Folks, we have a problem. We don't know what to do about cats. As pet owners, we aren't very responsible and we aren't very good at meeting cats' needs. As members of our communities, we are neglecting problems with pet overpopulation and habitat destruction. Who suffers as a result? Cats AND birds.
This week's op-ed piece in the NY Times Sunday edition is titled "The Evil of the Outdoor Cat." Once again, cats are under fire for being cats, and are scapegoats for songbird decline in the United States. Songbird endangerment is a serious concern for all of us animal lovers; but it is a much more complicated problem to solve than just by killing feral cats. In fact, I would argue that humans are more to blame than anyone.
I agree with author Richard Conniff on one point. I do feel that cats who live in homes should be kept indoors exclusively (or allowed outdoors under strict supervision). It's the right thing to do, for cats and for communities. In the United States, it is estimated that around 40 million owned cats have outdoor access (and in the United Kingdom, most cats are allowed outdoors).
Do cats need to go outdoors?
As a cat behavior consultant, I will argue, unequivocally, no. Owned, socialized cats can lead very happy lives indoors. Cat owners often think that cats need to go outdoors to be happy, or they let their cats go outdoors in response to "bad behaviors." Kitty ennui and behavior problems can be prevented and eradicated if owners work to make the indoors an enriched, stimulating environment for cats. This means providing interactive playtime, food puzzles, scratching posts and cat condos, solo play toys and of course, human attention. Cats can also be given safe and controlled access to the outdoors via enclosures, cat strollers, or even through leash and harness training.
What kind of trouble are your cats getting up to?
In addition to killing songbirds, pet cats who go outdoors can cause problems for neighbors. Indoor-outdoor cats get in fights with neighbor's cats, enter other people's homes, defecate in gardens, and sometimes bite or scratch strangers. I've had clients whose indoor-only cats had started spraying or getting in fights with cats they lived with, due to outdoor cats tormenting them through windows! So while the problems your cat is causing may not be apparent to you, they may be very obvious to your neighbors.
Indoor-outdoor cats are at risk for being attacked by predatory animals and are exposed to diseases and parasites. They can be hit by cars, poisoned or shot. They are also less interactive with their owners, and live shorter lives than their indoor-only counterparts.
Furthermore, few lost cats make it back to their owners, and less than three percent of cats who end up in shelters are claimed by owners. It's time for us to accept that the outdoors may not be the best place for our pet cats and do the right thing: keep them inside.
What about the songbirds? And what about feral cats?
This still leaves us with another 50 million or so outdoor cats we can't ignore. The ferals. Feral cats are the same species as our cuddly pets, but they aren't socialized to humans. Essentially, they are wild animals, who have been co-existing with humans at varying levels of socialization for the last 10,000 or so years. Unfortunately, they primarily exist due to human neglect. Many of these cats are descendents of unaltered pet cats who were abandoned or allowed to roam free.
Luckily for the cats and the irresponsible humans who caused this situation, there are many people working hard day (and often night) to help. You may have heard of TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) – a method of managing and reducing the feral cat population by neutering and caring for cat colonies (rather than just trapping and killing all homeless cats, the solution that opponents to TNR propose).
The debates over TNR get heated, and while Conniff claims in the NY Times piece that TNR is not considered effective, there is evidence that TNR is a humane and effective way to control cat overpopulation. Furthermore, the general public prefers TNR over trap and kill (or poison or shoot), and we're going to need the public on board to solve this feline pickle.
It's also not clear that alternative methods (trap and kill) are any better (unless you are on an island), especially as the main barrier to efficacy for either method on population reduction is the addition of more cats to the mix. This happens when humans abandon their pet cats near colonies ("immigration"), instead of taking unwanted pets to animal shelters.
Furthermore, defenders of feral cats argue that they are essentially wild animals who enjoy a good quality of life. Alley Cat Allies feels that it is more natural for cats as a species to be outdoors than indoors, and that characterizing the feral cat situation as a "human-made" problem is a misrepresentation of their natural history.
And we know that cats aren't the ONLY threat to birds. For example, in Australia, it appears that cats were not a factor in the eradication of small mammal species (rats were). The decline of songbirds can also be attributed to human-caused habitat loss, other bird species that predate on songbird nests, and even squirrels, who enjoy snacking on bird eggs. Song birds also appear to be afraid of the sounds of raccoons, hawks and owls (a few of their other predators), and these sounds are enough to reduce the numbers of eggs they lay. Cats are just one of a long list of stressors songbirds are subjected to.
What should be obvious is that this is a big problem without one easy fix. Blaming cats might get headlines and without doubt angers allies of feral cats. But cat lovers are animal lovers. I hope we can all work together to save songbirds, be responsible cat owners and work to make cat overpopulation a thing of the past. My suggestions:
1. Make spay/neuter a reality for every cat. More people want to alter their pets than can afford it. I'll bet cities could actually save money on animal control costs by offering free spay and neuter surgery for all pets.
2. Encourage people to keep their socialized pet cats indoors. This needs to happen at every level – adoption, veterinarians, and peer pressure!
3. Help people keep their cats through behavioral and medical support programs, to reduce the abandonment of cats. People need resources to solve problems, so they don't just give up on their pets.
4. Make the animal shelter a place people feel okay going. If you feel you'll be judged for surrendering your pet, you're more likely to dump them on the side of the road. I know first-hand that working in a shelter can be a huge bummer; you can spend a lot of time getting angry at the people who give up their pets. OR, you can accept the reality and work towards solutions.
We need to opt for improving shelters, and this responsibility lies on entire communities, not just shelter workers. Alley Cat Allies has some great suggestions for how communities can support shelters in becoming more cat-friendly, including the eradication of the practice of impounding "community cats."
5. Protect the habitat of songbirds.Various human practices cause eradication of songbird habitat, including mining and mountaintop removal, harvesting timber, and agriculture and overgrazing. Fragmentation of habitat may be a significant contributor to songbirds' vulnerability to predation in the first place. As Alley Cats Allies argues, it's not cats vs. birds, it's humans vs. birds.
Finally, let's avoid the mud-slinging and demonization of cats. We all need to take a hard look in the mirror and think about who is REALLY responsible for the decline of songbirds. A hint: it's humans.
Photos courtesy of Alley Cat Allies and ViaMoi/Creative Commons