Categories: Stray Cats

Is it illegal to trap cats?

Trapped cat – feral? Stray? Or Domestic?

Is it illegal to trap cats? Answer: it depends on:

  • Who is giving the advice! Cat haters, ornithologists or people who apply the law.
  • Where you live.
  • Is the cat genuinely stray or feral or is the cat someone’s domestic cat going for a stroll? You had better be sure he is a stray cat.
  • Has the cat ‘trespassed’ onto someone’s property?
  • What happens to the cat after he/she has been trapped?

You can see that this is a fraught topic. But the unqualified and unmodified fundamentals are clear. When a person traps a cat belonging to another person that single act may be an act of conversion (a tort). If the trapper then takes away the cat with the intention of depriving the cat’s owner permanently of her/his cat, this is an act of theft. If the cat is injured while being trapped this could be animal abuse under almost any animal welfare law and potentially criminal damage (a well-known crime). If the cat is subsequently killed that too could be a violation of animal welfare laws if it was conducted inhumanely and it could also be a conversion.

The biggest issue which dictates whether you can or can’t trap cats is whether the cat is owned or not. You may be unsure about that. A cat wearing a collar should warn someone who wants to trap a cat that he/she is owned. In which case the cat can’t be trapped and carried away. There is a grey area here because simply trapping a cat is probably not animal cruelty but it could amount to that if the cat was left trapped for days and became injured which would be likely. The fact that you can’t be sure about ownership means that you have to leave the cat alone unless his presence falls under a rare exception such as becoming a nuisance animal to livestock.

I am sure many domestic cats are trapped when they stray onto someone’s land which despite being almost certainly illegal is never found out because the owner simply regards the matter as a lost cat. There is often no evidence of foul play.

In America, Google finds the advice of ‘American Humane’ as the best but the advice is very thin and incomplete. It says that genuine stray cats can be trapped. Stray cats are technically unowned. So you can trap genuine stray cats. But how do you know the cat is a genuine stray and not an outdoor domestic cat? It is not illegal to let your cat go outside in America unless there is some local ordinance (in Australia there are some local laws about this). Therefore there will be many outdoor cats who are ‘owned’ and who have a caretaker. If a domestic cat was strolling around the owner’s property on public land then a cat hater will say they can trap the cat. They’d be wrong. If they trapped the cat and killed him/her or took him to a shelter where he was euthanised a crime would be committed in my opinion. It would be theft in the first instance followed by criminal damage with some cat cruelty thrown in for good measure; three crimes.

Australia has the most strict laws regarding wandering cats; stray or domestic. They are probably the most cat hating western-style society in the world. There will be laws making it legal to trap cats domestic or otherwise. For instance, in the state of Victoria, the Domestic Animals Act 1994 permits land owners to trap (seize) cats if they have entered their property (land) more than once. But the trapping must be humane. I am not sure that it is possible to trap humanely as it is an inherently inhumane activity.

In general, legally, cats cannot trespass (it only applies to humans). But there are many instances of domestic cats wandering onto someone’s property. This is not trespass but in America it seems that it is accepted that the landowner can trap that cat and even kill him/her. They may and probably do get away with it but in my opinion this is strictly speaking illegal. The argument is that the cat has become a nuisance animal and therefore can be trapped. It can be if the cat is a genuine unowned cat but if the cat belongs to someone trapping him may amount to animal cruelty if the cat is hurt and if the cat is taken from the owner with the intention of removing the cat permanently it would be theft. Cat haters will use their gut feelings with no reference to the law and scream that they have the right to trap and even kill a cat on their property. These people can never back up their views with reference to the law. I can assure you there is no US law which allows this provided the cat is not a nuisance. If someone can find one please leave a comment (politely).

Whether you can trap a cat or not also depends on which country you live in. In the UK you cannot trap someone’s cat and take him away even if the cat is on your property and attacking birds and you are an ornithologist. A person may get away with it because the cat will become ‘lost’ meaning the owner does not know what happened and therefore cannot make a complaint to the police or RSPCA.

The issue is a very fraught one because cats unlike dogs are given a lot of freedom to roam. It has been this way historically for a long time. There are many people who argue that domestic cats should be kept within the confines of the owner’s backyard or garden. Common sense tells us that it is wise to ensure that the cat is identified with a quick release collar and tag and microchip. But often wandering domestic cats don’t have any visible signs of identification. People can’t simply trap and do as they want to someone else’s property. And cats as we know are considered non-real property under the law.

You will find that no state in the USA defines outdoor cats of any type as ‘non-native’ and/or ‘pests’. Neither are they described under the law as ‘nuisance animals’. This is because it is impossible to do it as it is often impossible to distinguish owned cats from unowned cats. The lawmakers are stymied. If the law stated that all domestic cats had to wear a bright red collar and if not the cat would be deemed to be unowned then laws could be made regarding the trapping of cats because everyone could distinguish between owned and unowned cats.

Cat haters bundle all cats together as one and conveniently ignore the legal issues surrounding ‘possession’ and legal ‘title’ (ownership) to their cat. You can’t do that.

Subject to specific local ordinances in cities or counties in the USA and subject to rare exceptions under the law, in general it is illegal to trap cats unless the cat is unowned i.e. a genuine stray or feral. The law is different (stricter and more anti-cat) in Australia as mentioned and less strict and more pro-cat in the UK. European law is probably similar to UK law and principles. In large swathes of the Middle East and Far East there is a much more laissez-faire attitude towards stray cats and the application of animal welfare laws if they exist.

Note: I have deliberately kept quotes of the law off this page for simplicity’s sake. Feel free to correct and amend. Ninety percent of it was written out of my head because it is impossible to cover every nuance of this complex subject.

Please comment here using either Facebook or WordPress (when available).
Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

View Comments

  • I have some respondes that I don't know how to offer over so I will forward them to Michael. They are quite long.

  • Thank you for this important issue. The organization Alley cats has door tags to help determine if a cat is owned. They also have a guide to assist. In NYC there is also a Mayors Aliiance which is a non profit that can give guidance. Still the lines are blurred.

    • It is very similar. US law is largely based on UK law certainly with respect to common law. And the basic legal concepts referred to are almost universally accepted in the West.

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