Cats in New Zealand

Cats are a popular pet in New Zealand. Cat ownership is occasionally raised as a controversial conservation issue due to the predation of endangered species, such as birds and lizards, by feral cats.

Lyall's wren became extinct within two years of the introduction of cats to Stephens Island.
(an illustration from Walter Lawry Buller's A History of the Birds of New Zealand, published in 1905)

Domesticated catsEdit

The domestic cat (Felis catus) first arrived at New Zealand on Captain James Cook's ship HMS Endeavour in the mid-18th century,[1] but were established by European settlers a century later. As of 2011, there are an estimated 1.419 million domestic cats in New Zealand, with almost half of all households owning at least one and an average of 1.8 cats per household.[2]

Because of the effects of predation on New Zealand wildlife, domestic cat ownership is sometimes a contentious issue. Since the 1990s, cat-free subdivisions have occasionally been established to prevent predation occurring within nearby natural areas by domestic cats. In 1996 a cat-free subdivision was established at Waihi Beach, a landmark decision by the Western Bay of Plenty District Council. It was sought by Forest and Bird and the Department of Conservation to protect wildlife in a nearby salt marsh.[3]

In 2012, the operators of the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary called for cat owners not to replace their pet when they die as a means of reducing the cat population.[4] In 2013, Gareth Morgan, an economist and philanthropist, caused an international furore when he called for cats to be wiped out. He launched the "Cats To Go" website to support the stance.[5] It is suggested that owners could euthanize their cats, but it is not seen as necessary.[6] Some conservationists supported the stance taken by Morgan.[7]

Even though cats control rodents which also prey on native wildlife and thus have a protective role, the precautionary principle is recommended in certain cases such as adjacent to natural areas and in outer suburbs of cities.[8]

A study done on patients in Auckland with acute toxoplasmosis, an infectious disease carried by cats and transmitted to humans via cat faeces (as well as via other pathways), is now thought to be more debilitating than initially realised. The patients had a high rate of fatigue, headaches, and had a difficulty with concentration.[9][10]

Feral catsEdit

Cat eradication on outlying islands[11]
Island Date
Cuvier Island 1964
Herekopare 1970
Kapiti Island 1934 Now a nature reserve
Little Barrier Island 1980 Now a nature reserve
Motuihe 1978–1979
Stephens Island 1925 Cats caused the extinction of an endemic bird
Tiritiri Matangi Island 1970s Now an open sanctuary

Apart from three species of bats, New Zealand did not have any land-based mammals until settlement by the Māori and by European people. As a consequence, birds and even insects took over the ecological niche normally filled by mammals. The introduced mammals, including cats, became invasive species that severely affected the native wildlife.

It is estimated that feral cats have been responsible for the extinction of six endemic bird species and over 70 localised subspecies, as well as depleting the populations of bird and lizard species.[12] The extinction of Lyall's wren is a case of bird extinction due to predation by cats. The extinction of the birds is often blamed on the lighthouse keeper's cat alone, but cats had become established in 1894 when a single pregnant female landed on the island, so it is likely that it was a result of the whole cat population.[13]

Cats are problematic on other islands as well. It was speculated that cats would have caused the extinction of the kakapo on Stewart Island / Rakiura, had the birds not been moved to other islands. The introduction of cats on to Mangere, Herekopare and Raoul Islands caused localised extinctions of bird species. After cats were eradicated from Little Barrier Island, the local bird populations increased and North Island saddlebacks were successfully reintroduced.

Feral cats are the principal threat to the critically endangered black stilt[14] and as of February 2010 only 85 birds remain, largely in the Mackenzie Basin. After the illegal introduction of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RCD) into New Zealand, rabbit numbers were reduced dramatically for a period of time. When the rabbit numbers in the Mackenzie Basin were low, feral cats switched from preying on rabbits to preying on native fauna, including the black stilt. A trapping programme for cats and other predators that threatened the black stilt population was instigated by the Department of Conservation.[15]

The impact of feral cats on species other than birds is not as well documented[14] although in 2010 the Department of Conservation discovered that a feral cat was responsible for killing over 100 endangered New Zealand short-tailed bats over a seven-day period in a forested area on the southern slope of Mount Ruapehu.[16]

In 2020 the Hamilton City Council opened a $100,000 fund to desex and home feral cats in the city.[

Phantom big cat sightingsEdit

Since the late 1990s, big cat sightings (phantom cats) have been reported in widely separated parts of New Zealand, in both the North and South Islands.[17] There have been several unverified panther sightings in Mid-Canterbury near Ashburton and in the nearby foothills of the Southern Alps,[18][19][20] but searches conducted there in 2003 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry found no corroborating physical evidence.[17]


The Animal Welfare Act 1999 and the Animal Welfare (Companion Cats) Code of Welfare 2007[21] govern the welfare of cats. For biosecurity reasons cats must undergo tests and treatment before being imported into New Zealand and in some cases direct importation is not permitted.[22] The Animal Welfare Act deems it to be illegal to abandon an unwanted cat.


