Just because cats love to hunt doesn’t mean they can’t be happy chasing toys instead of birds, or watching wildlife through the window.
Published May 11, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The lion inside: Do you know what your hunting machine is up to today?”
2014 Update: Check with the American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org, for more information about the bird – cat conflict. The companies carrying cat enclosure and fencing products listed at the end are all still in business.
By Barb Gorges
When you see a cat walking along the top of your backyard fence or concealed under a bush ready to spring, what comes to mind?
— “Another pesky predator after my chickens!”
— “I wonder if that’s the cat that left nothing but a pile of feathers under my bird feeder?”
— “Fluffy! Where have you been the last five days? I’ve been worried sick.”
All of these responses illustrate aspects of the issue of domestic cats roaming the outdoors.
But the impacts of house and feral cats on wildlife is a growing problem – especially as felines eclipse dogs as the most popular pets in the United States.
If more cat owners knew how harmful their pets can be to birds and ground-nesting mammals, experts say, they might be more careful about letting these hunting machines loose in the yard.
Cats—predators or prey?
The issue of cats on the loose heated up last month when Wisconsin sportsmen voted to recommend feral cats be classified as an unprotected species, allowing them to be hunted.
The reasoning behind the vote was that domestic cats compete with native species like hawks and owls for prey.
Cats’ impact is estimated at millions of bird deaths every year in this country and probably more than a billion deaths of small mammals. Also, feral cats often carry diseases that endanger domestic and wild animals as well as people.
While the Wisconsin sportsmen want their recommendation to go to the legislature, the governor has said he will not sign any bill allowing cat hunting.
But Wyoming statutes classify stray cats with the red fox, coyote, porcupine, raccoon and skunk as predators that may be hunted without a license all year [where hunting is allowed].
While Wisconsin won’t be implementing hunting policies like Wyoming’s any time soon, the discussion has been successful in raising awareness of the feral cat problem.
The impact on birds
Where do roaming cats come from? A surprising number are companion animals of people who regularly let their cats out.
A study by Carol Fiore and Karen Brown Sullivan at Wichita State University examined the hunting habits of 41 pet cats allowed outdoors.
They found that 83 percent of the cats killed birds. They also verified the deaths of 4.2 birds per cat per year, but added that kills undoubtedly were under-reported.
[Few cats brought kills home. However, fecal analysis for less than half of the cats (less than half the owners provided indoor litter boxes) showed that they were eating far more birds than their owners were aware of.]
Surprisingly, the researchers found that the most prolific cat hunters had been declawed. That dispelled the myth that a well-fed, or clawless, cat doesn’t hunt.
Fiore and Brown also found that 43 percent of the bird kills happened in May and June. That coincides with the nesting season.
Non-game bird biologist Andrea Cerovski of the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish said ground nesting birds and those that nest low in shrubs are the most susceptible.
A fledgling can’t sustain flight for long, and even young raptors can have problems with cats. She said waterfowl are also susceptible when they molt and are waiting for new flight feathers to grow.
Since cats are not a part of the natural ecosystem, Cerovski said, they are particularly hard not only on birds, but also on amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.
Each natural predator species fills a niche in the ecosystem in balance with its prey, Cerovski said. But cats kill additional prey. That means the populations of prey species might not reproduce enough to keep up, so the natural predators have less to eat and their populations drop as well.
Susceptible ground nesting species in this area include vesper, lark, savannah and grasshopper sparrows; lark bunting; western meadowlark; and killdeer. Cats also can disrupt nesting ducks and geese as well as game birds since most of them also nest on the ground.
A paper published by the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law says that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it unlawful to kill migratory birds. The owner of a cat that kills them could conceivably be charged.
Few birds survive a cat encounter. Veterinarian Robert Farr cares for injured birds.
“I don’t see a lot of injured songbirds,” he said. “Most of the time if a cat gets a bird, that’s it.”
Colonies of feline hunters
In a study published by The Wildlife Society in 1999, two California parks were compared for their populations of feral cats in relation to the number of birds found at the parks.
One park had no feral cats; the other had a colony of 25 cats that were fed daily. There were twice as many birds seen in the park without cats. Two ground-nesting species were not seen at all in the park with cats.
