Cat Licensing – A Conservation Strategy that Can Work

By Sherril Guthrie


In September 2008, Nature Canada's newsroom alerted us that the State of the World's Birds publication was available for review. The report highlights population declines of more than 50% over the past 40 years for 20 of North America's most common bird species. For migratory species including the Chimney Swift, Bobolink, and Canada Warbler, the decline is 57%. The report also identifies the 12 main threats or causes of these troubling declines. Topping the list is habitat destruction and degradation due to agriculture, logging, and with invasive species next in line. Felis catus or the domestic cat, ranks high on the list - second only to rats.


The Problem

BirdLife International, the official IUCN Red List Authority for birds, has identified cats as the second most invasive predator currently threatening our bird populations. Sadly, cats have also made The World Conservation Union's list of 100 of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species. Analysis of data held in BirdLife's World Bird Database(2008) demonstrates that cat predation has negatively affected over 170 of our globally threatened bird species, and the situation is getting worse. According to Environment Canada, in a statement on their website: "The impact of invasive alien species on native ecosystems, habitats and species is severe and often irreversible, and can cost billions of dollars each year."


Cat Predation Studies

According to the American Bird Conservancy, extensive studies of the predation habits of free-roaming domestic cats have been conducted over the last 55 years in Europe, North America, Australia, Africa and on many islands. From this data we know that roughly 60-70% of the wildlife cats kill are small mammals, 20-30% are birds, and the remainder are amphibians, reptiles and insects. Some free-roaming domestic cats kill more than 100 prey each year; rural and feral cats take more prey than urban cats; and birds that nest or feed on the ground are most susceptible, as are nestlings and fledglings of many other bird species. In their report, Domestic Cat Predation on Birds and Other Wildlife, the American Bird Conservancy states, "Scientists estimate that nationwide, cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, each year." Thanks to studies such as The Mammal Society's, Look what the cat's brought in!(1998) study in England, we also have a realistic snapshot of the devastation caused by free-roaming cats. In five months, 964 cats killed more than 14,000 animals, with birds representing 24% of their prey. This study also confirmed that the mean kill rates for belled cats was higher than for cats without bells.


Scope of the Problem

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that there are over 77 million pet cats in the United States and based on results from a 1997 nationwide poll, only 35% are kept exclusively indoors. In Canada, estimates from a 2007 nationwide survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid and Members of the Canadian Animal Health Institute found there are approximately 7.9 million cats and 5.9 million dogs in Canada. According to experience-based estimates provided by Humane Society administrators and staff, less than 30% of cats are kept exclusively indoors. Conservatively, this means that Canada's birds are currently being threatened by over 5.5 million free-roaming cats that are killing over 165 million birds each year. This calculation does not take into account the impact of our growing feral cat population, where the kill rates are higher.


To Make Matters Worse

The feral cat population in Canada is a growing concern. From the Comox/Courtney Valley and Creston, BC to Lake Erie, Ontario and many points in-between, the feral cat population is a troubling example of an invasive species wreaking havoc on our natural environment. Feral cat colonies always start with a small number of unspayed and unneutered strays, then quickly grow. According to similar data from the Cat Advocacy Society in Comox and the Port Colborne Feral Cat Initiative in Ontario, each mature female cat can produce 2-3 litters per year, with 4.5 kittens per litter. Within 8 months, the first litter of kittens will have their first litters. In real terms, as one funding proposal for 2006 stated, "Spaying 215 mature cats (at a cost of $12,000) will prevent the births of 3900 to 4900 kittens within one year." Well-meaning cat advocacy groups are trying to get approval for funds to support this approach, referred to as a trap/neuter/release or TNR program. Given all that we know about the environmental impact of free-roaming cats on birds and small mammals, however, this is clearly a one-sided approach that is simply not sustainable. Desperately needed is a more reasoned approach that balances the needs of our birds and wildlife, with the human pleasures of owning a cat. In Calgary they have a name for this approach. It's Responsible Pet Ownership and, thankfully, the program is working.


The Solution: Responsible Pet Ownership

Bill Bruce, the City of Calgary's Director of Animal and Bylaw Services, is the visionary behind Calgary's Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw—a rare and logical program that benefits just about everyone and nature itself. Calgary's animal services program, in partnership with the Calgary Humane Society has successfully introduced cat licensing and other cities and municipalities have worn a path to their door. Why? Because the cat overpopulation problem is widespread, growing at an alarming rate, and far too many cats are being abandoned and abused . . . all due to irresponsible cat ownership.


How successful is Calgary's program?

To appreciate Calgary's success, it's worth noting that for decades cat licensing has been a contentious issue that many cities and individuals, especially politicians, have avoided like the plague. Fearful of entering an emotional debate and losing support, far too many stakeholders have set aside credible data from respected sources that told them, repeatedly, we have a growing array of problems due to the overpopulation of domestic and feral cats. Bill Bruce knew this in 1997 when he first attempted cat licensing. At the time, the issue had its critics and demonstrators, and support was hard to find. Fast forward to 2009 and much has changed.