There are numerous cat welfare and cat breeding organisations in New Zealand. The Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1882 and now has 47 branches around the country. Cats Unloved is a Christchurch-based organisation working with cats. In 2011 the organisation was criticised for euthanasing cats with chloroform, although it is done legally and is considered to be necessary to address the problem of stray cats, seen as a large problem in the city. The animal euthanasia is done on wild and diseased cats and those which were not housetrained.[23] There are also a number of Cats Protection League groups in different parts of the country.

New Zealand Cat Fancy is a governing body for the many cat clubs around the country and CATZ Inc is a registry for New Zealand cats.

Cats in popular cultureEdit

"Horse" is a cat in the popular cartoon series Footrot Flats. It is a large, fierce and practically invincible cat, based on one that belonged to Murray Ball, the creator of the cartoon series.

Mittens, a Turkish Angora resident of Wellington, has become a minor internet celebrity with a strong following on Facebook. People from all of the world try to glimpse him when they visit the Capital as he wanders kilometres away from his home in Kelburn.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Brockie, Bob (September 2007). "Introduced animal pests". Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  2. ^ Companion Animals in New Zealand – July 2011 (PDF). The New Zealand Companion Animal Council Inc. 15 July 2011.
  3. ^ "DOC's work with pets: Animal pests and threats". Department of Conservation. Archived from the original on 23 February 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  4. ^ Stewart, Matt (17 July 2012). "'They're killers': Zealandia calls for fewer cats". Dominion Post. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  5. ^ Wade, Amelia (22 January 2012). "Morgan calls for cats to be wiped out". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  6. ^ "Call to eradicate New Zealand’s pet cats draws hisses from cat lovers", The Washington Post (Associated Press), 22 January 2013
  7. ^ "Conservationists back anti-cat campaign", TVNZ Onenews, 22 January 2013
  8. ^ Jones, Chris (March 2008). "An Assessment of the Potential Threats to Indigenous Biodiversity Posed by Cats (Felis catus) in Urban Environments" (PDF). Contract Report: LC0708/092. Landcare Research. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 February 2013. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  9. ^ "Acute toxoplasmosis impairs memory and concentration". Scoop. University of Auckland – press release. 29 January 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  10. ^ Wong, Weng Kit; Arlo Upton; Mark G. Thomas (2012). "Neuropsychiatric symptoms are common in immunocompetent adult patients with Toxoplasma gondii acute lymphadenitis". Scandinavian Journal of Infectious Diseases. 45 (5): 1–5. doi:10.3109/00365548.2012.737017. ISSN 0036-5548. PMID 23210638. S2CID 12704455.
  11. ^ Caroline King, ed. (1995). The handbook of New Zealand mammals. Auckland, N.Z.: Oxford University Press in association with the Mammal Society, New Zealand Branch. pp. 338–339. ISBN 978-0195583205.
  12. ^ Charles T. Eason; David R. Morgan; B. Kay Clapperton (1992). Toxic bait and baiting strategies for feral cats. University of Nebraska – Lincoln: Proceedings of the Fifteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference 1992.
  13. ^ Galbreath, R.; D. Brown (2004). "The tale of the lighthouse-keeper's cat: discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli)" (PDF). Notornis. 51 (#4): 193–200.
  14. ^ a b Wilson, Kerry-Jane (2004). Flight of the Huia. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press. ISBN 978-0-908812-52-3.
  15. ^ Keedwell, Rachel J.; Kerry P. Brown (2001). "Relative abundance of mammalian predators in the upper Waitaki Basin, South Island, New Zealand". New Zealand Journal of Zoology. 28 (#1): 31–38. doi:10.1080/03014223.2001.9518254. ISSN 0301-4223. S2CID 84606712.
  16. ^ "Cat nabbed raiding the mothership". Department of Conservation. 22 April 2010. Archived from the original on 19 February 2013. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
  17. ^ a b Devereux, Monique (9 October 2003). "MAF staff, wildlife experts hunt big black cat in vain". NZ Herald. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  18. ^ Ashburton Guardian: An unsolved mystery
  19. ^ Fantastic Feline – Hunting the Big Black Cat, Report by Jendy Harper, Close Up at Seven, Television New Zealand, 3 May 2005. Transcript Archived 14 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ Susan Sandys. Bid to capture black panther Archived 11 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Ashburton Guardian, 8 December 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2010.
  21. ^ "Animal Welfare (Companion Cats) Code of Welfare 2007". MPI Biosecurity New Zealand. 15 September 2011. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  22. ^ "Your Pets". MPI Biosecurity New Zealand. 18 January 2013. Archived from the original on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  23. ^ "Metal gas chamber used to euthanase cats". The Press. 10 October 2011. Retrieved 22 January 2013.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit