Continuing the cat theme from yesterday’s post, I wanted to touch on the subject of cats outdoors. Anyone who knows me knows I’m more of a Cat Person than a Dog Person. I grew up with a couple of dogs, till I was in my teens, but there have always been cats in the family. When I had the opportunity to take a cat in university, I did, and I was sad to have to find another home for her when I graduated (one that I thought would be temporary, but my situation ended up not sorting itself out as quickly as I had initially envisioned, so it ended up being a permanent home). Now that I’m (finally!) settled in what will hopefully be something of a more long-term residence, I have two cats again, plus a dog. I’ve missed having pets in my life, and it’s nice to have these three enlivening the house.
The sentiment is shared by millions of other people, too, and pet ownership is at an all-time high, with 63% of US households (some 69 million households!) owning at least one pet as of 2006. Between these 69 million households, there’s some 73 million dogs and 90 million cats. These numbers suggest cats to be more popular than dogs, but cats are undoubtedly more numerous than dogs because they’re easier to keep in apartments or small residences, plus they’re smaller and require less direct care (such as taking for walks), so it’s easier to own more than one per house. Interestingly, a 2002 survey suggests that 40% of US households own a dog, while only 30% own a cat. Of dog owners, about 37% own more than one dog, while the remaining 63% just have a single one (count our house among that faction). Meanwhile, 51% of homes have two or more cats, and 49% have just one. Of the five cat-owning homes I know (my various family members and my best friend), four have multiple cats, and it’s just my friend with a single individual.
That’s just the owned animals. In the US, there is an additional segment of the cat population who are considered feral animals, not owned or cared for by any particular individual. All told, there are well over 100 million cats in the country. Estimates figure that anywhere from 25% to 65% of owned cats are allowed to roam about outdoors. Combined with the feral population, that could mean as many as 70 million cats prowling the alleyways and hedgerows, with a heavier proportion in country settings than urban ones.
Cats are natural-born predators. It’s in a cat’s instincts to chase potential prey, which is why they’re so entertained by chasing a few feathers tied to a string, they just can’t help themselves. It doesn’t matter how well they’re fed, or how recently they’ve eaten, a cat faced with an easy target is likely to try to get it. As with all domesticated animals, they’re still wild animals at heart, and their wild ancestors would have to be opportunistic and take advantage of potential food situations whenever they arose, regardless of whether they were hungry – who knew when the next meal would walk by. Because of this, cats make great mousers for the house (many of them, anyway; I’ve known some who were probably just as afraid of the mouse as the mouse was of them).
They also are excellent hunters of birds. An especially prolific hunter may kill up to 1000 animals in a year, with birds making up 20% of the catch. Typically numbers are smaller for the average cat, with urban cats taking less than rural cats, but virtually all cats will end up killing wildlife. Multiply these numbers out across the continent, and free-ranging cats take more than a billion wild animals every year, including millions of songbirds. In some areas, this heavy predation pressure has had a noticeable and negative impact on bird populations. One of the most infamous examples is that of the Stephens Island Wren, a flightless species endemic to Stephens Island, New Zealand. The species was most probably wiped out by an escaped, pregnant cat and her subsequent offspring, which eventually numbered hundreds of individuals just five years later. They were finally eradicated from the island a couple decades later, but it was too late for the wren by then.
In North America there aren’t any endemic flightless species at risk of being exterminated by cats, but cats are taking a toll on bird species in general. Along with window, tower and vehicle collisions, cats are one of the primary direct causes contributing to the decline in songbird numbers. Indirect causes, such as habitat loss, pesticides, etc, make life even harder for these birds. Really, it’s no great surprise that populations are declining, and in fact it’s rather amazing we still have as many birds as we do, with all the trials they go through. It’s hard for us as individuals to do much about large-scale issues such as habitat loss, but controlling cat predation is an easy one – just keep your cat indoors.
Declawed cats, or cats outfitted with bells, are also not going to have any less of an impact on the bird population. A cat doesn’t use its claws to kill birds, although they can help; it just needs to bat the bird down and stun it or pin it, whereupon it uses its teeth to dispatch it. Also, a cat, when it’s stalking prey, moves so fluidly that it can keep a bell from making hardly any noise at all. When I was younger, before my parents began keeping all their cats indoors, I remember one of them, who bore a bell on his collar, having discovered that he could sneak around behind a flock of birds foraging at the seed on the driveway and startle them so that they’d fly toward the windows on the house. If he was lucky one would smack into the window and he’d have an easy catch. The bell on his collar was useless.
Dogs aren’t off the hook, either. A dog that is allowed to run free in natural environments at best disturbs the local wildlife (who view the wolf-like shape as a predator) and at worst may predate an animal or bird itself. There are some species of dogs who are bred to be hunters or retrievers and who will chase small animals, certainly not to the benefit of the animal itself. Recent research has shown that even just walking a dog in an area will have a negative effect on bird abundance and diversity there, compared to an area where no dogs are present. It’s best to keep your dog on a leash, or take them to designated off-leash areas (or your backyard) for play if you can, particularly during the breeding season.
Dogs are large, energetic animals that just can’t get enough exercise within the household, and so need to be taken outdoors for walks or other exercise. Cats, on the other hand, are relatively sedentary animals that can usually get sufficient exercise just through their normal routine and play indoors. An indoor cat is not necessarily an unhappy cat. Provided with ample play opportunity, and a cozy seat by the window, a cat can be perfectly content. If you really want to be able to let your cat outdoors, train it to go out on a harness and leash, or tether the leash to a stake in the yard where you can keep an eye on it.
Besides all the benefits to wildlife, keeping your cat indoors will benefit them, too. A free-roaming cat has an average lifespan of less than 5 years. My parents, when I was growing up, had a series of several outdoor cats, and most lasted about two years before disappearing altogether, presumably either hit by a car or taken by a coyote, the two largest threats to free-roaming cats. An indoor cat, on the other hand, can live up to 15-20 years; virtually all the indoor cats I’ve known have lived this long. The Guinness record for oldest cat is 31 years. I can guarantee no outdoor cat will live that long. (The record for a dog is 29 years.)
The American Bird Conservancy has an active campaign called Cats Indoors! that promotes the benefits of keeping your cat inside. You can read more on the issue at their website.
My cats will always be indoor cats, for their health, my happiness, and the wild birds’ lives.