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An indoor cat is a happy cat

Anna Fasoli|

Austrailian White Pelican attempting to eat cat? I think we all know how this will end....

As an avid birder, I will say that there is nothing that induces more rage in me than seeing a domestic cat stalking a native bird. I observe outdoor domestic cats daily on my drive to work, as I pass open expanses of agricultural fields containing farms where “farm cats” roam free.  I even pass a house that has a “cat crossing” sign in the yard. Yesterday, I saw three cats on my drive, two of which were stalking Mourning Doves. It makes my blood boil. You might be surprised to learn that I am not mad at the cats; I am angry with the person responsible for putting the cats in that position.

Last year around this time, we read the shocking (or not-so-shocking?) results of a joint study through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute assessing the impacts of outdoor cats on birds and mammals. The study found that domestic cats kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds a year, and between 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals a year (yes, billions).  These numbers are staggering and hard to argue with. Outdoor cats (including feral cats, pet cats, and “farm” cats) are very negatively impacting native wildlife, and there are very few “leash laws” in place across the country to prevent unsupervised outdoor roaming (Read the study here).

But what happens when the tables are turned? When it comes to domestic cats, WHY in the world are people letting their beloved pets outside in the first place, forcing their cats to deal with real threats from native wildlife, including birds of prey, mammalian predators, disease, and human threats? If people who let their pet cats outdoors are oblivious to the negative impacts to wildlife, how can they also be so oblivious to the simple fact that this is a neglectful way to treat a pet? It is truly inhumane and careless to let your pet cat outside unsupervised, and there is a very high chance that it will not come home, for a variety of very predictable reasons.

Birds eat cats. This actually happens, and much like the act of a cat killing a bird, it often goes unseen. The internet is riddled with accounts of owls and hawks attempting to carry off small pets (both cats and dogs) in plain sight. Message boards are overrun with discussion over whether or not birds of prey can actually pick up an animal as large as a cat. In some cases the answer is “yes.” But the important thing to keep in mind is that most birds of prey are more than capable of killing an adult cat, even if they cannot carry it off (and clearly, kittens are easy pickings). Red-tailed Hawks often prey on rabbits, and Great Horned Owls often prey on skunks, prey similar in size to a cat.  In the photo below, we see an adult Red-tailed Hawk with a recently caught small cat in its talons. This kitty won’t be home for snuggles tonight.

Red-tailed Hawk eating cat (Photo by Tara Minkle)

Red-tailed Hawk eating domestic cat; Chester County, PA (Photo by Tara Minkle)

Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls are found in every state in the continental U.S., making them a real threat to your small pet cat.  Both are well-adapted to living in urban and suburban areas. All raptors are opportunistic, and will not pass up an opportunity for an easy meal, especially during challenging conditions caused by winter weather or drought. Raptors don’t see a cat as your pet. They see it as a free meal.  Does this mean that we need to be upset with or angry at birds of prey for killing cats? No; raptors are part of the natural ecosystem and are only acting in a natural way to a food source. I can imagine that a number of farm cats that I see on my daily drive will get taken at night by Great-horned Owls, or Red-tailed Hawks that need to feed hungry chicks. Ironically, both of these species are natural predators of the small mammals that “farm cats” are meant to kill, so the unfortunate demise of farm cats is completely unwarranted, as they do not need to even be there (roaming farms) in the first place.

I have tried to track down the origin of the following photo, but can only say it is from somewhere in Minnesota. Here, we see a Barred Owl in an altercation with an adult cat, the moment captured perfectly by a game camera. A Barred Owl probably cannot actually carry a cat, but it is obvious that its talons are dangerously close to the cat. Was this really the night of fun and mischief you had in mind for Fluffy when you let him out last night? Probably not.

