Perceptions of Stray and Feral Cats in New Zealand

Whether we call free-roaming cats "stray" or "feral" makes a difference to what people think should be done about them. 

Perceptions of stray and feral cats in New Zealand
Photo: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Recently, I wrote about a study of public perceptions of feral cats in the US. That study gave participants a definition of what they meant by feral, but as one of our readers pointed out, whether we describe cats as feral or stray could have consequences for how people feel about them. We promised to return to the topic and so this week we look at a study in New Zealand by Mark Farnworth et al. They wanted to investigate how perceptions differ for stray and feral cats, and the measures that should be taken to deal with them.

The legal framework in New Zealand is different for stray and feral cats. Stray cats, that are lost or abandoned and rely on people for at least some help, should be taken to animal charities where they will be assessed and then rehomed or euthanized as appropriate. On the other hand feral cats, which are self-sustaining and do not rely on humans, are defined as pests and can be subject to lethal control.

People were recruited in downtown Auckland and in a small town on the North Island called Kaitaia. To get a random sample, every fourth person was approached on the street and asked to complete a questionnaire; just like taking part in market research, the participant was asked the questions but a researcher ticked the relevant boxes for them.

The first part of the questionnaire asked about demographics. Then participants were given a definition of companion, stray and feral cats. For subsequent questions, they were asked to give an answer first for stray cats, and secondly for feral cats.

Most participants (55%) were not aware of New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act, which governs how cats are treated. The results showed significant differences for stray and feral cats. People were significantly more likely to support lethal control methods for feral cats than for stray cats. They were also significantly more likely to support non-lethal methods (such as Trap, Neuter and Release) for stray cats than for feral cats.

Interestingly, this mirrors the way legal definitions of cats affect the control measures that can be taken. The authors suggest this is because of public discourse around the issues of biodiversity and conservation in New Zealand. Invasive species that have been introduced to New Zealand damage native species. Although Trap, Neuter and Release is seen as the best approach in other places, they say that people’s strong beliefs in conservation may make it less popular in New Zealand than lethal methods.  Re-homing was seen as the best method for dealing with stray cats, even though not all stray cats are suitable to be re-homed, and this might be because it removes them from the natural environment. 

Women were less likely to support lethal methods of control than men, and younger people were less likely to support them than older people (defined as over 40). Those who worked in an occupation to do with animals were more likely to see lethal control as acceptable. It may be that they worked in agriculture or conservation and this affected their views. 

Another interesting result from this study is that those who own cats are less likely to support lethal methods of control for stray cats, but this did not apply to feral cats. It seems that feral cats are seen as outsiders and not considered the same as stray and companion cats.

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

How do you think of stray and feral cats? Would you define them differently?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Farnworth, M. J., Campbell, J., & Adams, N. J. (2011). What's in a name? Perceptions of stray and feral cat welfare and control in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 14(1), 59-74.

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