The European Commission has denied it plans to force owners to put their cats on a lead and, in a staunch defence of freedom of movement rights for pets, insisted EU law does not ban putting the cat out for the night.
Brussels was forced into the bizarre denial on Wednesday after Dutch lawyers from Tilburg University in Trouw, the Netherlands, said letting unleashed cats loose broke the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directive because they killed so many birds.
“The Commission is a strong defender of free movement rights – including of cats,” said Enrico Brivo, the executive’s environment spokesman.
“We categorically deny that the commission will oblige cats to be held on a leash at all times,” Mr Brivo told the Telegraph.
Lawyers Arie Trouwborst and Han Somsen said that a court case could be brought against the Dutch government because it did nothing to prevent unsupervised cats being put out for the night. The law protects all wild birds in the EU, their nests, eggs and habitats.
The domestic cat is one of the world’s most ruthless exterminators of animal species, the pair wrote in the Journal of Environmental Law .
The lawyers claimed that 140 million animals are killed by cats each year in the Netherlands alone. More than half of those cats had owners, they wrote. There are between two and three million domestic cats in the Netherlands, according to the figures in the Journal, and more than 500 wild bird species protected under EU law.
“Even if it is not your intention to harm wild animals when you leave the cat flap open, that is what happens on a large scale,” Mr Somsen said
“Whoever starts a lawsuit against the Dutch government, who must enforce European rules, has a good chance of success,” Mr Trouwbest said.
The Dutch government said it had no plans to ban cats from being let outdoors unleashed and unsupervised.
“We are currently working hard on measures to promote the restoration and conservation of nature in the Netherlands,” a government spokesperson said, “keeping cats indoors is not part of that.”
Brussels cast doubt on those figures, hinting they could be “fake mews”.
“The commission is not aware of the study in question,” Mr Brivo said. “The information that we have is that the disturbance and killing of birds and other wild species by cats is not among the main pressures and threats to biodiversity.”
All EU citizens have the right to live, work and study in any EU country. Dogs, cats and ferrets benefit from an EU pet passport scheme, meaning they can easily travel around the EU for holidays without the need to be quarantined.
British anxiety around EU freedom of movement rules are often cited as a reason for the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum. British pets will lose their EU passports and freedom of movement in Britain will end after Brexit.