Did you know that as a cat owner, you are legally obliged to take proper care of your cat? New Zealand has both a law (the Animal Welfare Act) and complementary standards (in the Code of Welfare for Companion Cats) that set out our obligations. Although it might surprise some people to learn that such documents exist, isn't it a good thing that they do and that they have significant legal 'clout'.

The Code of Welfare must have been very difficult to write, but those responsible have tackled it bravely and they've done a good job of it. All cat owners should find it interesting and most will learn something from it.

One of the complications when preparing the Code was that while there are 'owned cats' (ie, with specific owners who provide all their cats' requirements), there are also huge numbers of both 'feral cats' that live completely independently of people, and 'stray cats' that rely indirectly on human support, whether through scavenging or use of buildings for shelter. Mostly the Code deals with owned cats, but it does have something to say about stray cats. It doesn't deal with feral cats, which sadly are pest animals like most other feral mammal species and subject to the usual controls relating to 'pests'.

The Animal Welfare Act 1999 says that it's the legal responsibility of all animal owners and 'persons in charge' to ensure that the physical, health, and behavioural needs of their animals are met and the animals receive high standards of care. The Act necessarily provides only general statements about what is required, but the Cat Code of Welfare 2007 is one of a number of Codes that provide the necessary detail for the Act. Owners must comply with the minimum standards in the Codes. The Codes can be used to help establish innocence or guilt when owners are accused of committing animal welfare offences. The Codes also provide recommendations for best practices, which have no legal effect but are included to encourage high standards of animal welfare.

Here are some of the standards and a few of the recommendations from the Cat Code:

Food and water

  • Cats over 6 months of age must be fed at least once a day.
  • Weaned kittens under 6 months of age must be fed at least twice a day.
  • Cats must receive sufficient food to maintain them in good health and body condition.
  • Any cat that is 'thin' must be given remedial treatment, either through better nutrition or veterinary attention.
  • (A 'thin' cat is defined as one in which the ribs can be easily felt, the backbone is prominent, there is little fat under the skin and in the belly, and looking from above there is an obvious 'waist' behind the ribs.)
  • Cats must always have continuous access to palatable water.

Housing and hygiene

  • Food and water bowls must be cleaned regularly.
  • Cats that don't go outside must have access to dirt trays containing absorbent material and the trays must be attended to regularly to prevent contamination and resultant health and welfare problems.

Health care

  • When cats show signs of pain or distress they must receive veterinary attention from a veterinarian or an SPCA inspector, or they must be humanely euthanased.
  • If the pain or suffering is significant, the attention must be given urgently.
  • Similarly, cats that have been significantly injured must receive urgent veterinary attention, be brought to the attention of an SPCA inspector, or be humanely euthanased.

Note that there is a recommendation that kittens be given worm treatment every 2 weeks from 3 to 4 weeks of age until they are 3 months old, thereafter at 3-month intervals.

Use of collars

  • If collars are used they must be fitted so that there is no risk of injury to the cat.
  • It is recommended that if collars are used they are elasticised or fitted with a quick-release device to prevent snagging and suffocation.


  • There is no standard relating to desexing but the Code states that cats other than those kept by registered breeders should be desexed before or at puberty, ie before 6 months of age.
  • If kittens are born, they must wherever possible be kept with their mothers until they are at least 8 weeks old.


  • When being transported in a vehicle, cats must be transported in a secure and well-ventilated container with enough room to stand, turn around and rest normally.
  • They must not be left unattended in a car when there is a risk of over-heating.


Euthanasia means causing a painless and rapid death.

  • If owners euthanase their cat it must be done humanely, i.e. in such a way that death occurs quickly.
  • Cats and kittens must never be killed by drowning. (This is very inhumane.)

If euthanasia of a cat is to be carried out, the Code states that the best practice is for it to be done by a veterinarian.

Stray cats

While a person who feeds stray cats isn't usually considered to be the 'person in-charge' in terms of the Act and isn't responsible for the cats' welfare, it should be noted that people who trap stray cats in order to have them de-sexed or vaccinated become the 'person in charge', and so they are subject to the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act and the Companion Cat Code.

A copy of the full Animal Welfare Act is accessible at http://www.legislation.govt.nz/
A full copy of the Code of Welfare for Companion Cats is available at