Barred Owl carrying off domestic cat

Barred Owl in a scuffle with a domestic cat; somewhere in Minnesota (photo from www.exclusivepix.co.uk)

Mammals eat cats.  Even more likely than a raptor eating your cat, is a coyote eating your cat. And in this case, your overweight cat isn’t even safe.  Like many raptors, coyotes thrive in urban areas. They also make no distinction between “pet” and “not a pet” when they are out hunting. In many areas in the west, coyotes seem to have actually learned about this abundant food source, and hunt domestic cats left out at night (and even in the day time) by their neglectful owners.  And don’t think your cat is safe because it can climb a tree.  In this video from Florida (from NaplesNews) a security camera films a cat being chased up a tree, only to be followed and harassed by a coyote, that eventually eats it. Youtube is full of similar videos. Videos like this may seem harsh, but the solution is logical; DO NOT let your cat outside, and it will not have a chance to be killed by wildlife. Trapping or killing coyotes should not even be a logical option, as their population is actually thriving in most areas, and more will only replace them. There are many other opportunistic mammalian predators as well, including bobcats, raccoon, and weasels. Why even give them the chance to eat your pet? Keep it inside, or you are the only one to blame when it doesn’t come home. In the photo below, we see a coyote carrying off a very plump domestic cat as a meal. I don’t think Snickers is playing dead.

Coyote with recently killed domestic cat. I don't think Snickers is playing.

Coyote with recently killed domestic cat. (Photo from www.animalcontrolsacramento.com)

Cars kill cats. Perhaps the biggest risk to an outdoor cat is collision with a car.  It is hard to drive anywhere without seeing a road-killed cat every few miles. Many “farm cats” are fed reduced diets or not even fed at all (to increase their appetite for mice and subsequently, birds) and may even be attracted to road-kill as a meal, putting them at a higher risk for an accident. Eventually road-killed cats will get eaten by scavengers, as was the case for this pet in Florida. Death by car, burial by Black Vulture.  Is this really how you wanted to see Mitten’s happy house cat life end at the bottom of your driveway as you check the mail? Probably not.

Black Vultures scavenging a road-killed domestic cat in Polk County, Florida (photo by David Mabe)

Black Vultures scavenging a road-killed domestic cat in Polk County, Florida (Photo by David Mabe)

Other risks to outdoor cats: Disease, parasites, poisoning, illegal shooting. Many feral cat populations are an unfortunate source for disease. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is easily transferred through cat fights and breeding. In fact, Tara Minkle shared with me that the black and white cat in the Red-tailed Hawk photo above may be a part of the local feral cat population. This local population just west of Philadelphia in Chester County is infected with FIV; their numbers have dropped over the years, likely due to FIV. This means that any pet outdoor cat in the area has a high probability of contracting the disease. Another possible diseases an outdoor cat may be exposed to is Feline Leukemia, spread through wounds or even just sharing a water bowl. Outdoor cats are also susceptible to feline rabies (through bites from other wild animals), which is easily spread to humans. Other common feline diseases are distemper and kidney disease, the latter of which may be triggered by ingesting poisons. On that note, many people still use rat poison to control rodent populations. Rodents that have digested poisons are often slow and easy to capture; if your cat eats a rodent that has ingested rat poison, it will also become extremely ill and likely die. On top of this, cats can easily pick up parasites and worms from ingesting fleas and rodents, and just being around other cats. If your cat is lucky enough to avoid predators, cars, disease, and parasites, it may not stand a chance when an angry neighbor gets it in his gunsight; although this is highly illegal, it is a common occurrence.

Austrailian White Pelican attempting to eat cat? I think we all know how this will end....

I think we all know how this will end….

If you have ever found yourself asking “Is it a good idea to let my cat outside?” I hope you now know the answer. Absolutely not. If you currently let your cat outside, I hope these photos have opened your eyes to just a few of the dangers of putting a domestic animal in a wild situation. If you love your pet cat, keep it inside.

Many people say keeping their pet cat indoors ends in boredom for the cat. However there are simple things you can do to keep your cat entertained. Make sure it has access to scratching posts, places to climb, toys to play with, and windows to look out of, and consider adopting a companion cat. Your cat is more than happy living an indoor-only lifestyle.

