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 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 carrying an adult cat off in the night, the moment captured perfectly by a game camera. Was this really the night of fun and mischief you had in mind for Fluffy when you let him out last night? Probably not.
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.
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.
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.
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.