Outdoor cats have gained a reputation. In Disney movies, they’re charismatic. To humans, they’re curious and lovable. Some countries, like Turkey, have made cats a huge part of daily life. Istanbul alone has 125,000 free-roaming cats, fed and taken care of by residents. But to conservationists, they are a massive threat.
Outdoor cats fall into two categories: those who have owners and those who are feral “community cats” (and may be taken care of to some extent by local humans). Feral cats are a much harder to control category. The ASPCA advocates for TNRM – trap, neuter, return, monitor. Sometimes vaccination is included in the acronym. Not one part of this process addresses the ecological impact feral cats have on prey species. It is still unclear how to address this problem.
Outdoor “community cats” – or those who do not have a designated home – produce 80% of kittens born in the US every year. Domestic cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds in the US annually. Community cats are the main perpetrators, killing 69% of those birds. Outdoor cats spend one-third of their time killing small animals, including mammals, reptiles, and birds. Birds which are already suffering due to habitat loss, decreased availability of food, pesticides, and human disturbances such as wind turbines and airplanes. Cats are an added peril that are also unnecessary.
Do cats eat the birds they kill? Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they need to eat meat. They do eat birds, but it is unclear if they eat all of the birds (and other animals) they kill. Outdoor cats with owners may also be eating cat food, contributing to a global industry of $33.42 billion.
Australia has the same issue that the US has with domestic cats. The City Council in Freemantle, Western Australia, voted last year to ban outdoor cats unless they are on a leash. One of the council members, Adin Lang, said, “This is about protecting our wildlife and it’s also about helping to keep people’s cats safe from catfights or getting hit by cars. While we have prohibited areas in our natural bushland areas, cats are still entering. What this will mean is if rangers see cats on the footpaths or see cats on the roads a fine could be issued to the owner, much like a fine is issued to a dog owner whose dog is off-lead.” In Adelaide Hills (in Southern Australia), cats must adhere to a curfew (8pm – 7am). Across all of Australia, there are 2.1 to 6.3 million feral cats. It is unclear how many of them reside in Freemantle.
But is indoor-only good for cats? The ASPCA recommends enrichment to stimulate your cat such as toys, access to a window (to stare out of), cat trees, or puzzle feeders. If you have a patio or a balcony, screened outdoor cat enclosures allow your cat to enjoy the fresh air without being able to come into direct contact with birds or other prey. Another solution is to train your cat to walk on a leash (and harness). Just like dogs on walks are prevented from attacking squirrels, birds are protected by leashed cats.
If you are uncomfortable with your cat staying inside all of the time, there are some solutions besides walking your cat with a harness, or outdoor enclosures (for patios or balconies). If you’d prefer your cat to roam freely, but not kill so much, there are small neoprene bibs (called CatBibs) that interfere with pounce timing, preventing successful hunting. However, CatBibs do not protect cats from larger animals who are predators, such as coyotes, wolves, and bobcats.
The benefits of indoor-only cats extend beyond birds. The cats themselves benefit too. Outdoor cats have a life expectancy of 2-5 years, compared to 12-15 years for indoor cats. This is due to getting hit by cars, poisoning (from things like antifreeze and herbicide), and predators (such as cougars, snakes, coyotes, wolves, eagles, owls, and hawks). 5.4 million cats are hit by cars every year in the US, and 97% of those cats die from their injuries. Additionally, a study in California found that 52% of cougars surveyed had recently eaten a domestic animal (including dogs and cats).
If you are interested in transitioning your cat to indoor-only, The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine has an Indoor Pet Initiative.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Have plenty of toys (keep your cat from getting bored)
- Put a scratching post or cat tree near the door to outside (allows your cat to stretch, exercise claws, and climb something for a higher vantage point). Placing it near the door your cat used to exit through allows reinforcement when you’re being begged to let them out.
- Get cat-friendly potted plants (like catnip or cat grass). Your cat is used to interacting with plants outside. Check the rest of your houseplants to make sure they are safe for cats – many household plants are toxic to cats.
- Make sure you’ve spayed or neutered your cat – just in case they do get out, they won’t be able to contribute to the feral cat population.
Edited by Taylor Woodward and Joe Vuletich