Cat colonies begin when owners fail to find lost cats or owners dump unwanted pets. The homeless cats then gather where there is garbage or someone puts out food.
Sue Castaneda, director of the Cheyenne Animal Shelter, said cats are not allowed to run loose in Cheyenne. Although no licensing is required, cats must be tagged for rabies.
But according to Castenada, few stray cats wear tags.
Of the 2,431 cats picked up or turned in to the shelter last year, only 57 were reclaimed.
Veterinarian Karen Parks, owner of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne, agreed that in this area, cats don’t get the same respect as dogs.
“This is a human caused problem,” she said. “(Cats) are looked at as disposable property.”
While she knows cat colonies are unpopular with wildlife biologists, the managed cat colony is a compromise that suits her, Parks says.
She said such colonies can be found everywhere in town, including behind her clinic.
Three years ago she trapped, neutered and vaccinated 13 cats and began feeding. Since then, there have been no kittens. The colony is down to nine cats, and although two new felines showed up, they appeared tame and Parks was able to trap them and find them homes.
Parks’ colony is unusual. Other managers suffer from burnout or depletion of funds trying to keep up with neutering and vaccinating the new cats that move in.
Vaccination is an equally important part of Parks’ program.
The American Bird Conservancy says that cats are the domestic animal most frequently reported as rabid. Feral cats can transmit several diseases to native wild cats like mountain lions, bobcats, and the Florida panther. They also carry diseases transmissible to humans.
Currently, Parks sends six or seven feral cats a week to Colorado State University for spaying, neutering and vaccination before returning them to where they were trapped. She said it gives veterinary students experience and, if no other cats were ever abandoned, would eventually be the end of cat colonies.
Roaming is risky for cats
Parks said 85 percent of her clients keep their cats indoors or supervise them outdoors.
The idea that cats are smart and can fend for themselves is inaccurate: the life span of the average stray cat is only three years, said Tara Knight, Parks’ assistant.
According to the Humane Society, “Cats kept exclusively indoors often live to 17 or more years of age.”
Farr said 95 percent of feline injuries he sees are caused by outdoor hazards. Cats are hit by cars, preyed on by coyotes, get in fights, develop wound infections or are poisoned by antifreeze. They can also be attacked by dogs and abused by people.
Tips for keeping both your cat – and wild birds – safe
Keeping cats safe
Spay or neuter your cat
Veterinarian Karen Parks of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne said she has no tolerance for clients’ desires to let their cats produce litters. Cheyenne Animal Shelter statistics show there are plenty of cats that need homes without adding more kittens.
Keep your cat indoors
The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign, www.abcbirds.org, has many ideas for turning outdoor cats into happy indoor cats. Play with them!
Build or buy an outdoor enclosure where your cat can safely be left. Check with the SafeCat Outdoor Enclosure, www.just4cats.com, The Cat Enclosure Kit, www.cdpets.com, or Kitty Walk, www.midnightpass.com.
Adopt a friend for your cat
Consider adopting a companion cat or dog of the opposite sex.
Grooming and cleaning
Trim claws every week or two. Scoop the litter box daily. If you use clumping litter, it needs to be changed only every two to four weeks.
Don’t feed stray cats
Take them to the animal shelter. They may be someone’s lost pet. If not, adopt them, get them spayed or neutered, vaccinate them and make them an indoor cat.
Keeping birds safe
Putting a bell on a cat doesn’t work because birds don’t associate its tinkling noise with danger. Keeping cats indoors or under control is the only solution.
But what about your neighbor’s cat?
–Ask your neighbor to keep the cat indoors or in an outdoor enclosure. If the neighbor does not, humanely trap the cat and take it to the shelter and explain to whom it belongs.
–Keep bird feeders away from places where cats may hide. Try placing poultry or rabbit wire fencing around bird feeders and bird baths. The fence need only be 2 feet high and 4 feet in diameter. If a cat tries to jump over it, it gives birds a chance to fly away.
–Keep your cat in your yard, or keep other cats out, by installing cat-proof fencing. Two brands are the Cat Fence-In System, www.catfencein.com, and Affordable Cat Fence, www.catfence.com. Both are mesh netting systems attached to the top of the fence.