Should your cat be on a leash? Toronto eyes new outdoor pet rules

In a move that’s likely to prompt yowls of protest from the smallest members of many Toronto households, a city committee has backed a plan that would prohibit cat owners from allowing their pets to roam free outdoors.

Councillors on the economic and community development committee voted in favour of the proposed ban on free-range kitties in a surprise decision Wednesday during a debate about proposed updates to Toronto animal regulations.

A so-called anti-roaming bylaw wasn’t recommended in the staff report about potential rule changes, and municipal officials warned it would likely be impossible to enforce. But the idea was supported by some animal advocates who argued that roving cats pose a serious threat to bird populations, and are themselves at risk of being hit by cars or attacked by coyotes and other predators.

“If you love your cat, keep Fluffy indoors,” Glenn De Baeremaeker, an environmentalist and former Scarborough city councillor, told the meeting.

The bylaw change hasn’t received final approval, and will need the support of a majority of council members to go into effect. Council is scheduled to debate the issue at its meeting in two weeks.

Coun. Shelley Carroll (Ward 17, Don Valley North), who moved the motion that would restrict outdoor cats, said she was willing to discuss the staff’s objections ahead of the council vote. But she said she’s heard loud and clear from residents that it’s safer for feline friends to be kept indoors.

“I’m moving it today because truly I think people don’t want free-roaming cats. It is horrendously traumatic when you find a cat that has met with misfortune,” she said.

Carroll’s motion amended a staff-proposed bylaw change that stated no pet owner should allow their animal “to be at large in the city.” The staff version provided an exception for cats and domesticated pigeons, but Carroll’s motion would remove the reference to cats. Pigeons would still be allowed to fly free.

The committee passed her motion by a show of hands.

Among the proposed bylaw’s supporters was Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre, a charitable organization that cares for ailing wild animals.

Citing a study by Environment Canada scientists that determined felines across the country kill 200 million birds annually, she told the committee that “free-roaming cats are a massive issue for Toronto’s wildlife.” She also noted that the city collects upwards of 1,000 dead felines from its roadways in a single year.

Carroll’s motion didn’t specify what the new rules for cats would be if the anti-roaming bylaw were put into effect, but Karvonen suggested that cats be treated like dogs and be allowed outdoors as long as they’re on a leash or in an enclosure. She said 90 other Canadian municipalities already have anti-roaming bylaws.

Despite the backing of advocates and councillors, the proposal appears to face stiff opposition from city staff. Asked at the meeting about the feasibility of the new rule, Carleton Grant, executive director of the licensing and standards division, was blunt: “Problematic. Impossible,” he said.

Under current bylaws, the city already has the ability to impound cats that are causing damage or creating a nuisance. But according to the report, animal services is reluctant to impound healthy cats because it risks “needless stress” on the animals and increases the population of already busy shelters.

If the anti-roaming bylaw passes and the city has to wrangle outdoor cats on top of its existing responsibilities, “our shelters would be well beyond capacity,” Grant told the Star.

According to the report, Toronto animal service shelters took in 2,125 cats last year. More than 300 were adopted, and 150 were returned to their owners. More than 500 were euthanized.

The report recommended stripping the city of responsibility for impounding nuisance cats in order to help ease pressure on shelters, but the committee rejected that proposal.

The committee also voted to have staff look into requiring mandatory microchipping for cats, and to create a “positive list” of what kinds of pets residents can keep, rather than enumerating which animals are prohibited.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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