OUTSIDE, OR BOTH--WHERE SHOULD CATS STAY?
July 31, 2011
roam the country and the world. I am not referring to superstars like
tigers, lions and leopards, simply to the common house cat. Between feral
cats and those with owners who let them outside on a regular basis, cats
kill 20 million birds each year in Britain. Another published report estimated
the annual wildlife toll from cats in Virginia to be at least 3 million
songbirds and 27 million native mammals. Another study recognized feral
cats as the greatest nonhuman cause of mortality to some Australian wildlife.
A cat lover
might quibble over the actual numbers but surely not the essence. Outdoor
cats kill lots of native wildlife wherever they are. But whether cats
should stay inside permanently or be permitted outdoors regularly is a
volatile issue that will never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
Many people tend to take an inflexible position about the proper place
for a cat's whereabouts. Social gatherings go more smoothly if opinions
about cats go unstated. Otherwise, you might end up in a discussion about
whether Susiebelle should let her cats out to pillage wildlife in their
heartless way or why Tom, Dick, and Harry keep their cats imprisoned in
a stuffy apartment condemned to a lifetime of boredom and inactivity.
A recent scientific article in the Journal of Wildlife Management provides
information on the topic of free-roaming cats.
Jeff A. Horn,
at the University of Illinois, and colleagues addressed what the home
range, habitat use and activity patterns were of outdoor cats, but with
a different twist. The study is a mixture of ecology and behavior with
practical applications for wildlife management; it should also be of interest
to laypeople, whether they keep cats or not. The researchers compared
feral cats that are ownerless nomads with the home-grown variety that
live inside most of the time and go out whenever their owners decide it
is time. They used collar radiotransmitters to track where outdoor cats
went. To determine how much time a cat spent wandering, how much time
napping and how much time actually hunting, they used movement-sensing
transmitters that registered activity.
Some of the
findings were not surprising. Feral cats, which have no owners and have
to find their own food, were more active throughout the year and shifted
to different habitats as the seasons changed. The behavior reflected a
need for subsistence hunting to capture prey that was a staple for survival.
A domestic cat has the luxury of recreational hunting, catching whatever
happens to be in the front yard during an outing. My interpretation is
that domestic house cats are lazy most of the time when they are outside.
Anyone who has an indoor cat already knows this to be true when they are
Feral cats were also more likely than domestic cats to be active at night.
The investigators speculated that nocturnal behavior would allow greater
opportunities for finding prey and provide less chance of encountering
humans. Of course, the time of day that domestic pets are outside reflects
the behavior of the owner as much or more than that of the pet. Probably
lots of house cats end up indoors at night because the family routine
includes bringing pets inside before bedtime.
the projected survivorship of a feral cat with no permanent home and no
caretaker was substantially below that of its feline counterparts that
had the protection of a house and humans. Two feral cats were killed by
coyotes and several inexplicably disappeared, whereas the only mortality
to a domestic cat during the study was under the front wheel of a moving
car. Survival estimates showed that half the feral cats in the study were
likely to die within 13 months whereas 90 percent of the domestic cats
were still alive after more than 19 months.
This latest study provides some interesting new perspectives on just what
domestic cats do if they are permitted outside. But I am still keeping
my opinion about indoor versus outdoor cats to myself at parties.
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