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January 30, 2013

Cats and Wildlife: An HSUS Perspective

In a paper published and released yesterday and widely reported in the mainstream press, professional wildlife biologists associated with the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claim that domesticated cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and more than 15 billion small mammals each year in the United States through acts of predation (Loss, Will and Marra). In coming up with these numbers, the authors tried to assess the behavior of owned and un-owned cats – which we could categorize as feral (un-owned), free-roaming (owned or semi-owned), and indoor-outdoor owned cats (owned or semi-owned). If the real number for cat predation is even one tenth or one one-hundredth of the numbers invoked by the authors of this study, it warrants serious attention from the animal protection movement and from everyone else concerned about cats and about wildlife. 

150x150 shelter pet sandbox screengrabThis subject is hardly a new one for The HSUS, and its conclusions are no revelation. The HSUS has been examining this question for decades, and in fact, our Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy hosted a major conference that featured scientists, environmentalists, government wildlife managers, humane and conservation organizations and government animal care entities on this very subject just last month. No group is better suited to fairly examine the multiple facets of this problem than The HSUS, given that we house one of the most expert and experienced companion animal programs in the world and we also employ more than 125 wildlife professionals, including wildlife-care personnel at our three wildlife rehabilitation centers.

In our examination of this issue, both as a matter of measuring impact and also prescribing solutions or mitigation strategies, here are some of our core conclusions, opinions, and recommendations.

  • There are, indeed, tens of millions of domesticated cats who spend time outdoors, and many of these cats exhibit predatory behavior toward wildlife. But it’s virtually impossible to determine how many cats live outside, or how many spend some portion of the day outside. Loss, Will, and Marra have thrown out a provocative number for cat predation totals, and their piece has been published in a highly credible publication, but they admit the study has many deficiencies. Their work is derivative of what others have done on the topic, and they have essentially rolled up what they could find in the literature and done their best to attach some numbers. We don’t quarrel with the conclusion that the impact is big, but the numbers are informed guesswork.
  • A responsible, loving cat caretaker – who typically provides sound nutrition, monitors the cat's health and provides regular and emergency veterinary care, and social enrichment and stimulation in the form of play and toys – provides the safest environment for a cat and offers him or her the opportunity to live a long, complete life. While the outdoors is going to be highly stimulating for cats, indoor cats can be psychologically healthy, assuming that the caretaker works hard to stimulate them and provide them with a rich life. Outdoor options can be safely added to a cat’s routine through the use of enclosures or leash/harness walking.
  • Humane organizations and volunteers are the leaders in dealing with the problem of cat predation on wildlife. All across the country, they are working to mitigate the effects of cat predation by encouraging people to keep cats indoors, by encouraging the adoption of un-owned cats, and by promoting spaying and neutering – which is the best way to lower total numbers. There is a vast network of cat advocates, and many of them are conducting Trap, Neuter, and Return programs. These programs can slow or eliminate growth of feral cat communities. The figure below demonstrates the long term impact of the animal protection movement’s efforts to get people to keep their cats indoors.

  • Indoor Cat Trend
  • It is morally wrong, publically unsupportable, and practically impossible to catch and euthanize the feral cats in our communities. There is no labor force large enough, or willing, to conduct such activities.

  • The HSUS has composed an extensive white paper on this broad topic, which was posted on its website today, along with a review of the many facets of this issue. Our in-house authors take a serious, science-based look at the problem, but from the orientation that respects the interests of both cats and wildlife. While the problem of cat predation is real and very significant, there is nothing to be gained by demonizing cats or suggesting Draconian and far-out solutions. The best approach involves sterilizing cats, conducting robust TNR programs, support for innovative cat programs through shelters and rescues, and educating owners on how keeping cats indoors is valuable for both cats and wildlife.

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