While most of us love our kitties, free-roaming outdoor cats are a major threat to wildlife. These non-native predators kill billions of birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians each year. Sadly, when wild animals are attacked by cats, their chances of survival are extremely low, due to both the severity of direct injuries and the very aggressive infection that invariably occurs with cat-related injuries, including minor scratches or bites. Even with veterinary treatment, survival rates are very low; without treatment, chances for survival are almost zero!
"While it is convenient to tell ourselves that our cats do no harm when allowed to roam freely outdoors, the facts prove otherwise. Unlike wild predators who hunt specific prey for food, cats hunt—and kill—anything they can, just because they are cats!” notes Wildlife Center President Ed Clark.
While the hunting behavior of cats is instinctive, cats (just like domestic dogs) are not wild animals nor are they a natural part of the ecosystem. Cats impact more than just the wildlife they catch; the mere presence of cats can cause additional stress on wildlife, particularly during the nesting season, when wild parents have been shown to avoid returning to their nests or dens for extended periods, to avoid leading these predators to helpless young.
Because they don’t always see the dead victims, many cat owners believe that their indoor/outdoor cats are not actually hunters and killers. However, research conducted by the University of Georgia found that a staggering 77 percent of wildlife caught by cats is either eaten or left at the site of capture. The number of animals brought home is only a small portion of the wildlife the cats are actually injuring or killing.
Keeping cats indoors or in a limited-access environment (cattery or catio) not only protects wildlife, it also keeps our cats safer, and is better for human health and the environment.
The Center’s Research on Free-roaming Cats and Wildlife
In 2016, The Journal of Wildlife Management published an extensive 11-year study conducted by the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which shows that domestic cat attacks are one of the most frequent and most lethal causes of animal admissions at the Center.
In the 11-year period, of all small mammals admitted due to cat attacks, more than 70 percent died or had to be euthanized. For small birds, the mortality rate was a staggering 81 percent.
Additionally, the Wildlife Center’s study graphically illustrates that free-roaming cats are not “just” killing mice and rats. At the Center alone, 83 species of wild birds and small mammals were admitted due to cat attacks, including both common and rare species. Among the most frequent avian victims were Mourning Doves, Blue Jays, American Robins, and Northern Cardinals. Gray squirrels, chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, and flying squirrels topped the list for small mammals that fell victim to cats.
The Benefits of a Happy Indoor Cat
"There are so many benefits to bringing your cat indoors, not only for your cat but for the wildlife with whom we share our world." - Cheryl Falkenburry, Animal Behavior Consultant and Author
On average, free-roaming outdoor cats live significantly shorter lives than their indoor-only counterparts. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends that veterinarians educate clients about the risks associated with allowing cats unrestricted access to the outdoors. A study by National Geographic and The University of Georgia notes that the most common risk behaviors for suburban free-roaming cats include crossing roads, interactions with strange cats, eating and drinking unknown substances, exploring storm drains, and entering crawlspaces of other houses. An analysis of 25 different studies in 10 different countries found that neutering, regular feeding, and interaction with owners did not affect the roaming of pet cats.
Bringing Your Cat Indoors
It can be challenging to transition a free-roaming outdoor cat to an indoor-only lifestyle, but with patience, diligence, and enrichment, a successful transition is possible.
Ready to make the transition? The Wildlife Center of Virginia has collaborated with Animal Behavior Consultant Cheryl Falkenburry to compile resources that will help you transition to a happy indoor cat.
Impacts of Free-roaming Cats on the Environment
Free-roaming outdoor cats also have a negative impact on human health and the environment. One of the biggest threats to health from free-roaming cats is toxoplasmosis caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Humans and wildlife can contract toxoplasmosis infection from several sources, but the only place the parasite can reproduce is in the intestines of cats. Ultimately, all sources of the infection can be traced back to contaminated cat feces. Toxoplasmosis from free-roaming cats can affect humans, domestic animals, zoo animals, and native wildlife. The widespread distribution, life cycle, and transmission of toxoplasmosis has serious One Health implications.
Rabies is another significant concern to human health. There are many wild rabies vector species (RVS) throughout the United States, including raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, but according to The Wildlife Society, “Cats ... are responsible for a disproportionate number of human exposures.” In 2014, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported a significant increase in reports of rabid cats.
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