Cats in New Zealand

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Mittens the cat of Wellington (taken in 2019)

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.

Population of cats[edit]

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.

Domestic cats[edit]

Companion animals are popular in New Zealand, with 60% of households having either a cat or a dog.[2]: 15  In 2020, Companion Animals New Zealand reported that there are around 1.2 million domestic cats in New Zealand, with around 41% of households having at least one cat. Trends in cat ownership are:[2]: 14 

Parameter 2011 2015 2020
Household penetration 48% 44% 41%
Average no in home 1.8 1.5 1.7
Total numbers (000's) 1,419 1,134 1,219

Stray and feral cats[edit]

The estimated populations of stray and feral cats are 200,000 and 2.4 million respectively.[3][4]

Legislation, code of practice and bylaws[edit]

There are extensive sections of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 that apply to cats and their owners, but as of 2023, New Zealand does not have legislation that is specific to the management of cats.[5] However, a Code of Welfare: Companion Cats was issued in 2018 under the Animal Welfare Act to expand on the requirements of the Act. The code sets minimum standards and recommends best practice for the care and management of cats.[6]: 3  The minimum standards in the code can be used to support a prosecution for offences under the Act.[6]: 4 

For biosecurity reasons cats must undergo tests and treatment before being imported into New Zealand and in some cases direct importation is not permitted.[7] The Animal Welfare Act deems it to be illegal to abandon an unwanted cat.

In addition to the Act and the national Code of Welfare, many (but not all) local councils have bylaws pertaining to cats.[8]: 159–174  In 2020, the Selwyn District Council removed requirements for micro-chipping of cats from a planned new animal control bylaw, because the absence of national legislation meant that the council lacked the ability to issue fines or to obtain revenue from compuslory registration that might fund enforcement action.[9]

National Cat Management Strategy Group[edit]

In 2014 a National Cat Management Strategy Group (NCMSG) was formed, with representation from the New Zealand Veterinarians Association, the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the New Zealand Companion Animal Council, the Morgan Foundation and Local Government New Zealand, with technical advisors from Department of Conservation and observers from the Ministry for Primary Industries.[3] The NCMSG published a report in 2020 with 13 recommendations, including the enactment of a National Cat Management Act that would enable nationally consistent approaches to humane management of cats and enforcement of bylaws.[8]

The NCMSG report recommended categorisations for use in frameworks for improving the management of cats:

  • Feral cats
  • Domestic cats
    • Companion (owned) cats
    • Stray cats;
      • Socialised stray cats (managed and unmanaged)
      • Unsocialised stray cats (managed and unmanaged)

Feral cats[edit]

Cat eradication on outlying islands[10]
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
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)

Apart from two 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.[11] 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.[12]

Cats are problematic on other islands as well. It was speculated that cats would have caused the extinction of the kākāpō 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[13] 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.[14]

The impact of feral cats on species other than birds is not as well documented[13] 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.[15]

In 2020 the Hamilton City Council opened a $100,000 fund to desex and home feral cats in the city.[16]

Predation by domestic cats[edit]

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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] It is suggested that owners could euthanize their cats, but it is not seen as necessary.[20] Some conservationists supported the stance taken by Morgan.[21]

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.[22]


Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by an infection of Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite found worldwide that can infect virtually all warm-blooded animals. Felids such as domestic and feral cats are the only known definitive hosts in which the parasite may undergo sexual reproduction. Animals and humans can become infected through contact with food, water or materials in the environment that are contaminated with faeces from an infected cat.[23] A study done on patients in Auckland with acute toxoplasmosis revealed that the disease may be seriously debilitating in some cases. The patients had a high rate of fatigue, headaches, and had a difficulty with concentration.[24][25]

New Zealand native animals can be at risk from toxoplasmosis. Several species of kiwi from wild populations have been found to be infected, with consequences that may lead to the death of the bird. Research is being undertaken to establish the extent to which kiwi are exposed to T. gondii.[26]

Toxoplasmosis has been confirmed as a cause of death of endangered Hector's dolphin's and critically endangered Māui dolphins. The T. gondii parasite is only known to reproduce in cats. The eggs of the parasite spread from cat faeces into the environment, and travel via stormwater and wastewater to the sea. Dolphins can become infected when parasites from cat faeces end up in the marine food chain.[27][28]


