Keep your free-roaming cats indoors, please



Our world faces many difficult ecological problems. Pollutants foul the air and water, excessive use of chemicals poisons soils, and the earth is warming at an alarming rate. These are all serious problems over which individuals seem to have little control. Of course, individuals banding together can work to solve these problems, but that's another column.
There is one problem, however, a threat to many forms of native wildlife, that can be addressed one household at a time. I see it every day. Sometimes it stalks the edge of the woods. Sometimes it patrols rural roadsides. It even thrives in suburban neighborhoods. That threat is a free-roaming cat.
Free-roaming cats are no one's pets. They are at least one generation removed from domestication, and they roam wild because someone has irresponsibly abandoned their ancestors. To survive, they prey on small birds, small mammals, and even small reptiles and amphibians.
But what a toll these free-roaming cats take on small wildlife species, species that would otherwise provide food for larger native predators such as hawks, owls, foxes, weasels and bobcats. Estimates vary, but a 1997 poll showed that only a third of the 90 million pet cats in the United States live exclusively indoors. And according to the American Bird Conservancy (www.abcbirds.org) an additional 60 million to 100 million cats roam freely and homelessly. So even by conservative estimates, that's 100 million cats roaming free, each killing at least one bird, mammal, frog or snake every week.
In one study in Wichita, Kansas, for example, 34 of 41 cats killed birds. And the cat that killed more animals than any other in the study had been declawed. In another study, six cats were presented a small live rat while eating their favorite food. All six cats stopped eating, killed the rat, then resumed the meal.
Ending this slaughter is simple -- keep all cats indoors. Cats make great indoor pets, and that's where they belong.
Cat lovers counter that they let their cats outside only for a few hours each day, that they need fresh air, or that it's not natural for cats to be indoors. Hogwash!
Cats are domesticated animals. Indoors, they thrive. Outdoors, their life expectancy shortens considerably.
What are the risks?
Here's a partial list of the risks that even part-time outdoor cats face:
Attack by dogs, other cats, raccoons, skunks and foxes that can result in serious puncture wounds, infections, rabies, distemper and other diseases.
Death by coyotes, which find cats quite tasty.
Cruel treatment by sadistic people; ask a local animal shelter worker how often they see cats that have been shot, stabbed or set on fire.
They may get lost.
They may be stolen.
They will pick up fleas, ticks and other parasites, which can be passed on to family members.
The simple way to avoid these problems is to keep cats indoors. But what of those 60 million pet cats that spend at least some time outdoors?
The American Bird Conservancy, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Association of The United States, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all agree that outdoor cats are a social and ecological problem that needs to be addressed.
Easy solutions
Solutions are available even for those who insist their cats must get fresh air. A caller to my Saturday afternoon radio show recently suggested enclosing the back porch in chicken wire and installing a pet door so a cat could move freely in and out of the house. Or consider a commercially available enclosure, such as those at www.cdpets.com, www.midnightpass.com, or www.just4cats.com.
And then there are the countless millions of truly homeless, feral cats. But let's focus on getting all pet cats indoors; then we can address the free-roaming cat problem.
I've written about outdoor cats before and have always gotten indignant feedback from cat lovers. This time, save the paper. I love cats. My family's last cat was an affectionate cuddler that lived to be 17 years old. Keeping cats indoors is a no-brainer. It's what's best for cats, their owners, the neighbors and the environment.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway@aol.com

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