Since 1989 I have written several times about domestic cats and the havoc they wreak on native wildlife populations. On July 11 cats made the national “fake” news on John Stewart’s The Daily Show. The scientific evidence of the damage that cats do to wildlife continues to mount.
A 2010 publication by the University of Nebraska Extension service reviewed the subject. Earlier this year a paper in the Journal of Ornithology took a detailed look at the impact of cats, and predators in general, on gray catbird nest success in three suburban Washington, D.C. communities.
Predators accounted for 79 percent of all deaths, and cats were responsible for 47 percent of known predator kills. Historically, nest success has been defined as the percentage of nests from which at least one nestling fledged. But we had no measure of post-fledging survival.
Today, however, tiny telemetry devices can be attached to nestlings to monitor their survival after they leave the nest. At one of the D.C. area study sites, cats were undetected during the study.
At that location, nest success and post-fledging success were double that found at the two sites where cats were present. Gray squirrels, crows, blue jays, chipmunks and rats were also notable predators.
The point is that, when present, cats are clearly a major predator of young birds in suburban neighborhoods. In such areas, cats often occur at unnaturally high densities. Some people feed “wild” cats so they are not limited by food, but they maintain their natural opportunistic, ambush style of hunting.
From a strictly ecological point of view, cats disrupt natural food chains and webs. The natural world would be a better place without domestic cats. The problem, of course, is that cats are great indoor pets that many people allow outdoors. Many farm cats are outdoors 24/7 and can almost be considered working farm animals.
But in city neighborhoods, towns and rural areas, cats are pets. And they should be kept indoors 24/7 (see www.abcbirds.org and click on “cats indoors”).
Let’s begin by changing terminology. An indoor cat is kept indoors 24/7. All other cats are “outdoor” cats. Fluffy may be a beloved member of the family, but if she goes outside for even an hour a day, she’s a part-time killer. A pet outdoor cat is no gentler on the environment than a feral cat.
Now, let’s look at the problem from the cat’s perspective. Any time spent outdoors puts cats at risk. Cats thrive indoors; they live 12 to 15 years. Outdoors, their life expectancy shortens to about three years. Outdoor life is tough on cats. Every day they face:
Death by cars and trucks on roadways.
Attacks by dogs, other cats, raccoons, skunks and foxes that can result in puncture wounds, infections, rabies, distemper and other diseases.
Death by hungry coyotes. As coyote numbers explode, reports of mysterious disappearances of cats also increase.
Infestations of fleas, ticks and other parasites.
Getting lost, stolen, poisoned or shot.
Unspeakably cruel treatment by sadistic people. Visit a local animal shelter and ask how often they see cats that have been abused.
How can anyone who professes to love cats subject them to these dangers every time they open the door? The simple solution to all these problems is to eliminate outdoor cats and keep pet cats indoors.
Conservation organizations, veterinary associations and humane societies all agree that outdoor cats are a social and ecological problem that needs to be addressed.
One option for those who insist their pet cats must get “fresh air and be free” is to enclose the back porch in chicken wire. Make the porch a cat sanctuary. Install a pet door so cats can move freely in and out of the house, and add a scratching post and some climbing shelves.
This solution also means you can move the litter box outside. Or build a walk-in, outdoor cage just for your cats. Google “walk-in outdoor cage for cats” for ideas and plans.