Namibia needs a national response to feral cat colonies
[The Namibian -- 24 May 2012]

What is the City of Windhoek or for that matter any other city in Namibia doing to reduce the burden of feral cat populations? If and when this issue is given the necessary platform there will be many organizations, institutions as well as rural and urban residents that will come forward with concerns about cat populations on their premises, populations that in some cases number in the hundreds. Restaurants, hostels, farmyards, hospitals, factories, riverbeds, supermarkets and almost anywhere can have a feral cat colony develop. Cat lovers and those that are not fond of cats need to take heed of the numerous concerns and develop a sensible response to this explosive situation.

Abandoned or lost pet cats and those born out of households form territorial groups called colonies. The number of cats in the colony and the size of the territory is defined by a number of factors, especially food availability. A colony that has a food supply grows quickly as females can have up to three litters a year. Veterinary services in northern Namibia have reported that hospitals and school hostels are severely affected. In southern Namibia an actively supported colony that started by bringing in one unsterilized female cat seven years ago has resulted in more than 200 cats at the daily feeding site. Besides a known colony an unknown number of cats will disperse from the natal group and set up new colonies where ever sufficient wild food is available.

Cats are wily predators and obligate carnivores and their hunting nature will impact on wildlife. A single cat needs 200 to 300 grams of wet food a day which would equal about 4-5 small wild animals per day. Even well-fed cats will often hunt and it is not only the loss of the creature that they kill but the dead creature becomes a missing link in the wild animal food chain and a negative domino effect on wild animal populations is set in motion. Domestic cats are invasive and alien in a natural environment. Besides their hunting abilities they have a second negative effect on indigenous wildlife, cross-breeding with African Wild Cats. This threat to indigenous African Wild Cat populations has created an irreversible situation in a number of areas that is currently the subject of research in Namibia and South Africa.

Besides the impact on biodiversity there are other serious considerations. Human heath, physical, mental and emotional can be affected. Any person who has been disturbed in the night by cats fighting on the roof will understand the effects on mental and emotional health. Cats can carry external and internal parasites that are zoonosis, and rabies though unlikely to be transmitted by a cat is a risk. Cats also carry disease and parasites that can be transmitted within the species. Although feral cats are not necessarily more likely to carry these diseases, their roaming nature may make them a source for transmission of organisms.

Simply eliminating a feral colony is not a solution. A number of research studies in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States of America show that eliminating a colony will simply open up the territory for new feral cats. The use of poison is illegal in Namibia and shooting cats is often suggested but is not an option for a number of well researched reasons. A current response to cat colonies is TSR Trap Sterilize and Release. This method is longterm and will allow for a limited number of cats to remain as pest control for rodents especially around waste sites.

South Africa has an estimated 7 000 000 feral cats, the USA between 60 has d 100 million cats. The number in Namibia would be pure guess work as no research has been done on the number of or size of colonies. Our responses to feral cat populations can only be based on research done elsewhere. Namibia's domestic animal care organizations, the SPCAs, the Cat Protection Society operating in Windhoek and Swakopmund and numerous caring individuals do not have the capacity to do research or to control the feral cat populations that have developed nation-wide. The Windhoek branch of the Cat Protection Society suggests that most cats in a large colony should be humanely euthanized after trapping and a core group of sterilized healthy vaccinated cats should be left at the colony site to deter new comers. They rightly point out that trapping requires dedication as cruelty could ensue if traps are not correctly and consistently managed.

Various stakeholders can assist with the current situation to control feral colonies. These stakeholders include the local authority and the government ministries responsible for human health, biodiversity conservation and veterinary services. Non government organization, the SPCA, the Cat Protection Society and the Veterinary Association of Namibia must also play their part, but the ultimate responsibility and the stakeholder that can in every case help to control feral cat colonies is each and every member of the public. Some of the largest colonies reported in Namibia and elsewhere are around hospitals, hostels and restaurants. The public can help to control the feral cats through how they dispose of waste especially food items. The public needs to also take responsibility when acquiring a cat. All cats should be sterilized and kittens should rather be surrendered to responsible animal organizations than given away without being sterilized.

Liz Komen