Cats and Catios
Reversing the CATastrophy
by Melanie Piazza, WildCare Director of Animal Care
I grew up in an animal-loving family. Our cats were always indoor-outdoor. It’s just what you did back then. Of course my family’s cats hunted, and I can recall as a child searching the yard with my little sister for bird feathers, skulls and wings – the remnants of unfortunate victims of our cats. It never occurred to us, back then, that this was unfair to wildlife, and preventable by keeping the cats indoors.
I also remember losing two cats to the traffic on the busy road behind our neighbor’s house. We would bury them in our pet and wildlife graveyard in the backyard, all of us sobbing for another beloved companion lost. Again, it never occurred to us that this was unfair to the cats, and preventable by keeping them indoors.
a new perspective
In 1998 I started working for an animal shelter / vet clinic and wildlife rehabilitation hospital. I saw more hit-by-car, lost-a-fight-with-something-now-dying-of-infected-wounds, and suffering cats, both owned and stray, than I had ever imagined. I also discovered something I had not thought about since my childhood – an endless flow of injured, maimed, orphaned wild animals caught by cats.
There are countless studies and reports attempting to quantify just how many wild animals free-roaming domestic cats kill each year. The most impressive study I have seen so far is ongoing, and being conducted by National Geographic and the University of Georgia. This study put cameras around cats’ necks to record their actions outside the home. Cat guardians who were in denial about their cat’s death count were shocked to see the truth, and scientists gathered invaluable information. You can learn about it at: http://www.kittycams.uga.edu/
from our own experience
Depending on which special interest groups fund a study, the number of killed-by-cat wildlife can vary greatly, so I will speak from what I know firsthand. At WildCare alone we treat roughly 500 wild animals a year that have been the victims of cat attacks. This number encompasses not just birds, but mammals, reptiles and amphibians as well. And these are only the animals that cat owners find alive and bring to us. Regardless of where you stand on the topic, the number of wild animals that free roaming cats kill, injure and orphan is staggering, and is putting many of our wild species at risk. Any wildlife rehabilitator can tell you how maddening and heartbreaking it is to treat or have to euthanize the never-ending flow of mangled and suffering animals that are caught by well-fed and well-loved cats year after year.
Addressing this topic puts WildCare in a challenging position. We are grateful to be available to give these animals the medical care they need and the second chance they deserve, so we are thankful for the rescuers who bring them to us. We work hard to be mindful of walking the balance of not offending cat guardians because we want everyone to feel that they can bring wildlife in need of assistance to us, and we love cats too! But as wildlife advocates we must have conversations with those whose cats have caused damage (especially repeat offenders), in the hope of changing human understanding and behaviors. I wish someone had taught me about this years earlier!
cats and hunting
In the wild, when a local prey population, of, say, rabbits, grows large in number, the local predator population, let’s say hawks, grows as well. More hawks may move into the area, and all the well-fed hawks have more young. As the predator population continues to grow, they gradually reduce the prey population. With less food available, some hawks starve and die, some are forced to move out of the area in search of food elsewhere and their own breeding is not as successful. During this downswing in hawk numbers, rabbits have a chance to repopulate. The prey population recovers so well that eventually the predator population booms again. This cycle is repeated over and over.
Now introduce domestic cats. Cats are housed and fed by their guardians, their every need taken care of. They can live up to 20 years in the same territory. There are multiple cats in the area and more are added every year. Nothing brings cat populations down. Cats don’t need to hunt to survive, but do it for fun. Prey animal populations never have a chance to recover.
Another common argument is that wildlife should evolve to be able to avoid cats. If they do not, they “should” be taken out of the gene pool anyway. In truth, evolution is the result of
species evolving side-by-side over untold years, affecting each other in the process. Wildlife cannot evolve fast enough to respond to a domesticated species. Free-roaming cats killing wildlife is, in fact, an unfair and unnatural situation from which many species cannot recover. Another point to make about the “food chain” that is important for pet guardians to realize, is that once you allow your pet outdoors unprotected, natural or not, they have entered the food chain where not only can they hunt, but they too can be hunted.
The best news regarding the topic of free-roaming cats and wildlife is that the carnage is preventable! There are many resources online to teach you how you can slowly acclimate your free-roaming cat to an indoor life and/or how you can keep an indoor cat happy and healthy. Just this short google search brought up an array of good resources.
A lifetime of lessons later, my personal favorite compromise lets me keep both wildlife and my cat safe, and still offers my feline friend the fresh air and sunshine she loves – the CATIO! A catio can be any size, shape or configuration to fit your house or apartment and just about any budget. From something as simple as a window box to a screened-in patio area with multiple level pathways, your imagination is the limit. You can build your own or purchase prefab kits. There are numerous photos in this article of catios belonging to WildCare staff members and volunteers (including my own) and you can also find more ideas online.
And in a final note, I realize that some cats will not adjust to being kept indoors. They will yowl non-stop, shooting outside at any chance. If this is your cat, then the best we can ask is that you do everything in your power to mitigate the damage that he or she can do.
Here are some ideas:
• Utilize online resources that will teach you how to slowly acclimate an outdoor cat to an indoor life.
• Do not allow cats outdoors during dawn and dusk when wildlife is most active, both for your cat’s and wildlife’s safety.
• Harness and leash-train your cat for supervised walks.
• Try products such as The Cat Bib and BirdsBeSafe collars, both also available in WildCare’s gift shop.
Note: Bells do not work. Cats learn to walk without ringing them and fledgling birds that cannot fly still cannot escape, even if they hear the bell. If you see a fledgling in your yard, please keep your cat indoors for the few days this baby bird will need to learn how to fly.
“if not this cat, then the next”
“If not this cat, then the next” is a great message from an amazing (if unlikely) coalition between the Audubon Society of Portland and the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon. For those who currently have an adult cat for whom all attempts at keeping indoors have failed, we encourage you to make the pledge that the NEXT cat(s) you adopt will be indoor only.
These two organizations have joined forces in an attempt to reach more people who disagree on the topic of free-roaming cats and their impact on wildlife. By bringing together both cat and wildlife lovers, they hope that more people will be open to conversations and suggestions from both sides, which is what WildCare strives for as well.
List of Catio and Cat Enclosure Resources
This list is provided as a resource and does not imply endorsement by WildCare.
- The Cat’s Den: Commercial kits for indoor and outdoor cat runs and enclosures.
- My Pet Enclosures: Provides custom and DIY kits for indoor and outdoor cat enclosures.
- Purrfect Fence: Commercial kits and instructions for free-standing cat fence systems. Also offers professional installation in certain regions. And now offering “Cat-Proofer” system for converting existing fencing to make it escape-proof.
- C & D Pet Products: Commercial kits and diagrams for enclosures available in various sizes and prices. Also offers kitten enclosures.
- Kritter Kondo
- Safe Cat Outdoor Enclosure: Detailed drawings and descriptions to create custom outdoor enclosures for cats and other small animals.
- Kitty Walk System, Inc.: Various commercial enclosures for cats and other small animals. Most enclosures are preassembled, portable.
- SunCATcher Enclosures: Free-standing outdoor cat enclosures for yard or patio.
- CatsOnDeck: Modular indoor/outdoor cat enclosures. Expandable and portable for RV use.
- Wild Whiskers: Portable, light-weight, non-permanent cat enclosures.
- https://catiospaces.com – catios and cat enclosures to keep your cat safe
- https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-house-catio-diy-how-to-design-build – blog post around building a DIY catio