If you are fed up with the cat population in your area, take action using this fact sheet regarding cat law. Remember that laws are different in every town, and that feral cat populations are easily controlled by humane trapping, which takes them out of an inhumane struggle for survival. Also note that it is illegal to shoot cats, and all birds of prey are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Also note that the biggest cause of death for domestic cats is euthanasia in animal shelters. Please spay and neuter your pet cats, and consider adoption.

Visit the American Bird Conservancy Cats Indoors page for more useful information about the importance of keeping cats indoors.

Disclaimer: I have no evidence that the cats in these photos are “pet” cats versus “feral” cats, but either way, they are domestic cats suffering from a human’s negligence.

About the Author

Anna Fasoli

Anna is a field biologist who has traveled all over the US working on different research projects. She has worked with Whooping Cranes, Northern Saw-whet Owls, Least Terns, Piping Plovers, Wilson's Snipe, Whimbrel, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, migrant eastern raptors, Crested Caracara, Long-billed Curlew, Florida Scrub-Jays and the southeastern subspecies of American Kestrels.

  • Alyssia

    Beautifully written and very thorough! I agree 100% with all the points made and also suffer from blood boiling when I see an otherwise adorable cat roaming around outside instead of being in a safe, warm, comfortable home. I once did witness a Great-horned Owl grab a young cat in my neighborhood when I lived in Chester County. I wish I could find the comedy clip I heard one time about indoor versus outdoor cats. The gist of it was that indoor cats are owned by people who love them, but outdoor cats are owned by people who decide they hate them and so kick them outside. I don’t know why you would choose to own a cat if you hated them enough to kick them outside and expose them to all these dangers.

      • This article was chock full of facts. You might not like them, but they are the facts.

      • Anna Fasoli

        I tried to address this issue from an angle that I have not yet read. As birders we do tend to focus on the numbers (which is NOT a bad thing, given the severity of this issue). But I had yet to read any discussion about the safety of pet cats in relation to real threats in the wild. I didn’t write this article to try to get people to think wildlife is bad because it is a threat, or that cats are terrible critters. I wrote it to point out that there are multiple reasons to keep your pet cat indoors, in *addition* to the facts regarding small bird and mammal death caused by domestic cats. We should NEVER fear native wildlife, but we should definitely have a respect for it (in this case, by keeping domestic cats indoors). Many people who let their cats outdoors actually do not realize the threats, and hopefully after reading this, they will be more aware of what can happen. I do truly believe that letting your pet cat outdoors is neglect due to the simple face that it can easily get hurt/killed outside.

    • Anna Fasoli

      Poor cat! It never stood a chance against the Great-horned Owl, and likely didn’t even hear it coming. I couldn’t imagine leaving any of my pets out overnight, or in the daytime for that matter. It may be that I work outside a lot and see signs of predators all over the place. I think it is easy for pet owners to forget that wildlife is out there and is a real threat, especially if they never realize their property is within the territory of a number of predators that they may never even see.

  • Danielle Romais

    I headed a campaign in Southern Brazil to try to raise awareness of the all the issues related with releasing pets into natural areas. I agree with what you said: it is negligence by the people who claim ownership of these animals. Very nice and thorough text.

    • Anna Fasoli

      Very good idea; we need such campaigns in the US as well, in addition to more leash laws for cats (as there are for dogs). While a leash isn’t for every cat, I have seen a number of cats enjoying supervised time outdoors on leashes!

  • Jay Eubanks

    Great article. Thanks for posting. Only one criticism, the owl in the second photo is NOT a Barred Owl. It is a Great Gray Owl which is a bigger species and more capable of taking a cat.

    • Drew Weber

      At first I agreed, but I think that impression is caused by bad lighting on the face due to the flash. The barred wings and the barring around the neck are additional good identification cues for Barred Owl.

  • Beth Maxwell Boyle

    I used to let mine roam. I do not anymore. I lost a beauty on the road. All my cats have been indoor cats for about 16 years now. They live very long, happy lives.

