Why You Cannot Own A Cat On Svalbard

Svalbard is known for having some rather weird laws and regulations, including the fact that you cannot give birth on this arctic island. There’s also a myth that it’s illegal to die on Svalbard, but that’s just one of Internet’s many rumors that are entirely false.

But what about the rumor that you cannot own a cat on Svalbard? Is that also just a myth, or is it real?

It’s actually illegal to own a cat on Svalbard, and our furry friends are outright banned from entering this arctic island. The reason is because they are considered an invasive species, are likely to be able to kill local wildlife, and can likely bring new diseases to the island.

We’re going to take a closer look at the history of cats on Svalbard, answering all your burning questions and debunking some long-living myths surrounding the topic.

Homes on Svalbard
Homes in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

There are a few cats on Svalbard

The official ban to felines on Svalbard came back in 1992, and there used to be cats living on the island prior to this. The local government chose not to evict the cats already living on the island once the ban came into effect, which allowed the cats to stay around until they died of natural causes. But over 30 years later these are all long gone.

However, this does not mean that there are no cats on Svalbard. Rules are meant to be broken, right?

You won’t find any cats in the big city of Longyearbyen, but there are actually 3 registered cats in the Russian settlement of Barentsburg. These have all been imported after the feline ban, but I’m not going to speculate how they managed to get them onto the island.

Barentsburg on Svalbard
Barentsburg on Svalbard. Photo by Keith Ruffles / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Barentsburg also used to have a legendary cat named Kesha (or Кеша if you want the real, Cyrillic spelling). The cat itself was real until it died in 2019, but it’s entire existence was filled with myths and legends. Like the other cats on Svalbard, Kesha lived in the Russian part of the island.

Some of the myths surrounding Kesha was that he:

  • Was the only living cat on Svalbard.
  • Was a stray cat.
  • Was smuggled to the island by being registered as an arctic fox.

There is no evidence for any of this. We know for a fact that he was not the only cat on Svalbard, and that he had an owner.

However, he did enjoy spending most of his time outdoors interacting with people, giving many the impression that he didn’t have a home.

The rumor that he was smuggled in as an arctic fox is probably also just a myth, even though there’s no evidence to both either for or against the rumor.

Norwegian forest cat.
Not even the Norwegian cat breed Norwegian forest cat is allowed on Svalbard.

Why cats are banned from Svalbard

It might sound harsh to ban all felines from entering the arctic island of Svalbard, but there are some rather good ecological reasons for keeping them away. Let’s take a closer look why!

Cats can cause havoc to the local bird populations

Svalbard has lots of breeding colonies of seabirds and other bird species, and even a handful of cats could potentially cause absolute havoc to local populations of some bird species.

Ecology researchers believe that cats kill up to 4 billion birds per year globally. There have also been documented cases of cats severely affecting populations of seabirds if they live close to a breeding colony, which could really spell trouble for the birds on Svalbard.

These birds are already under pressure from a warming climate, and an introduction of cats could lead to disaster.

Razorbills are found on Svalbard, and could be affected by cats. Photo by Chme82 / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Cats can bring diseases

Our feline friends carry lots of different parasites in their guts and intestines, and the local government at Svalbard are afraid that cats can act as vectors for new diseases on the island.

One of their biggest fears are rabies and toxoplasmosis, which could both do some serious damage to the local wildlife.

Cats can become an invasive species

The final reason for not wanting cats on Svalbard is simply that they are an invasive species that can interact and alter the local ecosystem. No one can predict exactly how big the impact would be, so they used the “better safe than sorry” principle before allowing people to bring their cats to the island.

So there you have the reasons why you cannot own a cat on Svalbard. So if you dream of relocating to this incredible island, be prepared to leave your cat behind when you leave.

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