Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cats and wildlife gardening

"My cats are angels", "they are harmless", "they don'tbother wildlife", and "they don't use the neighbor’s garden as a litter box". These are common remarks people have for their cats, and unfortunately in most cases, at least one the claims is untrue. The only way to ensure your cats are not killing songbirds and defecating in the neighbors raised garden beds is to keep them indoors.

Currently domestic cats are a topic of discussion in Missoula where I live. Although the city ordinance addressing nuisance cats is largely ineffectual, recent discussion has served to bring up conservation and quality of life issues related to free-ranging cats.

Domestic cats that are allowed to roam outside can be a nuisance to neighbors, live shorter, unhealthier lives, and are a threat to wildlife.

There is a misconception that cats must be allowed to hunt and roam free, and any alternative would be cruel to them. Cats are pets and family members to their owners, but to someone other than the owner they can be a nuisance. It is true that not everyone's cat kills birds. Some are inept hunters (I used a have two cats that would run in horror at the sight of a mouse in our house and were traumatized by birds in our backyard), but in a suburban or urban setting, cats can be a real problem. Because of this, our cats do not go outside.

What makes a pet a nuisance?

I think anytime one enters my yard without permission.
People need to recognize that once their cats leave their own home or yard they can be a pest, regardless of whether or not they kill an endangered bird. For example, my neighbor's cat uses the area near my backdoor as a litterbox and the stench is so strong behind my house, it is disgusting to use my backdoor. Furthermore, because of our landscaping, neighbors' cats hunt in our yard. Last fall I saw someone's pet cat kill a flicker.

Indoor cats live longer, healthier lives.

Although the actual numbers vary between studies, an indoor cat lives an average of twelve years, whereas an outdoor cat’s life expectancy is less than five. Apart from the risk of getting hit by a car or killed by a predator (including a neighbor's dog), cats that spend time outside are exposed to a variety of diseases including leukemia, immunodeficiency virus, and rabies.

Pet longevity and general health are reasons enough to keep cats indoors. But as someone that keeps his cats inside, the issue for me is the cumulative effect of all the cats outside on wildlife and what I call neighbor's quality of life.

Conservation problems stemming from cats are not limited to unaltered, feral cats. Spayed or neutered domestic cats are having an enormous, detrimental effect on wildlife in this country. Many have heard the staggering statistics, including:

  • Cats kill an estimated 39 million birds/ state/ year
  • Nationally cats kill over a billion small mammals/ year (these figures do include mice, rats, and other "pests")
  • With the exception of habitat loss, globally, cats are the single biggest cause of the extinction, local population extirpation, and decline of bird species
  • Although results from several studies range widely, a individual cat can kill over 1,000 wild animals per year
  • Only 1 out of 10 free-roamuing rural cats did not kill wildlife in a series of studies
  • Cats effect native predators. Because they can occur in high densities, and are supported by hosts (people) cats can reduce the availability of prey for animals ranging from hawks to weasels
  • Free-ranging domestic cats also transmit diseases to wild animals creating huge conservation issues. Domestic cats have spread feline leukemia to mountain lions and recently infected the endangered Florida panther with domestic diseases.

What can you do?

Keep your cat indoors. Two common strategies declawing or using bells, just don't work. Many declawed cats are still effective hunters, can still climb trees and it is just not a nice thing to do to a cat- especially an outdoor cat. De-clawed cats that are allowed to go outside are at a greater risk of being injured or killed by other animals. Bells are even less effective. Many cats learn how to stalk without making the bell ring, they can get out of their collars, and even if the bell rings, that is often the last sound a bird will hear. If cats must be allowed outdoors, consider using some sort of raceway or fenced enclsure. If you let your cats roam outside, talk to your neighbors, and see how they feel about it- they are likely affected by your decisions.


  1. Very thoughtful and thought provoking, hmmm. Thank you.

  2. I love cats but i dont love having them as indoor only pets. I grew up with indoor/outdoor cats with no litter boxes. I always lived in small areas though where it wasn't a problem. My kitty was very street wise too. She actually watched for cars! It was crazy to watch her.

    I want to get another cat now but our neighborhood isn't a good one for indoor/outdoor kitties.

    She just passed a way a few weeks ago from cancer at the age of 16. She was a wonderful friend.

  3. We keep five of our seven catchildren indoors, allowing several of them out with us when we're in the garden (one on a harness). The two oldest cats go outside unsupervised but they don't bother the songbirds, I THINK because we had chickens and ducks who taught them it wasn't cool to stalk birds, thank you. A buffet or two from Madison, our rooster, taught them respect. These two acats re both over ten years old and rather indolent and while they do bring us mice and shrews etc, I haven't seen sign of a bird attack in a long time, since about the time when we had the chickens. I can't prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt, but because we feed the birds all year round, we do watch out and if we found so much as a feather, I wouldn't let the seniors out alone. When they're gone, all the cats will be indoor catchildren always, or else we'll have an enclosed run for them to spend some time outside. Again, we're in a very rural locale, but we've lost three to the road over the years and it's heartbreaking. It's just better to keep them indoors and safe if we love them and love the birds.

  4. We've never really gotten aggressive about planting bird habitat because our neighbor has 5 cats which patrol our yard. it seems like we'd be luring birds to their death. We tried putting a bell on our cats, but, like you say, it didn't seem to work.

  5. Very beautiful creatures. What a sense of calm to see those pictures. I enjoy your post as well.

  6. I should have introduced the two of our cats in the pictures- Squeak is the 15-year old blue point Himalayan, and her little buddy is Alex (a 6 year old Turkish Angora cross). Not pictured is Natalie, our 13 year old domestic long hair who would prefer to be our only cat.

  7. Since this is an old post, my comment may not be seen, but here goes anyway. I have a cat that is allowed out under supervision within my yard (so only when I am present). She is an american bobtail mutt, and probably has some manx which may be why she hates to climb or jump. So luckily I can keep her penned using a fence.

    As an ex veterinarian I absolutely agree about the declawing (and you can easily train a kitten not to claw furniture if you need to). I use chicken wire to keep the neighbor's cats out of my garden (as I really don't need their poop on my hands or toxoplasmosis.

    I do take exception with the statement that cats are the number one cause of extinctions in birds or any other organism. Actually, humans are the most invasive and exotic pest around and I would set extinctions of animals caused by companion animals directly at their feet. However, this is not a particularly popular opinion.

    Also what about loose dogs? I would love to see a blog on stray or unleashed dogs in the Missoula area and in rural areas. It seems to me that loose dogs are a real problem and Missoula laws are fairly ineffective with respect to dogs off the leash.

    Some common dog myths:

    1. If the dog doesn't like you, you must be a bad person. After all, dogs always know. . .

    2. My dog doesn't chase wildlife.

    3. My dog doesn't leave the [unfenced] yard when I let it out in the morning (and go back to bed.

    4. He's just barking at you. He would never bite you. (and if he does, it's because you are a bad person and he knows it).

    5. My dog would never go into the neighbor's yard and defecate.

    These are all common remarks that I have heard about loose dogs.

    I have in fact been menaced by packs of stray dogs (many of whom I know) on my own property when I used to live in a rural area. Even after nicely asking the owners to control their dogs, they were let loose every day to pack up.

    The cat problem is a problem that already exists, but I think that the dog problem is largely unacknowledged and is growing. I seriously wonder how many so-called wolf attacks are due to stray dogs.

    Sorry for the long comment.