    • Anna Fasoli

      Sorry to hear about your cat 🙁 But good thing the others are safe now indoors. Cats actually can live very long indoors!

      • Beth Maxwell Boyle

        I lost the cat on the road a long long time ago. The house cat I have now has been indoors for 12 years and I found her as a stray. I like having no flea problems and no worms as well.

  • Sue Hannon

    Good article! I can’t agree with you more; cats belong indoors.

  • Liz

    I agree with the point of the article, however I believe that the photo of the owl carrying off the cat is fake. A barred owl only weighs 2 – 2 1/2 pounds and there is no way it could carry off an adult house cat. A great gray may appear large, but it is all feathers and weighs no more than a barred owl (but the photo is a barred owl.) Even a great horned, at most 4 pounds, couldn’t do that. That all being said, my cats stay happily indoors, or enjoy our patio safely in an outdoor enclosure!

    • Jay Eubanks

      Liz, in my original comment above yours, I attempted to correct the ID of the owl in the photo… which was corrected by the author… but only briefly… until apparently you called my ID into question.
      The Owl is without a doubt a Great Gray Owl and NOT a Barred Owl. The Great Gray is considered North America’s largest species of owl, and I can assure you that a large female would have no trouble lifting a cat off the ground as indicated in the photo. The photo doesn’t indicate the final outcome of this attempt at predation however. It looks more like a failed attempt to me. There is absolutely no reason to believe it is faked or photoshopped. It is a low quality photo, most likely from a “game cam” or camera trap, but low quality doesn’t equal fake. The photo is quite a capture, but I imagine that cat did get away as it looks like the owl is already losing its hold. The bird’s left foot shows free talons extended… and a large prey item typically requires more than a passive one foot hold from a raptor.
      For the record, I am the Director of Education & Outreach at the Alabama Wildlife Center, a degreed biologist and wildlife educator… http://www.awrc.org/Staff
      I work with glove-trained raptors every day… one of which happens to be a Barred Owl. It looks nothing like the bird in the photo. Although they are closely related species (in the same genus- Strix), the Great Gray has a very distinctive face that makes it quite unique among North American Owls. Please take a look at some other photos of the two species for comparison and decide for yourselves.

      • I am not sure where my original comment went, but this is definitely a Barred Owl. Good features to look at in this photo are the horizontal stripes on the upper chest that contrast with the vertical stripes along the sides and belly. I initially thought you were correct because of the facial pattern, but that is due to the harsh lighting an flash that give it a superficial GGOW look.

        • Anna Fasoli

          Great discussion! I too agree that the photo is NOT fake, just poor quality from a game camera. Even if this owl was not successful at capturing this cat, I think we can all agree it was a close-call for the cat, and, again, not a position you want your pet to be in. People SHOULD realize that large owls and other wildlife are a threat to their pets when left out, and treat this idea with respect. I too still think this is a Barred Owl based on field marks.

      • Jay Eubanks

        I have now done a Google image search to try and find the origin of the photo, and like the author, I was unable to come up with much… but I did learn that the misidentification is of the owl is pretty pervasive and has followed the photo wherever it has been shared.
        Just because I’m the first person to correctly identify the owl, doesn’t mean I’m incorrect.
        I guess part of my reasoning in arguing this point is that Barred Owls are not known for taking large prey while Great Grays are. Barred Owls typically take small prey- small rodents, frogs, and crayfish and are often associated with swampy or wetland habitat areas. The last thing Barred Owls need in my region is people thinking they are now a threat to their beloved kitty cats. Great Horned Great Grays Owls are another story…

        • What plumage characteristics are you basing this off of?

          The underwings are too strongly patterned for GGOW, but just right for Barred Owl.

