Are Domestic Cats Really Affecting the Environment?

Yes. But humans are, too, so let’s strike a balance…since we domesticated them and brought them into the picture.

mediumJuly 22, 2016

Whenever a powerful predator is introduced to any ecosystem, it is likely to negatively impact the established cycle of life. An article such as this in theNew York Times, shows that as domestic cat populations grow, native wildlife is affected. The article claims that the domesticated cat kills 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year in the United States. Even if they’re off by a billion, those figures are huge and are worth trying to curb in every way we can.

But unfair of the New York Times to not show the broader picture: many predators are being killed off by humans that would’ve played the role that cats are playing. Where I live in Santa Cruz, California, we used to have plenty of bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes. These creatures used to kill off much of what our cats are killing off now and their numbers are dwindling (and, in some areas, nonexistent). Human life and expansion of property that has cut into this wildlife population and thus rodents and small mammals are thriving in ways they wouldn’t have previously.

I fall strongly on the side of controlled outdoor life for cats, both for wildlife and for the safety of our pet cats. But I also want the very real and complete picture and not one that shames us all into keeping cats indoors against their nature. This is a complex subject and not nearly as cut and dry as the New York Times article makes it to be.

One of the best things I’ve done for my cats was to create a catio: an enclosed, outdoor area for cats. There they have room to climb, perch, and watch the world go by. One cat loves a nook we created with a cat bed so much that we find her there at least half the day.

Each of my cats has this protected exposure to the outdoors. However, one cat has proven to be far happier if he is let outdoors during daylight hours, so he has a microchip-enabled door to let him out during the day but keep him locked in at night. He is 15 years old and looks about age four, with as fit as he is. His emotional life is vastly better because of his outdoor time: indoors he becomes either anxious, depressed or angry. Our youngest addition (age 1.5 years), too, is proving to need some outdoor time or she climbs the walls…or, rather, the curtains. She, too, is microchipped and has even greater controls on her outdoor time until we know more about her habits and reliability.

Neighbors are thrilled with our 15 year old sage cat and the other outdoor cats when they kill the gophers that are cratering their lawns. And they’re very happy when these cats kill mice, which find their way into every corner of their houses whenever possible. But the bird-killing is not talked about and, if they’re saddened by it (as I am), they don’t protest it. It has to be acknowledged that outdoor “killer” cats are doing some good in the eyes of humans. And face it: eliminating gopher- and mice-type critters also lessens the use of toxic substances used to control them. That’s good for the environment right there.

As for the beloved bird population, the documentary Ten Lives (at minute 37:19) gives some insight on what is happening to bird populations. While only covering feral cats, not domestic, the principles of cat predators, versus what man has done to the environment, are the same.

Not only did we introduce environmental issues, but we introduced cats into domesticity and I feel all of that points to a responsibility to do all we can to right the situation. We should work to support wildlife while we provide the best life possible for our cats.

Other measures one can take to not allow one’s cat free-reign outdoors include clever fence-building. In San Francisco, I had an 8-ft fence (no deterrent for any cat on its own) that also had an 8-inch “roof” angled in toward the garden. When a cat looks up, and cannot negotiate a safe result of its climb, it won’t do it. Before installing it, the same cat would climb it regularly to visit a neighbor cat. After installing it, he never attempted it again. An additional measure can be taken: adding dowels to the roof lip that turn on an axis. If a cat slips on these rolling bars, he’ll not keep trying. If a cat has less territory to roam, he’ll catch less. Wild animals will learn the danger zones of where cats live.

As for feral cat populations, our best bet is to continue to spay/neuter and release. These programs are the humane thing to do for ferals and are the long term solution to their population growth.

My conclusion on the issue is that it isn’t a cat problem, it is a people problem, and we can reverse some of the issues we’ve created if we make a concerted effort. Our wildlife populations and domestic cats will thank us for it.