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.[29] 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 culture[edit]

"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, became a minor internet celebrity with a strong following on Facebook. People from all of the world tried to glimpse him when they visited the Capital as he wandered kilometres away from his home in Kelburn. Mittens moved to Auckland in late 2021.[30]

Phantom big cat sightings[edit]

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.[31] There have been several unverified panther sightings in Mid-Canterbury near Ashburton and in the nearby foothills of the Southern Alps,[32][33][34] but searches conducted there in 2003 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry found no corroborating physical evidence.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brockie, Bob (September 2007). "Introduced animal pests". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 17 October 2018.
  2. ^ a b Companion animals in New Zealand 2020 (PDF). Companion Animals New Zealand. 2020. ISBN 978-0-473-53489-9.
  3. ^ a b Donnell, Hayden (January–February 2021). "Our love affair with cats". NZ Geographic (167): 38–55. Archived from the original on 3 January 2022. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  4. ^ Sargent, Anna (2 September 2022). "Giant feral cats are 'absolute muscle' from dining out on the best native wildlife". Stuff. Retrieved 19 April 2023.
  5. ^ Christine L. Sumner; Jessica K. Walker; Arnja R. Dale (11 January 2022). "The Implications of Policies on the Welfare of Free-Roaming Cats in New Zealand". Animals. 12 (3): 237. doi:10.3390/ANI12030237. ISSN 2076-2615. Wikidata Q117789228.
  6. ^ a b "Code of Welfare: Companion Cats". Ministry for Primary Industries, New Zealand Government. 1 October 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2023.
  7. ^ "Your Pets". MPI Biosecurity New Zealand. 18 January 2013. Archived from the original on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  8. ^ a b New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy Group Report 2020 (PDF). New Zealand National Cat Management Strategy Group. August 2020. Retrieved 19 April 2023.
  9. ^ Bolger, Devon (21 September 2020). "Compulsory micro-chipping of cats out of draft animal bylaw". Otago Daily Times Online News. Retrieved 19 April 2023.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b Wilson, Kerry-Jane (2004). Flight of the Huia. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press. ISBN 978-0-908812-52-3.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "Cat nabbed raiding the mothership". Department of Conservation. 22 April 2010. Archived from the original on 19 February 2013. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
  16. ^ "Hamilton council provides financial support to re-home stray cats". Radio New Zealand. 12 September 2020.
  17. ^ "DOC's work with pets: Animal pests and threats". Department of Conservation. Archived from the original on 23 February 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  18. ^ Stewart, Matt (17 July 2012). "'They're killers': Zealandia calls for fewer cats". Dominion Post. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  19. ^ Wade, Amelia (22 January 2012). "Morgan calls for cats to be wiped out". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  20. ^ "Call to eradicate New Zealand’s pet cats draws hisses from cat lovers", The Washington Post (Associated Press), 22 January 2013
  21. ^ "Conservationists back anti-cat campaign", TVNZ Onenews, 22 January 2013
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "Parasites-Toxoplasmosis-Biology". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 November 2020. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  24. ^ "Acute toxoplasmosis impairs memory and concentration". Scoop. University of Auckland – press release. 29 January 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Taylor, Harry (December 2021). "Toxoplasmosis in kiwi". Birds New Zealand. The Ornithological Society of New Zealand (32).
  27. ^ "Toxoplasmosis and Hector's and Māui dolphin". Department of Conservation. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  28. ^ Clark-Dow, Emma (18 April 2023). "Dolphin found on Auckland beach died of disease often spread by cats". Stuff. Retrieved 18 April 2023.
  29. ^ "Metal gas chamber used to euthanase cats". The Press. 10 October 2011. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  30. ^ Palmer, Scott (10 November 2021). "Wellington's iconic Mittens the cat will move to Auckland, owner confirms". Newshub. Retrieved 23 July 2022.
  31. ^ a b Devereux, Monique (9 October 2003). "MAF staff, wildlife experts hunt big black cat in vain". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  32. ^ Ashburton Guardian: An unsolved mystery
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ Susan Sandys. Bid to capture black panther Archived 11 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Ashburton Guardian, 8 December 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2010.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]