          • Jay Eubanks

            I’m basing my ID largely on the facial characteristics, the dark lines that are between the eye and beak, not seen on Barred Owls, and the large bright white triangular patches below the eyes… also not seen in Barred Owls. yes, Barred Owls do have some lighter plumage in that area, but nothing to compare with the bright white patches below the face of the GG. Having seen hundreds of Barred Owls and other raptor species come into our rehab center, you begin to learn that certain markings (such as wing bars and and stripes) have far less value than others (distinctive facial markings or bright white patches) that are consistently there regardless of slight differences in general body coloration.

          • If you look at the two images below, you will see that the pattern of the white is actually more like a Barred Owl.

            http://castingawayblog.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/barred-owl.jpg

            http://gallery.photo.net/photo/2291250-lg.jpg

          • Also look carefully at the striping around the neck.

          • Jay Eubanks

            As many photos as I look at of Barred Owls, I just can’t make those dark black lines just inside the eyes appear. However, that’s a pretty distinctive mark of a Great Gray. Yes, some Barred Owls have some hint of a dark line there, but not the heavy light-absorbing lines that you see in this picture… that I might add did NOT get washed out by the bright flash in the darkness.

            You asked me to “look carefully at the striping around the neck,” and I would have to agree there’s some indication of Barred Owl pattern there… and GG’s tend to be more mottled, but I guess I just don’t think it’s as distinctive as the last little detail in my arsenal… (you gotta save your big guns for the finale)…

            What do you make of the shape of the face? The bird is looking pretty much directly at the camera.

            How is that this “Barred Owl” has the facial shape of a GG?

            Barred Owls have more of a horizontal oval face… and I have never seen a photo of a Barred or an actual bird that has a more vertically oriented face.
            GG’s on the other hand have a very round and often vertically oriented oval face.

            What do you see in this photo?

            I guess I see all of the evidence I have been presented with as fairly circumstantial… my favorite being, Great Grays “also live in more remote locations, where they are unlikely to have many encounters with cats. Furthermore, I don’t believe that photo shows a Barred Owl capturing a cat and instead just shows an interaction between a cat and an urban Barred Owl.” Alex has now told me that feral cats are rare in rural or remote areas and this Barred Owl is urban. I don’t think Alex realizes how prevalent the feral cat population is across the landscape- urban, suburban, rural, and even remote.

            I have a feeling everyone wants this to be a Barred Owl, because Great Grays are rarer and in general less likely… certainly in most places across this country… but that doesn’t automatically rule out a Great Gray.

            Where is your sense of hope that this could be the rarer and less widespread species?

            The only info regarding where this photo was taken is “somewhere in Minnesota.” Your arguments for Barred Owl would be much stronger if it was “somewhere in Mississippi.” The fact that the photo was likely taken somewhere within the known range of GG’s is the circumstantial evidence I will offer back to you… that I have yet to mention. I would add that the photo appears to be taken by a camera trap… likely set out by a hunter in a remote or at least rural area. I don’t know too many folks putting out game cams in urban areas to capture photos of urban wildlife. I think its safe to say most are put out by hunters in rural areas and they are the ones who have provided us all of these cool wildlife shots to argue about online.

            Last, but maybe not least, what do you make of the eye shine? When I initially saw the photo, the thing that made me question Barred owl was the bright yellow eyes… because Barreds have dark eyes. I am very well aware that this is a flash photo taken in low light with a very high level of retinal reflection or “eye shine.” Every photo I have seen and the few I have taken of Barred Owls have a much more muted eye shine. In a photo with good color it appears red, but not highly reflective… more like an alligator. The eye shine here somewhat ironically looks more like a cat.

            Maybe an expert on eye shine will weigh in.

            I think I rest my case.

          • Many expert birders have weighed in, all vote for Barred Owl, for all of the reasons mentioned before.

            What facial shape are you referring to?

            Check this Barred Owl with a similarly stretched neck.

            http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-wt3jT2BLLuA/UR6pk4pq8NI/AAAAAAAAUtU/E9D8gC3kR3I/s1600/barred%2Bowl%2Bhunting.JPG

          • Jay Eubanks

            The dark lines that border the facial disks of a Barred Owls, when viewed head on, create a more horizontal oval as seen below… and in your photo above. I have no idea how the outstretched neck has any bearing on facial markings. In the photo you have shared the same still holds true- Barred Owls have horizontally oval shaped faces. I’m not sure why this is in any way confusing.

