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Save Lives, Keep Your Cat Inside

Cat inside with owner

When you become a cat owner, there are lots of decisions to make. Do you want a kitten or an adult? A male or a female? A fancy breed or a shelter rescue?

Here’s another one, which has more far-reaching consequences than you might expect: Whether your cat will stay inside, or come and go from the house. Your instinct may be to let it wander freely, but there are some good reasons to rethink that.

First, it’s important to remember that domestic cats are not wild animals. About half of the domestic cats wandering freely in the United States are feral, meaning they have no human owners. But even those are domestic cats and lack the behaviors and characteristics of true wildlife. For example, they don’t control their population according to the availability of their prey, as most wild predators do.

Even a well-fed housecat still has the predatory instincts of its ancestors. Because of this, cats cause a lot of bloodshed in their neighborhoods. Nearly 15 percent of the wild animals treated at the Wildlife Center of Virginia have been attacked by a cat, and those cases are among the least survivable ones they see.

Young animals are especially vulnerable, as they come of age in the spring and summer months. An immature animal may not yet recognize the cat as a predator, or may not be fast enough to escape. In Virginia, the Eastern cottontail rabbit is the most common victim, largely because of its easily accessible, ground-level nest. A juvenile rabbit, even if it recognizes the danger of a cat, will often freeze up instead of running away. Songbirds are also common victims.

It’s easy to assume that your cat isn’t hunting while it’s out and about, especially if you’ve never received the horrifying “gift” of a mangled mouse or bird on your doorstep. But most cats actually leave their prey where they killed it instead of bringing it back home, so it’s hard to know what yours is really up to. A University of Georgia “Kitty Cam” study found cats catching frogs, stalking chickens and tormenting songbirds.

And the great outdoors can be a real danger to the cats themselves. The same study captured video of cats being cornered by a dog, getting into a fight with an opossum, and creeping through the machinery under a truck. Speeding cars, tall trees and even human cruelty can also mean terrible consequences for a wandering cat.

Roaming freely can also result in health problems. They might catch diseases, such as feline leukemia or feline AIDS, from other cats. Parasites such as fleas and ticks are also picked up outside, and if they develop toxoplasmosis, they can endanger their human owners—particularly pregnant women.

What You Can Do!

  • Keep your cats indoors. When you have a kitten, this is an easy habit to instill from the beginning. Older cats might need some patience and redirection.
  • Talk to your fellow cat owners about making the same decision. It can be a heated debate—no pet owner likes to be told they’re doing the wrong thing—but you have lots of evidence to back you up.
  • If you find a wild animal that’s been attacked by a cat, get it help immediately. It may not appear to be in distress, but that may be because the animal is “frozen” in shock. Cat bites are often hard to see, because they are more of a puncture than a tear, but they may contain bacteria that was deeply deposited by the cat’s needle-like teeth.
  • Make sure your cats are spayed or neutered, and up to date on their immunizations. If they do make a break for it, their time spent outdoors will be less likely to end in tragedy if they are medically prepared for it.
  • Cats do make great pets (a quarter of American households have one) and they have a fascinating history. But their effect on the local wildlife is clear, and keeping them happy inside is a great way to keep your local ecosystem as undisturbed as possible.