Calgary's Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw came in to effect on March 20, 2006 and cat licensing became mandatory on January 1, 2007. Since then 50% of the city's domestic cats, conservatively estimated at 108,000, and over 90% of its dogs, estimated at 110,000, have been licensed. Of the 9000 stray or abandoned cats taken in by Calgary's Humane Society in 2005, only 17% had identification and could be returned to their owner. Compare this to an 88% return rate for dogs in the same year because of established licensing practices, and you see one of the key benefits of licensing cats.


Like dogs, cats in Calgary must now be confined to their owner's property—a change made in response to the many citizens concerned about cats prowling, yowling, killing birds and wildlife, scattering garbage, digging, defecating and spraying on their private property. As Bill asked me, "What do you suppose would happen if dog owners let their dog out every night before they went to bed?" I conjured an image of the chaos, and we agreed it wouldn't wash. As a result, Animal Service's public education program strongly recommends that cats be kept indoors, not simply to prevent them from nuisance behaviours, but to ensure their own safety and health. The result: fewer complaints and disagreements among neighbours, and fewer cats killed by cars, coyotes, poisoning or random abuse, and fewer unwanted kittens.


As cat licensing matures and compliance rates continue to rise due to incentives, education and bylaw enforcement, it can also be predicted that the feral cat population will decline. In April 2009, Animal Services, with funds directly from the cat licensing program, opened it's first low-cost spay and neuter facility. According to Bruce, without funds from cat licensing, this service couldn't be offered. Combine all this, and Calgary not only has a successful animal services program, but a grassroots conservation strategy that, over time, can work. Fewer free-roaming cats means fewer small mammals and birds will die. Fewer feral cats and colonies means less impact on wildlife and the environment. It's about simple mathematics that can add up to big savings for wildlife, the environment and for cats. It's also about seeking balance, fairness, and demonstrating concern for more than one species. It's not at all about activism or winning and losing. That's dated and passé. It's about everyone parking their anger and egos at the door and entering a new collaborative phase that works for nature. Our combined energies and creativity can accomplish some wondrous things, and the Calgary program is proof of that.


Why the Program Works

1) The right approach – To build support for a cat licensing program, Bill and his team connected with all stakeholders, including local rescue groups. Their goal was to identify all the issues and find common ground. Everyone agreed that cats were not the problem, rather the unwilling victims. No one wanted more homeless cats or strays and no one wanted so many cats hurt, sick or euthanized because of irresponsible owners.

2) The right focus – Calgary built its entire program on a foundation of Responsible Pet Ownership that treats cat and dog owners equitably. As Bill said, "Virtually every animal that winds up in a shelter is the result of a failed human relationship." By focusing on pet owners, the program is able to access the root cause of stray and unwanted pets. A license means, "This is your pet and you're responsible." The four principles of responsible pet ownership: license and provide permanent identification, spay/neuter, provide training, care and proper medical attention, and don't allow your pet to become a nuisance or threat. Every aspect of Calgary's program is geared to instilling these behaviours.

3) Communicate the benefits – The program stresses the benefits of Responsible Pet Ownership. In addition, cat licensing in Calgary has produced an all-important revenue stream for the safe return of cats to owners, as well as low-cost spaying and neutering, in particular for low income families. All of the funds taken in from cat licensing are used to provide these and other services for cats.

4) Make it easy to comply – Cat owners were given six months to get their first license and easy options for doing so were made very clear. Change takes time and a transition phase was anticipated. Once the first cat license is purchased, a renewal notice is automatically sent out, as it is for dogs. As well, further incentives were created to target cat owners who are slow or reluctant to comply, as it is with dog owners slow to comply.


Calgary's goal is to have cat licensing on par with dog licensing within 2-3 years, and they seem to be on track. And with Calgary's success, the landscape for issues such as cat licensing has changed forever. As of January 2009, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, and Mississauga, to name only a few, all have cat licensing programs in various stages of development. The city of Toronto is also developing a strategy to confront its overpopulation of cats, including ferals. As Eletta Purdy, manager of Toronto Animal Services said at the Toronto Feral Cat Conference in North York, Nov. 2008, "Once Toronto had a problem with too many dogs. Now shelters are almost looking for dogs for adoption. That's where we want to get with cats."


The cities with cat licensing on the books that have not enjoyed the same level of success as Calgary, appear to be those cities who have not taken the four pillars approach. In other words, cat licensing programs without public education, easy access and bylaw enforcement, typically only achieve limited results.


To protect and restore our bird and small mammal populations, as well as return cats to their rightful place as valued pet and companion, let's do it and let's do it right. We need to listen to each other and find that common ground where we can all stand together. There is a solution, a way. They've proven that in Calgary. So isn't it time we got started in BC?


To weigh in on this issue, email and offer your view:


Would you support cat licensing in your city or municipality? Would you like to be a part of the collaboration process to develop a program that works in BC?


Sherril Guthrie is a freelance researcher and writer who lives in Abbotsford, BC.


Other Resource Links related to letter:

Longcore, T., C. Rich, and L. M. Sullivan. 2009. Critical assessment of claims regarding management of feral cats by trap–neuter–returnConservation Biology 23(4):887-894



Cat Licensing - Toronto