            GG’s on the other hand have an almost perfectly round face that tends to be on the vertical side if anything. Expert birder or not, I understand geometry and I am a wildlife artist… shapes make sense to me. I may look at shapes differently than the average birder just looking for field marks.

            Even in the GG photo below (borrowed from an online source), where the bird is photographed from below with a shortened perspective, the GG has a more round, if not vertically oriented face.

            Nobody can deny there is a difference to the facial proportions of these two species… and again… I ask…

            What do you see in the original photo?

          • In the original photo, face appears elongated vertically due to the harsh lighting overexposing the light throat area of the Barred Owl. I am not denying that the photo gives the impression of a Great Gray Owl, but plumage clearly points to Barred. With that I am done.

        • That owl is certainly a Barred. Although Great Grays are one of the biggest owls in North America they prey almost exclusively on small rodents and rarely (if ever) prey on larger items. They also live in more remote locations, where they are unlikely to have many encounters with cats. Furthermore, I don’t believe that photo shows a Barred Owl capturing a cat and instead just shows an interaction between a cat and an urban Barred Owl…it appears as though the owl is flushing away, talons spread in defense of the cat which looks like it leaped at the owl and is falling back to the ground. In any case, the point is that outdoor cats are having mutually-dangerous encounters with native predators, and that is bad for everyone involved.

          • Jay Eubanks

            As I stated above, I believe it is a failed attempt at predation.

        • Anna Fasoli

          I do think people should realize the threat to their cats from large predatory owls, and be taught to respect the power of native wildlife, versus fear it. Sadly in almost all of the youtube videos concerning predators eating cats, pet owners NEVER take blame, and instead immediately blame the predators, suggesting some kind of trapping/killing of the predator to prevent more cat deaths. The disconnect between people and the natural balance of the ecosystem is appalling!

        • HerbChick

          I had a barred owl try to get a kitten from my backyard one time. I live in Georgia. My dogs were also outside and lucky for the kitten she stayed close to the dogs. The dogs did not even bark at the owl. The owl was on the ground in the middle of my back yard and only flew up into a tree when it saw me moving in the kitchen. Then it made it’s strange sounding noises and flew away.

      • Jack Russell

        You need to get your eyes checked! That isn’t a GGOW!

    • Anna Fasoli

      Liz; in my research I found a lot of discussion and debate over exactly how much weight a bird of prey can “pick up.” But I think the important thing for people to remember is that any large owl, hawk, or eagle can inflict serious damage to a cat, even if it cannot lift it, and even if it is a failed attempt. Imagine the killing power/force of any raptors talons. Also, some larger raptors may strike prey at high rates of speed to first injure it/slow it down, to the point that they can more easily consume it on the ground.

      Also, glad to hear your cats spend time on the patio! Screened-in porches are a very common solution I have been hearing about this week, that allow cats to still enjoy time outside.

  • Thank you for writing this article! Cats belong indoors. I live in SC and throughout this area of the country, domestic pets are also in danger of being eaten by alligators. Alligators inhabit all fresh waterbodies (ponds, rivers, lagoons, etc.) and stalk small mammals that come down to the edge for a drink. This is a pretty gruesome end for a dog or cat. Thanks again!

  • David

    Thanks for the heads up! We have an abundance of red-tails in the area. I’d imagined them harmless to our animals. I’ll start going to the 4-shot now when I see them prowling near my land

  • GregBrady

    So happy to see these photos….so many people think it’s ok for cats to slaughter songbirds but do not want to believe that cats themselves can become prey and MANY do..esp. to coyotes.

  • Jack Russell

    Jay is incorrect. The owl in the second photo IS a barred owl. It is most certainly NOT a great gray owl.

  • Liz Deluna Gordon