Cats are an enormous environmental problem in Australia, with the introduced species estimated to kill more than three billion animals per year.

Monitoring cat populations is key to reducing their impact, however most monitoring methods such as spotlight surveys and track counts are ineffective in forested areas.

Alexandra Paton, a PhD student in the School of Natural Sciences, is trying to figure out how to best monitor feral cats in the forests found across Tasmania.

A camera trap captures a feral cat carrying a rat (Image: A. Paton)

I use devices called camera-traps to collect information about cats. These are cameras that take an image when they sense the movement and heat from an animal in their field of view.

Alexandra Paton

“They are good at detecting cats, but questions remain about where to best place them to increase cat detections, whether or not we should try luring cats to cameras with treats and interesting smells, and whether or not the cats might be afraid of these foreign objects in their habitat, particularly if we use a white-flash at night.”

Throughout her PhD, Alex hopes to find answers to these methodological questions which can inform future research and monitoring programs.

“Once I do, I will be able to use an existing camera-trap network from across Tasmania to estimate feral cat abundance in different parts of the state, giving us our first real idea of how many cats are in Tasmania, and where they are,” she said.

“This will allow for better targeted feral cat control and prioritisation.”

A family of feral cats is snapped as they walk past a camera trap (Image: A. Paton)

Ultimately, Alex’s work aims to help manage the impacts of feral cats on biodiversity, however, domestic cats also play a massive part in the problem.

Despite popular belief, for a given area of the suburbs, domestic cats have around 25 times greater impact on wildlife than feral cats do within the same given area of wilderness.

Alexandra Paton

Being a responsible cat owner is a practical step we can take to help reduce the impact our feline friends have on native wildlife. 

Alex's top tips for responsible cat ownership

Keep your cat inside where possible
Some people worry that keeping cats inside is cruel, however this is not the case. Indoor cats require human love and stimulation, just like dogs or birds. There are plenty of great toys, feeding puzzles, and gadgets you can get to help keep your cat entertained. Conversely, letting your cat outside exposes it to vehicles, dogs, other cats, and more. 

As such, the life expectancy of indoor cats is normally 7-10 years, while indoor cats can live to be 22. It is much kinder to keep your cat indoors than to let them roam. If you are feeling ambitious, you can even try leash training your cat so that you can take it on walks. 

Domestic cats can be trained to walk on a leash (Image: P.W. Allen)

My cat never brings home dead animals, should I still worry?
Yes, as many cats do not bring home their kills. Scientific studies using video collars on domestic cats have shown that most cats do not bring home most of their kills. Additionally, just the presence of a cat in an area can cause birds to abandon their nests, increasing chick mortality. Cats also spread toxoplasmosis on their faeces, so while it is great to not have to clean a litter tray, you could be infecting wallabies and possums with a deadly parasite as a result.

Why should I worry about domestic cats? Aren’t ferals the real problem?
A single domestic cat will probably only kill one-third of the wildlife in a year that a feral cat will. However, outdoor domestic cats have no limiting resources; each has its own shelter, source of food, and water, and they live in very high densities in suburban areas. Multiple people on a given street may own cats, and all of these cats could be hunting animals. 

PhD candidate Alexandra Paton checks camera traps in the field (Image: supplied)

I don’t own a cat, what can I do to help?
If you feel inclined you can donate to or volunteer at local cat shelters. These organisations work to educate the public, remove stray cats from the streets, rehome strays or lost cats, desex any found cats, and humanely euthanised trapped feral cats.