Aspects of the ecology of feral cats (Felis catus) in urban Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
With changing land use such as urbanization, certain species thrive and are successful despite changes in the modified landscapes. Therefore, study of the ecology, adaptations and survival of these species in an urban context is warranted. Often these species include alien invasive species. An example is the feral cat (Felis catus). The negative effects caused by feral cats generally include impacts on native species of wildlife because of their highly predatory nature and their ability to spread zoonotic diseases. Furthermore, it often becomes a public nuisance occurring at high densities in urban areas. Consequently the aspects of the ecology of feral cats were studied from March 2014 to June 2015 in an urban mosaic in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The research was also undertaken to propose and assist with an effective management strategy that was deemed necessary to control high densities of feral cats existing in urban Pietermaritzburg. Feral cats were trapped and fitted with GPS-GSM-UHF tracking collars in order to determine their home and core range sizes within the urban mosaic containing varying degrees of green and urban areas. Additionally, the disease prevalence in feral cats was also documented by collecting blood samples from feral cats occurring in many areas of the greater Pietermaritzburg area. The information gained in this study allowed compilation of feral cat management recommendations and strategies in order to control the increasing feral cat communities already established in Pietermaritzburg. Feral cat telemetry data showed that availability and abundance of food resources were the primary influencing factors affecting feral cat home range size and distribution as core areas contained at least one supplemental feeding site. There was considerable overlap of feral cats within the core areas. Overall home range size of feral cats was small but varied with individual cats. There was considerable overlap between and within the sexes. There were no significant differences in range size between sexes nor between day and night. However, diurnal ranges were generally smaller than nocturnal range sizes. Generally male feral cats had larger home ranges than female feral cats and nocturnal activity was higher across genders. Feral cats used urban areas more than green areas suggesting that the urban environment supports larger numbers of feral cats. The disease prevalence in feral cats tested was generally low. However, some tested positive for Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV) (28.6%) and for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) (7.1 %). There was no occurrence of Feline Corona Viruses (FCoV) in feral cats tested in Pietermaritzburg. The location of feral cats within the city had a significant effect on prevalence of FeLV infection in feral cats tested. The findings of this study of feral cats in the urban mosaic of Pietermaritzburg showed that feral cats’ habitat use and home range were mainly affected by supplemental food resources. Furthermore, disease prevalence in feral cats tested was generally low. Thus efficient, cost-effective and realistic methods need to be implemented to control high densities of feral cats in this urban area require the use of a low-key supplemental feeding programme with a combined sterilization programme. This proposed strategy should be adopted and sustained with involvement of all concerned stakeholders to ensure that the welfare and population of the cats is well managed and humanely controlled particularly as this is an alien, invasive species. Additionally, all cats that test positive for any disease should be removed from the population to stop the spread of diseases to other feral or domestic cats in urban areas of Pietermaritzburg.