Allowing your cat to roam unfettered in the natural wilderness that is your backyard doesn’t make you public enemy No. 1.
It does, however, demonstrate a lack of initiative and common sense, according to scientists and cat lovers around the country.
“There are so many ways to keep your cat busy indoors and keep them safe and so many bad things that can happen to them outside, I’m always telling people to keep their cats indoors,” said Charlotte Reed, a former Wall Street attorney turned pet care provider, blogger and cat expert who has talked about pet issues on CNN, Fox News, “The View” and the “Today” show.
“To me safety comes first, and if that argument doesn’t work, I mention the fleas and tick argument and how that can create an infestation in your home. That usually works.”
For most cat lovers, her first argument works just fine. The possibility of their pet being hit by an automobile or attacked by a predator — perhaps a coyote or fisher — is a serious enough threat to keep them inside. In 2004, a study conducted by the Humane Society of the United States estimated that 75 percent of cat owners in the country keep their cats indoors and, according to Katie Lisnick, director of cat protection for the HSUS, that number continues to rise.
“We always recommend keeping your cats inside, and if you do take them out we suggest you use a leash or some kind of harness,” said Lisnick, who lives in Portland, Maine. “There are so many bad things that can happen to cats outside, and there are so many ways to give them exercise indoors and keep them happy. We realize not everyone is going to do this, because it involves extra work, but more and more people are doing it, and we feel like it’s the right thing to do, unquestionably.”
Peter Wolf, whose nationally known blog, “Vox Felina,” addresses many serious issues for cat lovers, says he concurs with the HSUS position.
“I know people who feel otherwise — that cats need to be able to move freely between the indoors and outdoors, and these people, by the way, love their cats and do not take ownership duties lightly,” said Wolf, a mechanical engineer and professor of industrial design and visual communication at Arizona State University.
“But I am a proponent of keeping cats indoors, and I don’t feel any remorse about it. I feel it is much safer for them. There are, of course, trade-offs — primarily a lack of stimulation and the weight gain associated with it.”
Those concerns, however, can be easily addressed according to Wolf and others by something called environmental enrichment, or “catification.”
“There are wonderful things, like a scratch tree and a number of cat toys that can keep cats busy and safe,” said Reed, who keeps both of her cats inside whether she’s at her home in New York City or visiting family in Westchester County.
“You have to give them some attention and make sure they do some running and batting. Dangle something over their head and have them paw at it. Cats are natural hunters, and there are a number of ways you can create that experience for them safely in your home.”
Threat to birds?
For bird lovers, keeping cats indoors makes obvious sense, but claims that cats exact a huge toll on wildlife populations and maybe even pose an ecological threat are a bit extreme, according to John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife programs for the Human Society of the U.S.
“We want people to keep their cats indoors, and we also want to minimize the effect that outdoor cats have,” said Hadidian, who is based in Maryland. “The conservation community is becoming increasingly concerned about the impact on birds, but we don’t make cats the scapegoats. We try to evaluate everything in context, and we think it’s more of a human problem.”
Hadidian says birds are more affected by pesticides, loss of habitat and the loss of life that occurs when they fly into windows or tall buildings and towers. According to Roland Kays, director of the Biodiversity Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, people who are overly concerned about their pet cats killing birds should be more concerned about the hunter becoming the hunted.
“We found that, for the most part, cats stay pretty close to home,” said Kays, who in 2004, while curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, conducted a study on cats and their impact on birds and small animals.
“If they venture any farther into the woods they get taken out by coyotes and fishers. So in New York, we concluded that cats probably weren’t doing a lot of damage to the local wildlife. There are certain places in the world where there are a few endangered species, and cats are an issue there, but in New York that’s not the primary reason to keep your cat indoors. We have forces to maintain the balance of nature here, like coyotes and fishers and great horned owls. Losing your cat to one of them is more likely a consequence of letting it roam outside.”
In 2011, The New York Times reported that domestic cats kill more than 1 billion small mammals and about 1 billion birds each year nationwide, but Wolf feels those estimates “are simply not supported by the science.”
Steve Holmer, senior policy adviser for the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C., agrees that the science isn’t perfect, but he thinks the threat of cats preying on birds is real and is an issue that might have serious consequences.
“They study the impact of cats on bird mortality within a small area and then they try to project, so there are scientists looking at this problem, and we would like to see more research on it,” he said.
“But there are an estimated 80 [million] to 90 million pet cats in the U.S., and if each of those cats kills one bird the numbers can get up there pretty quickly. On top of the pet cats, you have the feral cats who are out there hunting every day. So, while I would love to see more research, I think the estimates are reasonable.”
What can’t be questioned is that bird populations are suffering.
“A third of all migratory bird species are in decline, and over the last 40 years some of that decline has been significant,” said Holmer. “It is death by a thousand cuts, with birds dying due to collisions, loss of habitat and other factors. But the cat issue is something that’s preventable. Keeping cats indoors is better for the cats, and it’s definitely better for the wildlife mortality rate.”
Rich Guthrie, a naturalist, bird expert and a frequent guest commentator on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, said that free-roaming cats can impact birds.
“In some sensitive areas, to some degree, cats can be a huge problem,” said Guthrie, who retired as a biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “Migratory birds and ground-nesting birds are experiencing some decline, and cats, especially feral cats, can have a negative impact on them. I love cats. I think they are wonderful creatures, but they should be kept inside.”
Let farm cats roam
Guthrie, who lives in New Baltimore, doesn’t have a problem with outdoor cats in rural farm country, but in the city or suburban areas he says there ought to be a law.
“I don’t want to diminish the value of barnyard cats,” he said. “They serve their useful purpose in the hayloft on the farm. But in a suburban or city dwelling, keep them indoors. If you had a problem with your neighbor’s dog coming into your backyard all the time you’d have some measure of control over the situation. Cats, well, people just let them go anywhere, and that’s a problem.”