.
Cats seen smooching vegetation are usually scent marking using glands on the chin and the corners of the mouth. There is another scent gland near the anus and males also spray urine to mark territories. Droppings (called scats) are also used to mark territories.
Major food items, when hunting, are rabbits, rats and mice, though birds are also frequently taken. Lizards, possums, hares, fish, freshwater crayfish and a variety of insects and spiders are also eaten.
Feral cats can occur in all habitat types from sea level to 3,000 m. They can live in very arid areas, as their moisture requirements are satisfied by the water content of prey, and they do not need to drink on a regular basis unless lactating or under stress. Cats can survive in cold damp climates but population densities are lower and kitten mortality is very high. Where possible, they strongly avoid areas of wet dense vegetation and require dry den sites for resting and breeding.
Distribution in New Zealand
See distribution clue.
How to manage cat populations
Different approaches to managing cat populations are required, depending on whether feral or domestic cats are involved and the particular location and pest impacts. Contact your local DOC or Regional Council office for advice (see Next Steps). You might also be interested in the work being done to develop a national cat management strategy.
FIND MORE INFORMATION IN:
PcKinlay, B., Ratz, H., Nelson, D.. Elbers, A. (1997). In Sim, J., Saunders, A. (Eds). Predator workshop 1997 (pp. p. 31–35). Wellington, St Arnard: Department of Conservation.
Veitch, C.R. (1983). A cat problem removed. Wildlife - A Review, No 12. Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Internal Affairs, Wildlife Service.
Tocher, M.D. (1998). Forest and Bird, 290.
Forster, J. G. A. (1777). A voyage around the world in his Britannic majesty’s sloop Resolution. Vol 1. London: B. White.
Gillies, C., & Fitzgerald, B.M. (2005). Feral cat. In King, C.M., (Ed.), The handbook of New Zealand mammals (pp. 308-327). Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.